A Discussion with Michael Mail on the Importance of History Education and Jewish Heritage

The Jewish presence in Europe goes back over 2,500 years, and this can be seen through a rich cultural and historical legacy, stretching from western through eastern Europe. At the beginning of September, EuroClio had the opportunity to speak with Michael Mail, the founder and Chief Executive of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage to discuss issues related to the topics of Jewish Heritage and education concerning Jewish history in Europe.

Zaira: What inspired the creation of your Foundation?

Michael: The Foundation for Jewish Heritage was created in London in 2015. The main reason for the establishment of the organisation was due to the fact that there were no institutions working solely on preserving Jewish heritage on an international scope. Jewish heritage today faces special challenges that can be associated with two major factors — the Holocaust and Jewish migration. The Holocaust not only led to the tragic death of 6 million Jews, but it also meant that many buildings lost their community of users. Jewish migration also played a part as buildings formerly attached to Jewish cultural life and activities became orphaned heritage.

A stark statistic is that, at the beginning of the 20th century, 9 out of 10 Jewish people lived in Europe, today it is 1 out of 10. There are various reasons for this pattern of migration. One is that in the 1880s, which witnessed a resurgence of antisemitism predominantly in Eastern Europe, thousands of Jewish families chose to migrate to the West. Many went to America, which was seen as ‘the land of freedom and opportunity’. In central and eastern Europe, Jewish heritage was especially affected by policies that were effectively “cultural genocide”. During the communist era, places connected to Jewish religious life were closed down by the authorities. Under this form of repression, combined with the suppression of religious life and antisemitism, Jewish cultural heritage faced huge challenges.

The story of migration also applies to Jewish heritage in Western Europe. In England for instance, Jewish families settled in London’s East End with other migrant communities. However, as time went by, they moved to the suburbs, leaving behind the synagogues in their former neighbourhoods.

Zaira: How do you select and prioritise the heritage buildings you work on?

Michael: The Foundation for Jewish Heritage decided to prioritise synagogues as these were the most iconic buildings pertaining to Jewish communal life, and typically the most artistically and architecturally rich buildings. Moreover, synagogues became important representations of Jewish participation within European society as, during the period of emancipation in the 19th century, Jews were accepted as citizens of Europe.

With this focus, the Foundation mapped out all the historic synagogues existing in Europe today. They found that less than a quarter had survived the Second World War. In 1939, there were around 17,000 synagogues in Europe. Today there are about 3,300 sites. The Foundation also categorised the synagogues according to significance and condition, which allowed them to identify the most important buildings and those most in danger.

Currently, the organisation is profiling 16 buildings. One of these projects is in the town of Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. Merthyr Tydfil was an industrial powerhouse in the 19th century and the largest town in Wales, with a big Jewish presence starting in the 1830s. The remarkable gothic synagogue was built in the 1870s.  However, with the industrial decline in the latter part of the 20th century, the Jewish community moved away, and the synagogue was closed in 1983. It has been empty since 2006 and was listed as being at risk. The Foundation bought the building in 2019 in order to turn it into a Heritage Centre. By saving these vulnerable synagogues, they have the ability to become powerful sites of education regarding Jewish life and contribution, and this is the driving idea behind our mission.

Zaira: Is it possible to draw a parallel between the poor state of Jewish heritage and the place that Jewish history has in history books?

Michael: The place that Jewish history has in history books may very well reflect attitudes within society. If we take the example of Belarus, the capital Minsk, was the only capital city in the world that once had a Jewish majority. The Jewish contribution to the city — and country — over the centuries was huge, and the synagogues date back to the medieval period. Nevertheless, Jewish history is a neglected topic in the country. If you visit local museums you will find that there is little mention about the Jews and even less about the Holocaust, in fact, the memorials to the Holocaust use the generic term ‘victims of fascism’. This is a feature of the Soviet-era, following the Second World War when such memorials would consciously not mention that the victims were Jews. Belarus is an extreme case of “absent history”.

