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Around the Jewish World: Large Collection on Shtetl Life Destined to Return to Storage

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One of the world’s largest collections of Jewish life in the Russian empire is heading back to the basement of the museum that has held it since the Bolshevik Revolution.

“We have 150 different ethnic groups represented in our stores,” said Lyudmilla Uritskaya, head curator at the Russian Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg. “We can only show them in temporary displays.”

Last month, the museum opened a temporary exhibition — it had returned from a world tour — on shtetl life at the turn of the century.

Dusted off in 1991 after more than 50 years in storage, the 1,000-piece collection is primarily the result of ethnographic expeditions conducted by the well-known poet and dramatist Shlomo Rappaport, known as An-Sky, at the beginning of this century.

The 400 items on exhibit offer visitors an insightful journey into the vanished world of the Pale of Settlement — the western edge of the Russian empire beyond which Jews were formally forbidden to live.

Titled “And the wind swept over it,” referring to passages in the 103rd Psalm, the exhibition traveled across Europe and the United States from 1992 to 1995, visiting such prominent institutions as the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam and the Jewish Museum of New York. The opening in St. Petersburg was timed to coincide with the annual conference of the European Association of Jewish Museums held in the city last month.

The exhibition is scheduled to close Dec. 11.

Displayed in cases built to resemble the small but homey houses that characterized Jewish life in the shtetl, the items offer a breathtaking vision of daily life of Jews who lived in the Podolia, Volhynia and Kiev regions of the Russian empire.

The brass musical instruments of a klezmer band lay silent on chairs, waiting for players that will never come. Nearby, wedding invitations, divorce papers and other objects mark the cycle of life that linked one generation to another for centuries.

Colorful tapestries from the interior of shtetl synagogues, including one portraying the Russian two-headed eagle, surround a reading table in another display. Throughout the exhibit, photographs, mainly portraits, provide the faces missing in the other displays.

Only one item reflects the horror of the anti-Jewish riots that flared up across the Pale around the turn of the century, but it is enough — a handbag sewn from the tattered parchments of a Torah scroll looted from a synagogue.

The collection boasts a history as rich as the life it portrays.

An-Sky was a devoted revolutionary who was to write the words to “Die Shvueh,” the hymn of the Bund — Russia’s Jewish Socialist party. He also sought to preserve the remnants of Jewish culture that were slowly being eroded by urbanization.

In 1911, he set out on his first expedition, which yielded “colossal” results, said Uritskaya. His earliest collections included folk tales, legends and songs, as well as items recovered from villages ravaged by pogroms in previous years.

Back in St. Petersburg, he used the collection as the basis for the city’s only Jewish museum, opened under the auspices of the local Jewish Society of History and Ethnography.

World War I brought a new wave of pogroms along the front lines, and An-Sky repeated his visits both to bring relief to the communities as a Red Cross representative and to continue his study of shtetl life in a changing world.

Fearing a rise of anti-Semitism in the Russian capital, he transferred part of his collection to the Imperial Ethnographic Museum for temporary safekeeping. When the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution forced him to flee the city, the items became part of the museum’s permanent collection.

“Maybe that was fortunate,” said Uritskaya, who keeps a photo of the poet wearing a Caucasian-style sheepskin hat emblazoned with a red cross in her office. “The fate of the rest of the collection is virtually unknown.”

Most of the objects disappeared during the chaos of the revolution.

The Jewish Museum was closed in 1928 for propagating “bourgeois” cultural ideas and the collection, until now, has been displayed only once.

In 1938, curator and historian Yisei Pulner organized a politically motivated exhibition of Jewish life under the czars. The grim, gray life of the shtetl was contrasted with the bright future awaiting Jews in Birobidzhan, the autonomous region established in eastern Siberia by Stalin as his solution to the Jewish question.

Pulner continued to work even during the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad, the Soviet-era name for St. Petersburg, during World War II, perishing in the museum in 1942 of cold and hunger.

Museum officials recognize the value of the collection, but they see no possibility to create a permanent display in the museum devoted to the cultures of the multitude of nationalities that made up the former Soviet Union.

With the federal government behind on promised support, on which the institution almost entirely subsists, museum officials have enough trouble maintaining permanent exhibitions highlighting the 15 main ethnic groups of the former Soviet republics and other major groups from Siberia and the Caucasus.

“Take the Cossacks, for example. We have some wonderful items, but we can’t make a permanent display,” said Vladimir Grusman, the museum’s deputy director.

Had it not been for September’s conference, the collection may have been returned to the basement upon its return from the United States. The museum had to take out loans to cover some of the expenses, and the artists and designers who breathed life into the display remain unpaid.

Grusman said any initiative to create a museum devoted solely to the history of Russian Jews is the business of the local Jewish community.

Alexander Frenkel, deputy chairman of the St. Petersburg Jewish Association, said the concept of a Jewish museum has come up, but there would be nothing to place in it.

“That collection belongs to-the museum, and they’ll never let it leave,” he said.

Hemmed in by reality, Uritskaya is far from indifferent about the fate of the collection.

“I don’t even want to think about what could happen to this collection,” she said.

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