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Guide to Kiev Archives Opens Book a Little Wider on Jewish Life

MOSCOW Documents in Kiev archives covering East European Jewish life from the Middle Ages until Soviet times are now easily available to researchers.

At least that’s what the editors of a newly published guide to Jewish holdings in Kiev archives, which took 13 years and more than three dozen archivists to complete, are hoping.

The 750-page volume, “Jewish Documentary Sources in Kiev Archives,” was compiled in Russian with detailed English-language indexes. While the book is intended for Russian speakers, its editors believe many Judaica scholars in the United States will find it useful.

“Russian Jewish history is a growing field in the United States, with a significant number of recent and current dissertations being written on Russian-Jewish subjects at Columbia, Stanford, JTS, Brandeis and other major universities,” Jewish Theological Seminary history professor David Fishman said, citing the “accessibility of previously untapped materials in the post-Soviet archives.”

Fishman co-chairs Project Judaica, a 16-year-old joint academic venture between JTS and Moscow’s Russian State University of the Humanities, or RGGU, that was created primarily to train Russian archivists capable of cataloging Jewish holdings in local archives.

Until the fall of communism and due to Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism, most Jewish-related documents in the Soviet archives remained off-limit for decades. Although the collapse of the Soviet empire put an end to these restrictions, it will take years for archives and Judaica scholars in the region to properly catalog and describe the archival riches that mostly remain unused.

Accoding to Fishman, even today “finding one’s way through the archives in the FSU is difficult.”

This is where the guide published by Project Judaica could be an indispensable resource, especially for foreign scholars.

“The foreign researcher often doesn’t know where to begin, especially since documents on the Jews are found in enormous collections of governmental offices and ministries,” Fishman said.

“And the archives’ own finding aids often don’t describe their Jewish materials in detail. This guide, and the ones that preceded it, is a major step in solving the problem of “intellectual access” of knowing where what materials are found.”

The new volume is the fourth in a series of Jewish archival guides to depositories in the FSU compiled by Project Judaica.

Previous volumes dealt with Moscow and Belarus archives. One of them on Jewish War Trophy Collections in the Russian State Military Archive is slated for publication in the United States by JTS and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

That guide, originally released in Russian in 2005, deals with collections of Jewish institutions and organizations in prewar Europe that were taken to Moscow by the Red Army at the end of World War II.

The recently published guide on Kiev archives describes Jewish-related documents found in more than 900 collections in 22 archives, libraries and museums in the capital of Ukraine. But the area these documents come from is significantly bigger than today’s Ukraine.

Many of the documents currently foun! d in Kie v archives where transferred from Moscow and Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in the late 1920s and early 1930s when Soviet authorities backed the idea of a Jewish mega-archives the All-Union Jewish Historical Archives in Kiev that if created would have become the central institution for all Jewish research in the communist empire. But as anti-Semitism was becoming part of official Soviet politics, the idea was abandoned and the documents remained locked in Kiev archives.

According to Mark Kupovetsky, the co-editor of the guide, the book describes an array of Jewish documents, from proceedings of Polish medieval courts and Jewish manuscripts of 14th and 15th century to materials related to Jewish pogroms during the Soviet civil war of the ’20s and recent Soviet KGB documents.

Although the KGB and the Soviet Union now belong to the past, editors and researchers still often find it difficult to gain access to Jewish materials in FSU archives.

“In every one of these 22 depositories that the guide covers there were individual stories how we got access, how we dealt with every director of the archives,” Kupovetsky said. “Some were more ready to cooperate, some less.”

Although Ukraine recently adopted a national program to catalog all Jewish holdings in its archives, “still it all depends on the good spirit of local depositories,” Kupovetsky said.

The volume is just another step in an ambitious archival project the JTS and RGGU are pursuing. Kupovetsky said a series of similar guides will include four more volumes on other Ukrainian archives and as many on other depositories elsewhere in the FSU.

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