Russia commemorates the role of Jews during WWII

Some sources asserted that the president wanted to avoid a possible conflict with a rival group of Jewish leaders who wanted him to pay a visit to a Moscow synagogue that was bombed in May.

White House officials say that the event was never on the president's schedule and that the president did meet with the event's organizers and American Jewish participants during a U.S. Embassy reception in Moscow.

While the president failed to appear at the historic event on Wednesday of last week at Russia's World War II memorial complex, a leader whose problems are much greater did attend.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin made a surprise appearance, joining Russian and world Jewish leaders, war veterans, city officials and a few U.S. senators for the dedication of the modern-style synagogue built to commemorate Soviet Jews who died during the war.

Some 500,000 Jews fought in the Red Army during World War II, which is usually referred to in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. About 200,000 of them died on the battlefield.

Yeltsin's participation marked the first time that Russia's top leader openly acknowledged the role of Jewish soldiers in the war.

In his speech at the ceremony, Yeltsin paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews who perished then and stressed the need for religious unity.

"We have a common motherland — Russia. Christians and Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, believers and non-believers, we have always been together and this is where our strength is."

Yeltsin also condemned anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism in today's Russia and concluded his speech by bowing his head in the memory of Jewish victims of the war and Nazi genocide.

Jewish leaders said they were pleased that Yeltsin found the time to participate in the solemn ceremony despite Russia's deepening economic and political crisis — and despite the possible reaction of ultra-nationalists.

"Yeltsin made a very brave statement by attending the ceremony," said Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va'ad, an umbrella organization for Jewish groups in Russia.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov presented the new synagogue with a 19th-century Torah scroll. In contrast to Yeltsin, who looked tired and had difficulty moving, the mayor radiated energy.

Luzhkov sported a black velvet yarmulke and spiced his emotional speech with Hebrew words such as "shalom" and "mazel tov."

Luzhkov had supervised the construction of the synagogue and called its opening a "realization of a longtime dream of Russian and world Jewry."

He hailed the Jewish contribution to Russia's culture and economy and called Moscow's Jewish community "probably the most distinguished" minority in the Russian capital. Luzhkov is a close friend of media mogul Vladimir Goussinsky, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress who underwrote much of the construction of the synagogue, which cost an estimated $12 million.

Natan Sharansky, a former refusenik who is now Israel's trade and industry minister, also addressed the hundreds of guests at the ceremony.

Sharansky used an example from his experience in a Soviet gulag to discuss the importance of religious tolerance — even amid repression.

He recalled how he shared a prison cell with an Orthodox Christian activist.

"He had a New Testament, I had a Book of Psalms. When either of our books were confiscated we went on a hunger strike together," Sharansky said.

In addition to the synagogue, the park on Memorial Hill also has a Russian Orthodox church and a mosque.

To preserve the memory of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust and to teach the younger generation of Russians about the catastrophe — which remains virtually unknown to many here — the synagogue includes Russia's first-ever permanent Holocaust exhibition. The exhibit occupies the underground level of the three-floor synagogue.

The synagogue will be used as a house of prayer only on holidays. But the building will be open year-round to visitors interested in the accomplishments and tragedy of Russian Jewry.

Displays along the walls of the round-shaped hall contain documents, photographs and objects related to the Holocaust. A crude homemade tin Chanukah lamp reminds of the Soviet religious persecution and stands in contrast to the elegant religious items produced in the Russian Empire before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

Jewish war veterans said the opening of the synagogue and museum would correct some popular historical inaccuracies in Russia.

"The myth that Jews did not fight at the front created by Stalin is widespread today," said Moisei Maryanovsky, chairman of the Union of Jewish War Veterans and Invalids.

"The synagogue will help to dispel this untruth."