In this month's interview, we have the great pleasure of presenting Claude Bloch, honorary president of the AEPJ.
Claude Bloch has dedicated many years of her life to the promotion of Jewish culture in Europe, especially in relation to the European Day of Jewish Culture and the promotion of Jewish heritage in Alsace. Within the AEPJ continues to develop a very active work, and we can say that it is the living history of the organization. It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to interview her.
AEPJ: Claude, the history of the Jews in Alsace is one of the oldest in Europe, could you tell us a little bit about this history and the work of recovering that historical heritage?
Claude: Jews have been living in Alsace for many centuries. It is believed that the first community was built around the year 1000. During the second Crusade, mention is made of Jews in Alsace, and the 13th century will be marked by many abuses and discrimination. The Jews of Alsace were constituted into communities placed under the protection of the Emperor, the bishop or the municipalities. The growing power of the Church and the development of commerce among the citizens of the cities will gradually suppress the Jews civil rights and expel them from social life, confining them to few professions. All that remained to them was small commerce, the cattle trade, and the loan of money.
The end of the 13th century and the first years of the 14th century saw the Jews in Alsace completely dependent of religious lords, or magistrates of the cities that hosted them. But they were at the mercy of popular uprising or often misleading accusation. They will often be accused of ritual murder and in 1349, on the pretext that the Jews poisoned the wells, causing the Black Death, the Jewish community will be massacred in most of Alsace, with the confiscation of course of their belongings.
During the Hundred Years War, they will experience the invasion of the armies of Basel fighting the Austrian.
In the 16th century, the revolt of the peasants threatened the existence of the handful of Jews from Alsace. These events will also serve as a pretext to expel them from the last cities that had accepted them and who feared, by protecting them, the reprisals of the rebellious peasants. The sparse Jewish population of Alsace thus survived the 16th century.
In 1618 began the Thirty Years War. Alsace suffered massacres and looting and many villages were burned by the "Swedes"or their imperial adversaries. The Jews shared the common lot. When the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 put an end to the war, Alsace was worn out.
The joining of Alsace to France created favourable conditions for the establishment of Jews and the number of Jews multiplied by 20 between 1600 and 1796.
At the time of the Revolution, therefore, there were more than 150 communities in Alsace. By granting, on September 27, 1791, civil rights to all the Jews of France, the Constituent Assembly, in spite of the opposition of certain Alsatian deputies, made the Jews citizens in their own right.
In 1831, Louis-Philippe decreed that the rabbis and the officiating ministers of the Israelite cult would receive salaries from the state treasury, thus giving the Jews the same rights as Catholics and Protestants. This decree explains the extraordinary development of the communities of Alsace in the 19th century.
The German occupation in 1870 caused the departure of many young people to the departments of "the interior", to North Africa or to America. Many of them refused to serve in the German army. It is also a period of migration from villages to cities and to Paris. At the same time a number of synagogues were built.
Between the two wars (1918-1939) there was an important arrival of Jews from Eastern Europe.
At the beginning of the war of 39-45, many Alsatian Jews had to leave Alsace, and could not return until after the armistice. At the same time many were deported. Nevertheless after 1945 the synagogues were rebuilt and Jewish life resumed.
In 1948 there was a great alya to Israel.
The arrival of the Sephardic Jews after 1962 revived some communities.
From 1945 to 1960, Jewish life was rebuilt. Most surviving Alsatian Jews return to the country, though some choose Israel.
In 1948 the school Aquiba was founded in Strasbourg, but rural Judaism, already in decline, received a fatal blow. The oldest generations return to the village, the youngest ones preferring the city. Alsatian Judaism is now a city dweller. On March 23, 1958, the new synagogue of Peace was inaugurated in Strasbourg, on the plans of the architect Claude Meyer-Lévy,to complete by a Sephardic synagogue the synagogue Rambam and two other synagogues were built one at the Meinau and the other at the Esplanade 2 districts of Strasbourg. Jewish life is present in the city with its restaurants its study circles its offices in all areas of the city
AEPJ: One of the projects that has the greatest impact in Europe to visualize Jewish culture is the European Day of Jewish Culture, which this year will celebrate its nineteenth edition. Because you were involved from the beginning, could you explain how the idea of project was born and the first steps?
Claude: The year 1996 marked the beginning of the European Day of Jewish Culture which at that time was called Open House.
The Bas Rhin Tourism Development Agency (ADT) used to receive American tourists who wanted to find the cemetery or the village where their ancestors lived. These requests were at the origin of the story.
Thereafter, the B'nai B'rith René Hirschler Association of Strasbourg (BBH) began an inventory of synagogues and cemeteries in the Bas-Rhin, and the ADT selected this issue as a possible tourist development. They provided us with some professional staff to complement the BBH volunteers. We were then able to open 18 sites on a first Sunday of September were some 4,000 visitors were counted. During the next four years we have regularly increased the number of sites and the number of visitors.
In the 19th century Alsace, Judaism was rural and a great number of villages have beautiful synagogues. The local inhabitants were proud to revive this history which was also part of their heritage.
In 2000 in the wake of this success, the ADT continued its support which allowed us to present jointly our project at the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris, thus demonstrating the close association of territorial authorities and a Jewish organisation.
This meeting was followed by the creation of a network of three associations, the Red Juderias of Spain, the European Jewish Communities (ECJC) and the B'nai B'rith Européen (BBE), who had the idea of transforming the day Open House in a European Day.
This was the birth of the JECJ European Day of Jewish Culture. We then formed an association AEPJ (association for the promotion and promotion of Jewish heritage) and asked the Council of Europe to grant us the label of Great Route.
In 2004 we obtained this label and since that time we represent the Jewish heritage among the 29 cultural routes authorized by the EC.
AEPJ: Thanks to your long career in the field of the promotion of Jewish heritage in Europe, we would be interested if you could share with us what is your view on the state of culture and Jewish heritage in Europe today. Do you think we are living a rebirth of Jewish culture in Europe?
Claude: In my opinion Jewish culture has always lived but it was a somewhat sleepy. The internet and social networks make it possible nowadays to make knowledge easily available to everyone. I believe that an increasing number of tourists do not want to limit themselves to bask in the sun during their holidays and are looking for something more enriching.
We benefit from this need for culture that drives our fellow citizens. This tendency is widespread and the desire to know one's past, history, and roots plays an important role also in the field of Jewish history.
By opening our synagogues, our cemeteries and our cultural Centres we wanted to show visitors that before the Shoa there was in all European democratic countries a culture in osmosis with the country which was beneficial to all. For centuries there have been good and bad times, and knowing them should be an enrichment. It seemed important to us in an increasingly closed society to open up and move towards the other. It is by knowing each other that the barriers will fall.
AEPJ: And finally, Claude, in your opinion, what are the great challenges that the AEPJ faces?
Claude: The greatest challenge we must confront at this juncture consist in making durable the promotion and enhancement of the Jewish heritage in order to maintain the interest of the public at large as well as the administrative authorities and the leaders of the territorial regions.
Furthermore it will be necessary to ensure a sound transmission of the work already done to our successors and continue to search for additional components of our heritage in all possible form (archaeological, architectural, languages, cooking, migrations genealogy, etc.)