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Across the Former Soviet Union It’s an Uzbek Jewish Thing: Editors Chronicle Rich Past in Central As

October 31, 2006
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Vladimir Solomonovich Polykovsky is the editor in chief of the Concise Uzbekistan Jewish Encyclopedia. And don’t let the title fool you: When it’s finished, the edition is expected to fill eight volumes. “This work is needed so that the huge contribution of the representatives of the Jewish Diaspora is recorded and doesn’t fade from memory,” says Polykovsky, 75.

Much of what Jews achieved in Uzbekistan occurred during the Communist rule.

“This was Soviet science, culture, technology that was being made by Jews,” Polykovsky says.

But he believes the encyclopedia will help the general population of the Central Asian nation as well.

“This has to be done for us, Jews, and also for Uzbekistan,” he said.

Today’s Jewish population of Uzbekistan, estimated at between 12,000 and 20,000, is a fraction of what it was in the late 1980s before the Soviet Union collapsed.

Since then, the majority of the once 100,000-strong community has left for Israel, the United States or Germany.

A large indigenous Jewish community — known as Bukharan Jews, after the Uzbek city of Bukhara — lived in what is now Uzbekistan for many centuries, involved in crafts and local and international trade.

Beginning in the late 19th century, when the region fell under the Russian influence, Ashkenazi Jews from the European sections of the Russian Empire settled in the region as well. Thousands more found a safe haven in Uzbekistan during World War II, when Jewish refugees and evacuees were fleeing Russia, Ukraine and Poland. Many of them stayed in Uzbekistan after the war.

Engineers, doctors and lawyers, they provided the area’s first generation of local intelligentsia — and they will be the encyclopedia’s focus.

Polykovsky himself built a successful career in science when Uzbekistan was still part of the Soviet Union: He wears a Communist-era medal of the Winner of Socialist Competition, and his business card meticulously lists his memberships in several academies and the scientific awards he received for his work as a geochemist.

He also has a strong Jewish identity. Like many Jews of his generation in the former Soviet Union, he kept that pride to himself most of his life. But now that official Soviet anti-Semitism has been confined to the dustbin of history, he is quick to talk about his secular religion: the prominence of Jews in various fields.

The encyclopedia’s office is housed in a rented three-bedroom apartment inside a rundown building, located on a typical Soviet-era residential block. Numerous files are scattered around the apartment with labels on them reading “Health Care,” “Arts” or “Religion.”

The encyclopedia’s editorial board consists of eight people, with 25 more gathering information on a part-time basis.

Outside of one paid staff member, “all of us are volunteers,” Polykovsky says.

The only benefit the editorial board members receive is a monthly transit pass, he says.

“On our board, we have experts on heavy industry, light industry, health care, education, literature and arts,” Polykovsky says.

All of these are areas in which Uzbek Jews made substantial contributions.

The encyclopedia will be divided into separate volumes, organized by career. Thus, doctors will be listed alphabetically in the health care and medicine volume, and actors and musicians will find their place in the arts and literature volume.

No volumes have been printed yet. Polykovsky cites a lack of funds — his project receives only occasional support from local Jewish organizations and from a private individual.

Yet the editor proudly shows a homemade brochure titled “Jewish Doctors of Uzbekistan” that will become the basis for the volume on medicine.

Polykovsky is full of energy and those who know him say he can talk for hours about the undertaking he started three years ago.

Recently, Polykovsky and two of his colleagues eagerly demonstrated their wealth to a visiting journalist.

This includes a dozen posters with photos and text printouts on the walls. The posters — each highlighting the Jewish contribution to an area of knowledge — are occasionally used at conferences organized by the Tashkent Jewish community.

Polykovsky’s own family history will earn several entries in the encyclopedia.

In 1921, his grandfather, Lev Feigin, organized the first orphanage for Bukharan Jewish children located in the town of Kokand. Today, a street in this ancient Uzbek town is named after him.

“Some famous people were educated at this orphanage,” Polykovsky says.

Among them was Suleiman Yudakov, who became the father of modern Uzbek music and the author of the national anthem of the neighboring Republic of Tajikistan.

Other prominent Jews who will get their entries in the encyclopedia include the inventor of the first cotton harvester, introduced in Uzbekistan in 1938, and a geologist who discovered the first deposits of gold in this country. Today, Uzbekistan is the world’s second-largest cotton exporter and a major exporter of gold.

“Our community is dwindling today, but this titanic contribution our people made is being left unrecorded,” says Zakhar Shtein, 68, another encyclopedia board member who was an engineer for the Soviet munitions industry. “We are documenting another page of Jewish history.”

The encyclopedia will also seek to provide a measure of historical justice.

Although anti-Jewish restrictions in Soviet Uzbekistan were not as harsh as in Russia or other European republics in the USSR, Uzbek Jews knew there were limits to their career growth dictated by the official — although often secret — Soviet anti-Semitic policies.

“Jews were often passed over for a promotion,” Shtein says. “We often come across the biographies of people with 150 to 200 scientific papers to their names. But when you read down to the state awards they received, there is nothing.”

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