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Russian Leaders Honor Jews at Synagogue Groundbreaking

Russia’s prime minister and other government officials provided significant support to the country’s Jewish community during a groundbreaking ceremony here this week for a new synagogue.

The synagogue will be erected in memory of the 2.7 million Soviet Jews who perished during the Holocaust, said Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who helped lay the foundation Tuesday for the synagogue at Victory Park.

The placement of the synagogue, which will stand alongside an Orthodox church and a mosque, reflects a long-awaited show of religious unity.

With the synagogue’s inclusion in Victory Park, a state complex that honors Russia’s sacrifices in World War II, the Jewish contribution to Russian history was given an equal footing with the country’s Christian and Muslim populations.

The synagogue is expected to be completed in time for the celebration of Moscow’s 850th birthday in September 1997. The Orthodox church already stands in the park; the mosque is yet to be built.

The presence of leading government officials at the groundbreaking ceremony – – and their evident support of the synagogue project — was hailed by Jewish leaders.

“This is a significant event for the entire world,” said Tankred Golenpolsky, publisher of the Moscow-based biweekly newspaper Yevreyskaya Gazeta.

“Russia was the last stronghold of state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the postwar world. Today, the country’s prime minister has renounced anti-Semitism.”

Chernomyrdin and other government officials used the occasion to focus on the contribution of the country’s Jews to the defeat of Nazism.

Chernomyrdin also spoke movingly about the Holocaust.

“When every third [Jew] died, no one from the living has the right to forget it,” Chernomyrdin said, referring to the one-third of world Jewry that perished during the Holocaust.

Other government leaders called for an end to anti-Semitism, saying that only a unified Russia could build a secure future.

“The synagogue will be a reminder” to those who subscribe to ultranationalist and supremacist theories, said Moscow Deputy Mayor Valery Shantsev.

Jewish leaders said the synagogue marked the long way Russian democracy has come.

“I remember coming to this country 20 years ago, when such an event could not have happened,” said Israel Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, who came to Moscow for the ceremony.

The memory of World War II still evokes strong emotions in Russia, which lost millions of citizens during the war.

About 2 million people visit Victory Park annually, according to Moscow officials.

For Jewish war veterans, who have long battled the stereotype that Jews made little contribution to the war effort, the government’s backing of the synagogue project provided a long-awaited moment of vindication, said Moisey Maryanovsky, chairman of the Union of Disabled Jewish War Veterans.

“We have been waiting for more than 50 years for these words,” he said.

“Now Russia will see that our sacrifices were not in vain,” said another veteran, Abram Kremer, who lost his leg at the front and whose family was killed in a ghetto in Lithuania.

To the accompaniment of a Jewish choir, Chernomyrdin and other officials broke ground for the synagogue in a grove at the memorial park.

A time capsule containing a letter in Russian and Hebrew was placed at the site to commemorate the groundbreaking.

The synagogue’s construction was funded by the Russian Jewish Congress, the group created earlier this year by some of Russia’s most prominent Jewish bankers and businessmen.

Vladimir Goussinsky, the congress’ president, described the project as costly, but would not say how much his group had raised.

The synagogue will be designed by Israeli architect Moshe Zarhi and artist Frank Meisler.

According to Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the newly constructed building may house both a synagogue and a small Holocaust memorial.

Some Jewish leaders voiced criticism of the project.

Anti-fascist activist Alla Gerber said she was disappointed to learn that the Jewish portion of Victory Park would not include a Holocaust museum.

“It’s a shame that a country like Russia has no such museum,” said Gerber, who serves as president of the Moscow-based Holocaust Research and Education Center.

“Most Russians still don’t know what happened to Jews during the war.”

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