Two Jewish museums set to break ground in Kiev

“If this proposition interests Ukrainian government and Ukrainian Jews then this is a good way for things to start,” says rabbi.

September 27, 2011 23:39
4 minute read.

Kiev 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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KIEV – If everything goes according to plan, construction on not one but two major Jewish museums will begin in Kiev this time next year, Jewish leaders in Ukraine said last week, although skeptics have their doubts.

The first museum, which according to its backers is set to break ground in less than 12 months, will be the first comprehensive museum depicting the history of Jews in the country, which dates back to medieval times.

“We have just received an offer from the city for land,” said Ukrainian lawmaker and businessman Oleksandr Feldman, who is helming the project. “We would like to find an architect and start construction next September, and the mayor of Kiev is supportive of the museum.”

There are already several Jewish museums in the eastern European country. In Odessa, the local Jewish museum tells the story of the city’s fabled Jewish past while the childhood home of Shalom Aleichem in Pereiaslav displays an exhibit on the life and times of the Jewish humorist. Still, the country that was once home to a large portion of Jewry and where an estimated 100,000 Jews remain does not have an official Jewish museum, something Feldman wants to change.

“I plan to invest my money in it and call others to join me,” the Jewish businessman said at a gathering battling anti-Semitism that he organized in Kiev.

Germany, one of the potential funders of such a project, has expressed an interest in the idea.

“We stand behind the idea to build this museum and support it,” said German lawmaker Petra Pau, who was among those invited by Feldman to attend the event.

The second big museum planned in Kiev is slated to be built near Babi Yar, the ravine where 33,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis 70 years ago.

“It will be like the Ukrainian Yad Vashem and focus on the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, a supporter of the initiative. “It will tell the story of the Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.”

The rabbi who is one of three claimants to the title of chief rabbi of Ukraine said two of the wealthiest men in the country, Jewish businessmen Igor Kolomoisky and Vadim Rabinovich, have shown an interest in the project. But this may be a liability as much as it is a benefit.

“They are out of favor with the current government,” said a participant at the gathering.

Indeed, one can be forgiven for having doubts that either project will begin on time. Plans to build either a Jewish museum or community center in or near Babi Yar have hopelessly stalled for at least a decade.

“We hope next October to start building but I can only pray that will happen,” Azman said. “Every time there was an objection from the state or the municipality but this time we’ve bought the land to prevent any kind of opposition. We have to push hard but nothing worthwhile comes easy.”

Part of the problem relates to the content of the Babi Yar museum: Tens of thousands of non-Jews –gypsies, nationalists, political prisoners and others – were also murdered by the Nazis at the ravine and Ukrainians authorities are loath to let a museum highlight one group over the other.

Feldman, too, admitted his museum of Jewish heritage had a long way to go until it is built.

“I cannot say exactly where and when we will build but we’re making progress,“ said Feldman, who underwent brit mila at the age of 42 and views the construction of the museum as a personal mission.

Despite everyone's best intentions one member of the Jewish community who attended the gathering in Kiev last week was skeptical either will be built anytime soon.

“I don’t think much will come of this,” he said, asking not to be named. “What do you make of all this? They come here and talk and what comes out of it? Nothing.”

Westerners who snub their noses at the lengthy and bumpy process might be surprised to hear things aren’t much different back home. Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, who attended the conference battling anti-Semitism in Kiev, said the series of “decelerations, resolutions and proclamations” in Kiev mirrored those that led to the construction of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“It was during the ’70s that president Jimmy Carter first announced there would be a Holocaust museum,” he recalled. “He then formed a committee that looked into different locations and it fell on the next president to decide. For a while it was not at all clear that the museum would be on the National Mall. They were looking into a building elsewhere and only after a long search did they settle on that location. Who knew it would be so instrumental to the Jewish community?”

Baker said gatherings like the one that took place in Kiev were important in creating the right conditions for the proposed museums.

“If this proposition interests the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian Jews then this is a good way for things to start,” Baker said.

Victora Godik, president of the Ukrainian Union of Jewish Students, weighed in saying that of Feldman’s two projects this is the one more likely to be built sooner rather than later because it had something the other did not.

“It has the support of the government,” she said. “That is great and it’s the first time that has happened.”

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