The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre, that opened in Moscow 2012, is said to be the largest Jewish museum in the world. It is housed in the restored Bahmetevsky bus garage, originally designed by Konstantin Melnikov, a leading light of the avant-garde in the 1920s. Melnikov was associated with the Constructivists but refused to be bound by any style or conform to Stalinist architecture.
But I find it difficult to appreciate the vaulted ceilings, the clean angles and the interior lighting used to convey slanted rays of sunlight. The space is crammed full with huge displays, panoramic film screens, intriguing white figures and high tech gizmos.
“It must have cost a fortune,” says my friend.
Russian oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, Chabad Lubavitch and even Putin put their hands in their pocket to fund this impressive museum. The development cost 50 million dollars.
The display is divided chronologically, charting the life of Jewish communities from when they travelled across medieval Europe and settled in shtetls in what is now Poland. Periods of relative stability, integration and Jewish contribution to the nation state are counterbalanced with appalling discrimination, expulsion and extermination. Despite experiencing pogroms under Tsarist rule Russian Jews fought in WW1 but subsequently endured cruelties and deportations at the hands of the Russian army. Some Russian Jews benefitted from new opportunities in post revolutionary Russia, accessing higher education and professions previously denied. But again this came at a cost. The expression of Jewish religion and culture was forbidden and synagogues were closed. Then came WW2 when millions of Jews were killed by Germans on Soviet soil. Many fought on the Soviet side including the ‘Night Witches,’ female pilots who carried out bombing raids in enemy territory.
One such, ‘ Night Witch’ was Paulina Gelman who carried out 860 such raids and was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union.
Other loyal contributors included Semen Lavochkiv, a designer of fighter aircraft and Isaak Zaltsman who oversaw the manufacture of the tank T-34 that gave the Red Army a critical advantage over the Germans.
Personal letters bring these stories to life.
“I am no longer a cute brunette student at the University of Kiev,’ writes Ida Segal. ‘ I am a commander in the Red Army.”
A letter from a relative to Lev Fein describes how, in his absence as a volunteer in the army, his parents, younger sister and most of his extended family were murdered.
A disproportionate number of Russian Jews lost their lives in WW11. Out of 27 million Russians killed, 10% were Jewish. Before the war they constituted just 2% of the population. The ‘Great Patriotic War’ killed half of the Russian Jewish population.
Despite this sacrifice anti-semitism in the post war period saw a resurgence, exacerbated by Stalin’s campaign against so called, ‘cosmopolitanism.’ But the exhibition explains that the establishment of Israel in 1948 and victory in the 6 day war led to a reawakening of Jewish consciousness. Jews found a renewed determination to struggle for the right to openly practice Judaism and to emigrate.
Gorbachev’s liberalising presidentship opened the way for a rebirth of Jewish culture, learning and religion. Those who had been meeting clandestinely in forests came out into the light of day. But there was also rising xenophobia. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 increased economic and political anxiety and most Jews decided to emigrate.
As I absorb this history, often harrowing, sometimes inspiring and always illuminating of what it has meant to be a Soviet Jew I try out the inter-actives. On an impressive computer database about Jews worldwide I press China on the interactive map. Jews who look unmistakably Chinese beam back at me. Their synagogue has distinctly curved Chinese roofs.
On a huge plasma screen I combine two sentences to create a Yiddish saying, ‘You should be recreated as a chandelier, you should hang by day and burn by night.’
I move a candlestick, a bread cover and a kiddish cup to stimulate a digital celebration of the Sabbath – to make the mother, daughter, father and son come alive, to watch the menora being lit, the bread being broken, the prayers being spoken.
I use a yad to translate and turn the pages of the torah. I watch and listen to the oral testimony from older Jewish people set against images of young men in uniform trampling through the snow on huge multiplex screens.
I light a candle in front of a dazzling screen of Russian Jews who died in the Holocaust.
In an absurdly, lighter vein my friend inserts a photo of her face onto the body of a Jewish fisherwoman. Persuaded, I insert my face onto the body of a Jewish intellectual. We wave our arms in unison with our dopplegangers until we strike the poses we are happy with and press the shutter to take the photos we pick up from the shop later.
This Museum is not just a stark representation of pogroms, holocausts, hardships and suffering but something far more complex – an exploration of what it has meant to be a Soviet Jew. It also gives an insight into why so many have left the USSR. The exhibition ends on a positive note, stating that Russian Jews now enjoy a period of stability. Contemporary journalist accounts tell a different story. Many Jews are still emigrating particularly intellectuals.
As we leave by a side entrance the beauty of Melnikov’s building comes into its own.
This Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre is ambitious and dazzling in its use of new technology and inter-active displays. It also runs an impressive programme about tolerance across Russia. But is the space crammed too full of high tech gizmos, verging on the theme park? Would some of Melnikov’s restraint heighten and deepen the impact?