Russians tour U.S. Shoah museums to plan their own

NEW YORK — For more than a week, Tankred Golenpolsky, together with six other Russian Jewish leaders and museum professionals, recently visited America's Holocaust museums to experience "the climate" of such institutions.

In Los Angeles, Houston and New York, he saw films, photographs, relics and documents — including a report card from a Jewish school in Shanghai, where he spent his childhood during World War II.

What most touched the founder of the Moscow-based newspaper Evreiskaya Gazeta, however, was "Daniel's Story," an exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. that depicts the wartime life of a fictional 8-year-old boy. An interactive exhibit based on the Holocaust, or Shoah, display is currently being shown at the Herbst International Exhibition Hall in San Francisco.

Children at the U.S. museum "were writing letters to Daniel to drop in the mailbox," Golenpolsky recalled here in late June as the delegation wrapped up its eight-day tour. "It took a genius to think of that. There you have the link between today and yesterday."

As delegates involved in the development of Moscow's Jewish Holocaust memorial museum and synagogue prepare for this fall's opening, Golenpolsky and his colleagues face the challenge of creating a similarly vibrant connection to a nearly obliterated past.

Developed by the Russian Jewish Congress in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the dual-purpose museum and synagogue will present most of its thousands of expected visitors — both non-Jews and Jews — with their first exposure to Jewish life and culture.

The site, already under construction, will also be the first Russian memorial devoted solely to the Jewish war experience.

Although more than 1 million of the estimated 20 million Soviet war dead were Jewish victims singled out for extermination by the Nazi terror, the particular fate of Soviet Jews was considered by the Communists solely as part of a universal tragedy.

And while hundreds of thousands of Jewish soldiers fell beside their army comrades, there is a widespread misconception in the former Soviet Union that Jews somehow evaded military service in what is called the Great Patriotic War.

The building's existence and its location, therefore, attest to a seismic shift in Russian Jewish consciousness and in official recognition of the Jewish community, say those involved.

"Jews in Russia dealing with Jewish heritage is news," said Michael Steiner, the executive director of the Moscow office of the JDC. "And Russians supporting it is news."

In 1996, the Russian government approached the newly founded Russian Jewish Congress, inviting it to build a memorial synagogue at Poklonnaya Gora, (Memorial Hill), a public park that is already home to a World War II museum, a Russian Orthodox church and a mosque.

"This place is a very specific place in Russia," Alexander Osovtsov, the RJC's executive vice president, said of the popular leisure spot, where Victory Day celebrations each May attract millions. "There is nothing to compare. Maybe the only place to compare is Red Square."

The RJC accepted the invitation, but not the offer of government financial backing.

Organizers said donations from the Russian Jewish community will cover all costs for the nearly 20,000-square-foot granite and marble building — now estimated at $14 million, with another $3 million budgeted for exhibition galleries.

An international board of advisers will lend expertise and assistance in procuring artifacts.

"From the very beginning we proclaimed ourselves," Osovtsov said. "We didn't want support from the government or abroad. This is our participation in Jewishness."

The Jewish commitment to the project is significant because, according to Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, only 30,000 of the more than half a million Jews living in the Russian capital are affiliated with Jewish institutions.

Concluding their American tour in late June at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, the delegates cited films about Jewish life, personal photographs and recorded interviews with Holocaust survivors as the most captivating elements of the exhibits they saw.

Aside from their natural appeal for a younger "television generation," they said, such visual elements personalize Holocaust history, conveying the human consequences of events that might otherwise be subsumed in anonymous time lines and statistics.

Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation has promised to share with the museum its vast archive of digitized interviews with survivors and rescuers from the former Soviet Union.

The museum has already amassed collections of artwork, Soviet army documents and personal items from family and ghetto life, according to the delegates.

But after seeing displays of havdallah spice boxes and Torah ornaments in American museums, the delegation has decided to broaden its mission.

Rather than focusing exclusively on the Holocaust, "now we want to make it about history, tradition and culture," said the executive director of the RJC, Olga Obukhova.

By creating a rich and positive Jewish environment, the museum's organizers hope to spark a renewal of cultural pride within the Russian Jewish community, which endures continuing and sometimes violent expressions of anti-Semitism.

The museum and synagogue will not eradicate hatred, but Golenpolsky believes their appearance on the Russian landscape will make a forceful statement.

"It will show that we are there," he said, "that we are citizens of Russia — if you want, taxpayers of Russia. This will commemorate our participation in Russian society."