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Across the Former Soviet Union Ukrainian Jewish Community Uses Remnants to Portray Past

October 6, 2006
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Jewish tombstones and abandoned cemeteries, the remains of once-vibrant Jewish communities, are scattered across Ukraine today. Few communities have managed to do what the Jews in this Crimean town have done: assemble a collection of these tombstones for a museum dedicated to the community’s history.

During the German occupation of the Crimea in World War II, 7,000 Kerch Jews, or 99 percent of the prewar Jewish population, was killed by the Nazis. After the war, tombstones from the now-unused Jewish cemetery were used to pave roads and build fences, said Boris Kapustin, the former head of the town’s Reform congregation and leader of Kerch’s Jewish community.

“We have extracted pieces of matzevahs from the road in Krupskaya Street and put them aside,” Kapustin said, using the Hebrew word for tombstones.

Today, the Kerch collection, believed to be the only one of its kind in Ukraine, is the centerpiece of the Kerch Jewish Museum, which opened a few years ago in the town’s synagogue.

Confiscated from Kerch Jews in 1939 by the Soviet regime, the historic synagogue was returned to local Jews in 2000 and opened after renovation the following year.

Jewish activists in Kerch have amassed hundreds of Jewish artifacts, most of which are on display in the museum. It recounts the history, customs and traditions of Jews in the Kerch area through Jewish artifacts dating as far back as the 18th century.

The collection has some 600 items, including ritual objects, silverware, textiles, ceramics, photographs and documents.

Recent archaeological excavations in the Crimea have revealed the ancient roots of the area’s Jewish community.

Tombstones prove the presence of Greek-speaking Jews in Eastern Crimea as early as the first century BCE. Some of them lived in what is now Kerch, known in ancient times as the Greek town of Panticapaeum.

“Hebrew names and inscriptions on tombstones may be seen as evidence either of Jews residing in Panticapaeum or of their involvement in trade there,” said Valentina Poliakova, director of the Kerch Jewish Museum.

But the museum doesn’t own any of these antique tombstones.

The collection at the synagogue consists of 16 gravestones, from the 18th to the 20th centuries, made from a local limestone.

Inscriptions are in Hebrew and Russian.

A local arts museum has more examples of Jewish tombstones, while some of the most ancient stones from Kerch may be seen in the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Local Jews say the last traditional Jewish tombstones were put up in the local cemetery in the 1920s.

The tombstones in the Kerch synagogue also illustrate the mixed roots of the Crimean Jewish community.

“Vertical tombstones are typical for Ashkenazi Jewish culture, while horizontal ones are more typical of Sephardi culture,” said Poliakova, pointing out that Greek-speaking Jews from the Mediterranean, Jews from Byzantine, Khazars, indigenous Crimean Jews known as Krymchaks, and Karaites had all lived in the Crimea over the centuries.

After the fall of communism, Jewish tradition began to come back to life in Kerch, as it did in other parts of the former Soviet Union. There are currently 1,000 members of the city’s Reform congregation.

But it would be hard to keep the community’s historic memory alive without the Kerch Jewish Museum, local Jews said.

“There are no Jewish cemeteries in today’s Crimea, and this collection helps us to preserve important elements of Jewish history and culture,” said Kapustin.

This fall, Kerch’s Jewish community will erect the town’s first Jewish monument since World War II. A stone shaped like an open book of Torah will be installed at Bagerov Yar, the site of a massacre of Kerch Jews during the Holocaust.

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