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Lost to the Nazis, then to flea markets, now back in use

Decades after the Holocaust, victims’ ritual objects fill European bazaars — but are being rescued by a new organization

A hanukkiyah retrieved from a European flea market returns to its original purpose. (Courtesy of Bill Frankel)
A hanukkiyah retrieved from a European flea market returns to its original purpose. (Courtesy of Bill Frankel)

An open-air cornucopia for secondhand treasure, Budapest’s Esceri flea market never fails to fire up seasoned bargain hunters.

From musical instruments to Nazi paraphernalia, the “Tango,” as Hungarians call the market, hosts an elaborate — and noisy — price-setting dance between thousands of buyers and sellers every day.

The Esceri’s reputation for variety and the esoteric led Israeli-American Bill Frankel to visit the market six years ago.

Having moved to Israel from New York in 2003, Frankel fits in flea-market excursions during layovers between countries. His Hungary visit came after a market tour in Lithuania, where his maternal relatives lived generations ago.

Not surprisingly for a long-time Jewish educator, Frankel keeps an eye out for Judaica. But even tours of a dozen European flea markets could not prepare the 54-year-old for his first visit to the Esceri.

At first, Frankel noticed the requisite menorahs and occasional seder plate alongside swastika-adorned helmets and knives. The juxtaposition of holy objects with Nazi kitsch did not surprise Frankel nearly as much as what he found under the tables.

“The people selling Judaica saw I was interested, and they’d pull out boxes of Jewish ritual items from under the table to see if I’d buy them,” Frankel said. “I had never seen so much Judaica in any market I visited.”

“Seeing the yad Torah pointers in flea markets disturbs me the most," Frankel says. (Courtesy of Bill Frankel)
“Seeing the yad Torah pointers in flea markets disturbs me the most,” Frankel says. (Courtesy of Bill Frankel)

Frankel credits the Esceri visit with inspiring Bring It Home, his nonprofit to facilitate the purchase of abandoned European Judaica and return the items to use by Jewish communities.

“Seeing all this Judaica made me feel like I needed to take it from these dealers and put it back in the hands of the Jewish community,” Frankel said. “I want these items to be used as they were intended to be used.”

The Judaica Frankel seeks to “bring home” can’t be found on the auction blocks from the Steinhardt or Adelson collections, nor does it grace the covers of Jewish museum catalogues. Bring It Home is about the “mom and pop” Judaica of everyday life.

Frankel hopes to engage Jews everywhere in reanimating the ritual objects, from new immigrants to Israel to Jewish summer campers in North America.

“The internal energy of these objects is not moving,” Frankel said. “It’s got to be used for what it was created to do. I think of the last scene in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when they boxed up the ark and tucked it away in a warehouse. I don’t want that to happen.”

Bring It Home, which is currently raising start-up funds, hopes to send tourist groups to purchase Judaica and help them photograph and archive each piece. Catalogued rescue items will be sent to Jewish communities, along with advice on how honor the holy objects’ intended purpose.

“It’s important to me that we share a whole range of ways for people to bring these objects back to life, and not just through halacha [Jewish Law],” Frankel said. “It might be a Debbie Friedman song or another new tradition, but the point is for people to be able to look at the item and derive meaning from it.”

With degrees in environmental education and counseling, Frankel has been a creator and consumer of Holocaust awareness programs for decades. Bring It Home reflects his ambivalence about what he said can be the frontal and disconnected nature of Holocaust education.

A visit by the writer to a bazaar in Amsterdam turned up fine china decorated with Hebrew. (Matt Lebovic)
A visit by the writer to a bazaar in Amsterdam turned up fine china decorated with Hebrew. (Matt Lebovic)

Visits to Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum “never smacked me inside the head,” said Frankel, who for years organized Birthright Israel-Taglit trips.

“Putting rescued Judaica to use contains inherent, experiential qualities impossible to simulate in a museum visit,” he added.

Until his visit to Budapest’s Esceri market, Frankel did not realize the extent of abandoned Judaica in Europe. Some famous Torah scrolls and prominent collections have been returned to their owners, but mounds of household Judaica shuffle between flea markets.

“We have the images from the death camps,” Frankel said. “But we also have every Friday night, where we can light with Shabbat candlesticks once used by a Jewish family in Europe. This is the idea behind what I am doing.”

In Hungary, more than 400,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and murdered during the summer of 1944. Budapest became the receptacle for these communities’ assets, including personal items like Judaica.

Like other European flea markets, the Esceri bears retail witness to shifting regimes and the scars of war. Unlike political paraphernalia from the country’s Communist or Austro-Hungarian days, the market’s Judaica comes with ready-made purpose and no expiration date.

“Seeing the yad Torah pointers in flea markets disturbs me the most,” Frankel said. “Each one of those was used in front of a whole congregation that was eliminated by the Nazis. A yad is not something most people have in their house, and each one makes me think of a whole community.”

A father of a girl and a boy under four, Frankel’s own Judaica collection is small, based on Hanukkah and Shabbat items. He lives outside Jerusalem with his wife and children, close to favorite nature trails.

Bring It Home also resonates with Frankel’s American family roots. Years before the Civil War or Ellis Island, his family fled pogroms in Eastern Europe and established itself in Lexington, Ky.

The town’s mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, was located in Frankel’s great-grandparents’ house, and the family operated Lexington’s finest general, pawn and haberdashery stores — a sort of prelude to Frankel’s shopping future.

‘Seeing all this Judaica made me feel like I needed to take it from these dealers and put it back in the hands of the Jewish community’

Bring It Home is one of several Judaica ventures to elevate Jewish ritual objects on the Internet. Most prominent might be Judaica Europeana, a European Commission project started in 2010.

In just three years, this network of 2,000 museums, libraries and archives has gathered and uploaded 3.7 million “digital” Jewish objects. Ancient maps of Jewish settlements in Europe and thousands of digitized Jewish music samples fill the online trove, with substantial participation from several Israeli institutions.

Recent Holocaust-era Claims Conference groups have explored “Judaica and Jewish cultural property,” emphasizing provenance research and well-known Nazi-confiscated collections. On five continents, Judaica “fair trade” companies stimulate interest in Jewish ritual and fund artisans in Guatemala and Ghana.

For the history-minded Frankel, Bring It Home combines aspects of these projects with his goal to create immersive Jewish experiences.

“This is a project I have been dreaming about for years,” Frankel said. “I am ready to lead research trips to the markets and recruit volunteers to find and buy this Judaica. It’s time to bring it home.”

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