Years ago, when I was still a student, I bought a cheap sunshine holiday in Malta with a friend who was studying Jewish history at university. My idea was to investigate a range of books while lying by the pool. His was to investigate the story of the Jewish community in Malta. He won.
I recall one day knocking on the door of a woman and startling her with the information — which my friend’s photocopied course notes suggested was correct, but which I had no independent information to corroborate — that she had a cemetery in her back garden. She looked unhappy with the idea that the stones in her yard were graves and, worse still, graves of Jews. We found a way of implying to her that the bodies were elsewhere, and were allowed to visit.
All over the world lie bits of the story of our people, untended or half-forgotten, rumoured or true. And unlike in Malta, where a community still lives, often these pieces of our heritage have nobody left to care for them. They are, in many cases, crumbling, and without help they will disappear.
This was the compelling point the author Michael Mail put to me one day a couple of years ago, when we met socially for the first time and I happened to talk of my half-remembered Malta story. Funny I should mention it, he said, because he had a plan. Our heritage is vanishing, and we need to do something. He was establishing a Foundation for Jewish Heritage. Would I be a trustee? What else could I say. Yes.
The argument for this work is relatively simple. These aren’t just buildings.
The heart of Judaism, it seems to me, is to preserve customs and institutions that can yield wisdom. the intellectual and emotional challenge is then to learn the lessons from what we have preserved, gaining true understanding and adapting as we do so.
If we are able to gain wisdom from an ancient ritual, such as holding unleavened bread in the air, then we can surely gain it from ancient synagogues, cultural centres and the built environment of vanished communities. So the job of preserving this heritage is as important as any task in the effort to ensure Jewish continuity and enrich Jewish learning.
There is a political element to it as well. The Nazis wanted to eradicate a people so that it was both dead and forgotten. Preserving what they attempted to destroy and forced us to abandon is part of the work of renewal and resistance. It’s an act of defiance.
And also an act of truth telling. These structures are a little reminder of what Europe was, and a monument to the people who lived there, symbols that say they lived, they prayed, they cerebrated, they were here.
Earlier this month at the Speaker’s House in Parliament, the Foundation formally launched with a first report on its work. An extraordinary effort is taking place to map thousands of historic synagogues across Europe, Iraq and Syria, identifying their location and logging their state. Drawing a map of a potentially lost civilisation.
I was particularly moved by a speech from the TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, very much a hero of the effort to preserve Jewish history. I had first met her on David Cameron’s Holocaust Commission (along with Dame Helen Hyde who is also involved in the Foundation) and wonder how many Jews are aware of the amazing work she has done interviewing survivors to keep a permanent video record of their stories.
Attending with her family, she talked of their campaign to save the Great Synagogue of Slonim in Belarus, with which her family is linked.
“Slonim had 17,000 Jews prior to the Second World War,” she explained. “By the end it was estimated there were 200. Slonim isn’t just an old synagogue in need of a bit of TLC and repair. It is a lasting testament to a destroyed community.”
The Great Synagogue is one of the best preserved in Belarus, but this isn’t saying much. And without urgent and active help it will decay until in ruins. We have to give that help, because who else will?
There are thousands of sites that need attention, but the Foundation appreciates we have to start somewhere. Michael Mail is a very impressive individual who has come up with a very special idea.
Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times