The Foundation has taken on an important project in Belarus — the beautiful Great Synagogue in the town of Slonim which was built in the 1640s. In 1939, out of 25,000 inhabitants, 17,000 were Jews. During the war, they were marched out of the town by the Nazis and their collaborators and executed in the most barbaric fashion. Only 200 survived. The Holocaust is probably the most tragic event in Slonim’s history and we like to think that, in saving the Great Synagogue which represents the last physical remnant of this lost community, in recognising what happened and presenting it, in educating and engaging people rather than ignoring it, we might also bring a level of healing to a place like Slonim.

Zaira: How can these places of Jewish Heritage contribute to education?

Michael: All the Foundation’s Trustees agree that saving Jewish heritage is a means to an end, and that end is education. The main goal is to use these historic synagogues as centres of education. The Foundation aims to create educational projects working with the towns, institutions, and schools  – local ownership and participation are crucial to success. We want to adapt Jewish heritage sites for a new purpose which recognises its original function while bringing value and serving the local community of today. We are taking buildings that had become meaningless and making them meaningful again.

The educational component in the Foundation's mission has an important contemporary relevance. Jewish history contains a profound message for society about what prejudice unchecked by law, morals and ethics can lead to. Furthermore, this history addresses issues of pluralism and diversity, as well as the value of intercultural dialogue and cultural exchange in society. These concepts help to make history relatable and understandable to pupils. It can play an important role in contemporary education, hopefully building understanding and empathy and combatting ignorance and prejudice.

Zaira: How do you deal with issues such as Multiperspectivity and Competing Narratives?

Michael: The Foundation is interested in using oral testimonies. Oral history, being personal and intimate, can allow for a deeper connection with the past. The Foundation is intent on using oral histories on Jewish life from both the Jewish and non-Jewish perspectives. When it comes to competing narratives, there can be various ways the same event is understood. Therefore, a constructive solution lies in acknowledging sensitive areas in history by addressing them and presenting the different narratives and how these arise. We know history is complex and often controversial.

Zaira: What are some of the dreams and plans of the Foundation?

Michael: The core of the Foundation’s work remains…saving Jewish heritage at risk. Certainly, there are multiple projects that we are and could consider, but this is a question of resources and time. For example, the Foundation is keen to explore how we can use digital materials to provide educational resources. One idea connects the mapping of the historic synagogues in Europe to a second phase which would be to collect narratives associated with each building, to create a space where people can share pictures, documentation, or stories of their families and ancestors. In essence, we would establish a repository of memories connected to the towns and synagogues in question. This would allow people to visit the synagogues virtually, and have access to resources such as photographs, texts, and oral histories without having to travel. People would be able to connect with the story of the past Jewish life…and get access to various types of information.

The Foundation wants to transmit the message that “Jewish heritage is shared heritage”, — it is a Jewish, a national and a European heritage. Another key message is that Jewish history is far more than simply addressing the Holocaust. This is a civilisation that in Europe stretches back 2,500 years with a unique, dramatic and remarkable history. 

Two Very Different Jewish Family Histories: Oliviera and Schlesinger

EuroClio Reviews ,

When I was still living at my parents’ home our family doctor was Elsa Jesserum d’Oliviera. One of my best friends was her daughter Suzanne Rodrigues Pereira. I was also –very secretly- in love with her brother Rob. As we were also almost neighbours, I frequented their home regularly. I knew that they, as a Jewish family, had suffered during the war and that family members had been murdered. However, specific details were unknown to me, and I did not dare to ask more than what was voiced. In 2015 the Dutch historian Jaap Cohen wrote his PHD theses The inescapable descent of Eli d'Oliveira, a Portuguese Jewish family history (De onontkoombare afkomst van Eli d’Oliveira, Een Portugees-Joodse familiegeschiedenis). The main focus of the book is the life of Eli d'Oliveira, the grandfather of my friend Suzanne, but it also looks into the wider Jesserum d’Oliviera family, and indeed into the life and fate of her mother, our family doctor. It answered many of my unasked questions. However, above anything all, the book gave insights how Portuguese Jewish families preserved their identity in Dutch Society and by doing so distanced themselves from the Dutch Ashkenazi Jews. The book Their Promised Land. My grandparents in Love and War by Ian Burema, is about the German/English Jewish Schlesinger family. His grandparents Bernard and Winnifred wrote each other many (loving) letters, on which Burema was able to base his family history.  Although this book tells a very different story, also here the manner how the family handled their Jewish identity plays an important role.

