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Across the Former Soviet Union Ukraine’s Jews Have Enough Stuff for a Museum, but Not Enough Money

March 17, 2006
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A Jewish activist in Ukraine has collected thousands of artifacts for what he hopes will be his country’s first Jewish museum. But, he admits, it’s all about the money. Leonid Finberg, director of the archives at Kiev’s Institute of Jewish Studies, put together a small exhibit of Jewish artifacts last summer for the newly renovated Beit Jacob Synagogue in the Ukrainian capital.

The few dozen precious artifacts now carefully displayed under glass in the shul’s main hall include a book illustrated by Marc Chagall, which Finberg picked up at a flea market in Lvov.

There’s also a letter he found written in Yiddish by a World War II Jewish soldier, a “truly unique document,” he says, that somehow escaped Soviet wartime censorship.

Finberg, an inveterate collector, says the exhibit he organized is just a tiny portion of the holdings, which boast thousands of items that could be the basis for a future Jewish museum.

“But a museum with its own building requires millions of dollars, while we operate with budgets of several thousands,” Finberg says. “So for the moment, we are doing what we can.”

A Jewish museum is still a dream not only for Ukrainian Jews. There is not a real Jewish museum in the entire former Soviet Union.

Some local Jewish leaders say that although the region’s Jewish communities have grown tremendously since the break-up of the Soviet Union 15 years ago, the timing and conditions for the creation of Jewish museums are not yet ripe.

Josef Zissels, the head of the Va’ad of Ukraine, says plans for such a museum in Ukraine have been in the works for a long time, but are likely to be postponed yet again.

“To have a collection for a museum is not enough,” he says. “You’ve got to have investors willing to invest in the long-term project and museum specialists with expertise on Judaism studies.”

According to Zissels, Ukraine’s Jewish communities have more urgent needs, such as caring for the elderly and building Jewish schools.

But in Moscow, plans for Russia’s first Jewish museum are moving forward, mainly because there is funding for the project.

The Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities is planning a multimillion-dollar museum that will recount the history of Judaism, Russians Jews, the Holocaust and tolerance, says the federation’s executive director, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz. It will fill a 10,000-square-meter building adjacent to the Marina Roscha Chabad Jewish Center, and should be completed within five years.

Grigori Kazovsky, an expert in Russian Jewish art who is helping to develop the museum, says it will be a modern facility with multimedia features that are commonly used in Western museums, but are still a novelty in the former Soviet Union.

Kazovsky is concerned, however, that most of the items for the museum’s collection have to be acquired from abroad.

“Unfortunately, little Jewish heritage has been preserved in Russia, so we are finding Jewish art and archives through Judaism dealers, mostly in the United States and Israel,” Kazovsky says.

Ukraine is in a more fortunate position than Russia, says Finberg, as more Jewish artifacts are available locally. The Institute of Jewish Studies has been laying the base for a future museum since it was founded in 1990.

“A tradition of preserving family history was almost non-existent during Soviet times,” Finberg says.

“People were even afraid to write diaries. But a part of the intelligentsia did preserve some documents despite everything, and it has been our task to collect and study them.”

The institute’s vast archives on 20th-century Jewish life in Ukraine are largely the result of its project to preserve local Jewish heritage via a program funded by the British-based Hanadiv Charitable Foundation, Finberg says.

The bulk of the institute’s records are made up of the private archives of Jewish writers and artists who were killed during Soviet times. The materials were passed on to the institute by the victims’ children or grandchildren.

Among the institute’s treasures are collections of pre-revolutionary photographs from Jewish family albums, old prayer books, and materials on Jewish theater and film-making activities in Ukraine before World War II.

“Seventy Jewish theaters existed in Ukraine before the Second World War, and dozens of Jewish films were made at that time,” Finberg says.

Old posters advertising theatrical performances and several films are featured now in the Institute’s archives.

Finberg says the institute is often contacted by Ukrainian and foreign film makers or theatrical directors, who use its photo archives when creating Jewish costumes and characters.

To make its holdings available to a broader audience, the institute has been publishing books, holding joint exhibitions with the National Art Museum of Ukraine and running educational projects with a handful of Jewish schools in Kiev.

Iryna Klimova, head of educational projects at the institute, says she has been lecturing to Jewish youth on topics such as Jewish religious objects and the architecture of historic synagogues still found around Ukraine.

“These young people will most likely never have a chance to go to old Jewish towns or to visit Jewish cemeteries, where many tombstones are masterpieces of art,” says Klimova, who has photographed many of the old synagogues and cemeteries during field trips organized by the institute.

But Kazovsky says that Jewish museums are needed in the former Soviet Union not so much for Jews as for the rest of the local population.

“Such museums would help to destroy prejudices against Jews that still exist in the region,” he says.

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