An ambitious, international “Shtetl Routes” tourism itinerary through a score or more of towns in the Poland-Belarus-Ukraine border region is under development with a more than €400,000 grant from the European Union’s Cross-border Cooperation Programme Poland-Belarus-Ukraine 2007-2013.
Formally called Shtetl routes: Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in transborder tourism, the complex project involves both on-site and archival research in all three countries; the development of three tourist trails; an internet portal that will describe towns and feature images, anecdotes and history; a guidebook to Jewish heritage in the region; guided tours and the training of tour guides; and the preparation of 3-d virtual models of 15 shtetls, five in each country.
Total costs of the project are estimated at €450,000 — of which €412,000 will be covered by the Cross-border Cooperation grant.
The project is led by the Brama Grodzka (Grodzka Gate) Theatre NN Centre in Lublin, Poland — a local cultural center that has been active for years with a wide variety of projects and initiatives exploring and promoting Jewish history, culture and heritage in the region.
Four other Shtetl Route partner institutions, two in Ukraine and two in Belarus, are also involved: in Ukraine, the Center for Social and Business Initiatives of Yaremche and the public organization “Rivne Marketing Research Center,” both of which work in the field of cultural tourism; and in Belarus the Yanka Kupala State University of Grodno and the Museum of History and Regional Studies in Novogrudok (which also administers Novogrudok’s Museum of Jewish Resistance).
“Such a project was our dream for more than 10 years, so now we’re fulfilling dreams,” Brama Grodzka’s Emil Majuk, the project’s coordinator, told JHE via Facebook. “We (the NN Theatre) are storytellers, and our project is more about storytelling, narratives, intangible heritage, soft skills. That’s why very important part of project activities will be training for tour guides.”
He added, “We’re doing ‘Shtetl Routes’ from a local perspective. I’m living in small town in Central-Eastern Europe and Jewish heritage is part of my local cultural heritage, cultural landscape. I believe that there is something very uniqe in this Central-Eastern European cultural landscape, and that’s why I’m doing such a project. For me ‘shtetl’ is not only about Jewish culture, for me it’s rather about coexistence, togetherness, but also about oblivion and remembrance.”
The Shtetl Routes, designed as a two-year project, is just in the early stages of development. Implementation began in December and will run until November 2015. Majuk said the towns to be included on the routes have not yet been selected. But, he said, the concept grows out of a previous Brama Grodzka project, ”Followng Singer” that follows the traces of Nobel-prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer and towns he wrote about.
(It is being developed independently of the Chassidic Route, an itinerary of linked towns in southeastern Poland that is a project of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland – FODZ.)
The main project goal of the Shtetl Routes is the development of tourism in the region through the promotion of Jewish cultural heritage.
States the Brama Grodzka web site:
The project area has a huge potential for the development of cultural tourism but its tourism infrastructure is poorly developed and the knowledge about the area’s cultural heritage – particularly Jewish cultural heritage sites – is insufficient. This problem concerns to an equal extent Poland’s eastern provinces (voivodships) and the western oblasts of Ukraine and Belarus. The assets of the project area are little known among potential tourists and the inhabitants themselves. However, many Jews around the world have their family roots here, and they would willingly come to visit the places of their ancestors.
How to talk about this heritage? How should we, the current residents, mostly non-Jewish, talk about the Jewish cultural heritage? How to present this heritage as part of cultural tourism? How to avoid the pitfalls of commercialization, simplification and repetition of stereotypes? How to show Jewish heritage as the shared heritage of the descendants of Eastern European Jews, on the one hand, and the contemporary residents of the borderland, on the other?
Since tourism-related actions have not focused on this heritage so far, the region seems less attractive and the tourism traffic is considerably below the region’s potential. There is a lack of access to information and lack of trained tour-guides. Jewish heritage sites have been described and inventoried only partially. There is a lack of initiatives using the opportunities offered by digital technology, and a lack of knowledge about the intangible legacy of Eastern European Jews.
During the implementation of the project we wish to devote particular attention to the cultural phenomenon that was peculiar to Central and Eastern Europe and that influenced the local cultural landscape: the shtetl, a unique kind of town inhabited by Jews and Christians of various ethnicities.
According to detailed information provided on the web site of the Center for Social and Business Initiatives of Yaremche:
The specific objectives of the project are:
- Increasing the new tourism products to the tourism services associated with the region’s Jewish cultural heritage
- Expanding the knowledge and skills enabling the trained tour-guides to include the region’s Jewish cultural heritage in tourism services
Specific project activities and expected results include:
- Extensive research work, including collection and analysis of all available scholarly sources as well as comissioning special archive and library research sessions
- Research expeditions to 60 localities (20 in eastern Poland, 20 in western Belarus and 20 in western Ukraine). They will aim at cataloguing and describing the local Jewish cultural heritage with the use of a cultural heritage identity card method, taking pictures of sites related to Jewish heritage and gathering supplementary information.
- Three tourist trails will be created leading along Jewish heritage sites in the border area: one in Poland, one in Ukraine and one in Belarus as well as 1 international shared trail to provide tourist services along the newly established routes
- A multi-language Internet tourist portal “Shtetl Routes: Jewish cultural heritage in Eastern European towns.” This will facilitate the exchange of knowledge and its wide availability on the Internet. The portal will be the main technological tool in the project that will support the provision of tourist services (tourist trails and the guidebook)
- Three-dimensional virtual models of 15 small towns will be developed (5 from each country) using the three-dimensional graphics technology developed by the “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre as part of its earlier projects, namely “miasteczko.teatrnn.pl” and “makieta.teatrnn.pl”
- Preparation of a guidebook to the Jewish heritage objects and sites in the region. Based on the common knowledge base, a tourist guidebook will be prepared to Jewish heritage sites in the region (referring to the resources compiled on 3 domestic trails and one international trail in English). Trail descriptions will be drafted in book form, reviewed and prepared for printing as a Baedeker-type guide. The guidebook will be published in 4 languages: Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and English.
Majuk said that the Shtetl Routes project is actually part of a broader venture to promote tourism in the region. This includes a tourism project on wooden architecture in the region.
Moreover, he added, long-term plans would be to create a Jewish cultural tourism route that would include small towns from all of Central-Eastern Europe along the eastern border of the European Union, from Latvia and Lithuania to the north, through Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova to the south.
Emil Majuk can be contacted here:
Tel.: (+48 81) 532 58 67