Both books are good reads for understanding the predominantly 20th century history of integrated - or perhaps even more, assimilated - Jewish families, where religion was abandoned. They were respected members of the society, and did not apply divergent rites or habits. In the case of the Schlesinger family, the family members even did their utmost to be more British than the British.  However, the families were recognized as Jews by their societies, and certainly the Schlesinger family experienced (vague) anti-Semitism in their everyday life.

The Oliviera family was immediately understood as Jewish by the Nazis after their occupation of the Netherlands. Grandfather Eli Oliviera tried, together with many other Dutch Jews from Portuguese origin, to give evidence that they entered the Netherlands in the 17th Century as Christians and, that they therefore would not qualify as Jews but as members of the Mediterranean race. They also pointed out that their highly cultured community was superior to the culture of the Dutch Ashkenazi Jews. A long legal procedure followed and finally failed, resulting in the deportation and murdering of most members of the community, including grandfather Eli. Mother Elsa escaped this ultimate lot. She was deported to the Dutch concentration camp Westerbork but through an exceptional and almost incredible turn of fate, was able to return during Wartime to Amsterdam. She had fallen in love with Paul Rodrigues Pereira and before the end of the war they even had a baby boy. The couple was among the first couples marrying after the end of the War.

Why should you not read these books?

Cohen follows meticulously and at length the legal approaches explored by Eli Oliviera and other Portuguese Jews to avoid deportation. This is perhaps a little too much for an ordinary reader. But, on the other hand, it shows how, based on racial philosophy thinking of the Nazis, people tried to counter argue their approaches. I presume that few people are aware of this small chapter in the history of the Shoah. Burema has not written a deeply intellectual book. It focuses predominantly on the relationship of the couple writing letters, without going too much in depth into contextual information.

Why should you read these books?

Both books go beyond the Shoah and offer valuable insight in the variety of Jewish life before the Holocaust, showing Jews as actors instead of victims. Their Promised Land. My grandparents in Love and War is a pleasant book about migration, integration, assimilation and emancipation, but also about love between two people who were separated during both wars, when Bernard was doing his duty as medical Orderly. In The inescapable descent of Eli d'Oliveira, a Portuguese Jewish family history the history of the Oliviera family is told in a much longer perspective. It shows the different pathways of family members after they entered the Netherlands in the late 17th Century. We also are made aware that around 1940 the concept of race was still very much accepted in mainstream academic work and measuring race features was common practice in anthropology. Elsa Oliviera herself was involved in a survey measuring members of the Portuguese Jewish Community and Ashkenazi Jews, which lead to the conclusion that the first group could not be considered Jewish.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

Both books give evidence of how little people knew, or were able to realize about the position and fate of the Jews. The administration in both countries closed the frontiers for Jewish refugees in the late thirties. When the UK government decided to allow 10.000 children to come to Britain, under the strict condition that their parents were not allowed to accompany them, the Schlesinger family took loving care of ten of those children.  But in their everyday letter conversations during the war, the fate of the Jews in occupied Europe was not a dominant topic. And even the Oliveira family avoided looking further that their goal to avoid deportation, what was beyond was probably unimaginable. The two books also help to develop an understanding for the complexity of identities. Both give evidence that before the Shoah holocaust there was also discrimination and sense of superiority among some Jewish people. The Schlesinger family offered help to German family members and the refugee children, but regularly have comments on their negative habits, which they describe as Jewish. In the case of Eli Oliviera, students may notice that he was even willing to use Nazi ways of thinking, discriminating against Ashkenazi Jews, to avoid deportation. A good teacher can in this case challenge their students to think how to make choices under impossible circumstances. Both books zoom in on the effect of big history events on personal lives, always a good thing for classroom teaching. And last but not least, both authors explain their readers how finding unexpected historical sources enabled them to write their books. Good for students to understand that serendipity often functions as base for historical writing.



Author Jaap Cohen
Original title De onontkoombare afkomst van Eli d’Oliveira, Een Portugees-Joodse familiegeschiedenis
Original language Dutch
Available in Dutch
Genre History




Author Ian Burema
Original title Their Promised Land. My grandparents in Love and War.
Original language English
Available in English, Dutch
Genre History