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Museum at heart of Russia's Jewish culture revival

Friday - 11/16/2012, 1:47pm  ET

In this Sunday Nov. 11, 2012 photo from left: Mark Rozin, 47, Daniil Rozin, 11, Lev Rozin, 24, Anatoly Rozin, 78, Geda Zimanenko, 100, Luiza Rozina, 78, Maya Rozina, 8 pose in their Moscow apartment. The four generations of Zimanenko- Rozin's family embody the history of Jews in Russia over the past century, from the restrictions of czarist times to the revival of Jewish culture in Russia today. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

NATALIYA VASILYEVA
Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) -- In czarist times, Geda Zimanenko watched her mother offer the local police officer a shot of vodka on a plate and five rubles every Sunday to overlook the fact that their family lived outside the area where Jews were allowed to live.

Then came the Bolshevik Revolution and Zimanenko became a good Communist, raising her own son to believe in ideals that strove to stamp out distinctions of race and religion. Her grandson, born after the death of dictator Josef Stalin, was more cynical of Communism and felt the heat of growing Soviet anti-Semitism.

Now the 100-year-old matriarch's great-grandson, brought up after the fall of the Soviet Union and in a spirit of freedom of conscience, is fully embracing his Jewish roots: He works at Moscow's new Jewish museum, Europe's largest and Russia's first major attempt to tell the story of its Jewish community. The four generations of Zimanenko's family are a microcosm of the history of Jews in Russia over the past century, from the restrictions of imperial times through Soviet hardship to today's revival of Jewish culture in Russia, a trajectory that is put on vivid display at the Jewish Museum and Center of Tolerance.

The museum, which opened this week, tells the history of Jewry through people's stories, which come alive in video interviews and interactive displays. The journeys of people like the Zimanenko-Rozin family are traced from czarist Russia through the demise of the Soviet Union. The $50 million museum was built under the patronage of President Vladimir Putin, who in a symbolic move in 2007 donated a month of his salary -- about $5,600 -- to its creation.

Putin has promoted Russia as a country that welcomes Russian emigrants back into its fold. Early in his presidency, he encouraged the repatriation of Russians who left in the wake of the 1917 Revolution as well as ethnic Russians left stranded in former Soviet republics, now independent states.

In Poland, which is undergoing a similar revival of Jewish culture, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is due to open next year in the heart of the former Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw.

The Moscow museum's portrayal of Russia as a safe and welcoming place for Jews today may run counter to the beliefs of some emigres and their descendants who were raised on dark stories about pogroms and discrimination in Russia. And while there's no doubt that anti-Semitism has declined dramatically in Russia, there remains a strong strand of far-right sentiment that expresses itself in acts against Jews, as well as against dark-skinned foreigners.

To Borukh Gorin, chairman of the museum's board, the history of Russian Jews is much more complex than the stark narrative of anti-Jewish oppression. The museum does not dwell on the "victimization of Jewish history," he said.

"It's about what actually happened," said Gorin. "And what happened was complicated. There were pogroms, but there was also an active role of Jews in Russian public life -- scientists, writers, journalists, Jews awarded with the country's highest honors."

By 1917, the Russian Empire had the largest Jewish community in the world, more than 5 million people. Most of the Jews were confined to the Pale of Settlement, the area of the Russian Empire stretching across what are now western Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, beyond which Jews were not allowed to live. Today, only about 150,000 people who identify themselves as Jews live in Russia.

Zimanenko, feisty and talkative even at 100, was the daughter of Marxists and the granddaughter of pious Jews. Most of her life, she was true to Communist ideals and never thought much about her Jewish identity.

"If somebody asked me about my nationality then, it'd take me a while to remember that I was Jewish," she said. "We were all Soviet people."

But like other Soviet Jews, Zimanenko was reminded of her roots when Stalin's repressive regime "foiled" the so-called Doctors' Plot in 1952, accusing a group of prominent Moscow doctors, predominantly Jews, of conspiring to kill Soviet leaders. Their trial unleashed the first major wave of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, triggering dismissals, arrests and executions among Jews.

Zimanenko's son, physicist Anatoly Rozin, said the family had such a strong faith in Communism and Stalin that they genuinely believed in the plot: "No one could doubt it. We were a Communist family." In 1956, three years after Stalin's death, the authorities admitted that the doctors had been framed.

Anatoly Rozin, now 78, is still an atheist and does not feel much affinity for his Jewish heritage, although he remembers being exposed to "everyday" anti-Semitism since childhood when neighborhood children called him and his brother names.

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