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Newly Opened Soviet Archives Shed New Light on Holocaust History

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The emotional events of Holocaust Remembrance Day still draw a mixed reaction in Russia, but educational advances from projects relating to Holocaust material in Russian archives are moving forward.

In a sign seen by some as positive, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko conveyed official greetings last week to a Jewish gathering outside Moscow, and the day was mentioned in some media outlets.

But when a liberal member of the Russian Parliament called on his fellow deputies to stand for a minute of silence to commemorate Jewish victims of Nazism, ultranationalist deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky protested.

“Who will stand in memory of the 30 million Russians who were killed?” he asked.

Many deputies remained in their seats.

But the fact that many others stood reflects a profound shift in the way Jewish issues were handled in czarist and Soviet times.

Just the same, there are some observers for whom the glass remains half empty.

“The commemoration of the Holocaust in Russia remains a Jewish business and has not yet become institutionalized in the society,” said Roman Spector, a Moscow Jewish leader.

After decades of Soviet rule, when information was closely restricted, many Russian archives have opened up in recent years, and institutions are cooperating with Jewish groups and activists reconstructing the history of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union.

Documents recently discovered in the city of Kaluga’s archive reveal that the Nazis failed to liquidate the Jewish ghetto in this city 150 miles south of Moscow. In October 1941, the Germans were unable to carry out their plans to kill Kaluga’s 154 remaining Jews because they had to flee the advancing Red Army.

A Russian historian, Anna Simonova, is the Moscow coordinator of a leading Russian-American archival project.

A group of researchers, headed by U.S.-based historian David Fishman and financed by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, is studying Jewish documents in what is called the Osoby, or Special, Archive, made up of papers looted by the Nazis and seized by the Soviets in 1945.

The slew of documents, which had been kept in KGB archives, chronicles the activities of Jewish communities and Jewish organizations – including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel and even JTA bureaus – from the Netherlands to Greece between the two world wars.

The collection also contains personal archives of a number of outstanding Jewish personalities. Some documents also contain information on Jewish property that later was destroyed or looted.

Parts of the collection relating to France, Belgium and Liechtenstein recently were returned to those countries.

Some of the documents could provide material for suspense stories. Last year, a sensational Internet ad offered to sell diaries of Hitler deputy Martin Bormann that had been stolen from the archive.

The Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, traced the documents, recaptured them and placed them inside the FSB.

Far less suspenseful is information in another part of the collection: Hebrew speeches of the Lubavitch rebbe, Joseph Isaac Schneerson, from Riga in 1931.

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