In Russia, a treasure trove of books

The Jewish Museum in Moscow is set to open a multimedia library unlike any other in the world.

Along with its new digitized contents, the Jewish Museum in Moscow will not be without books, especially Russian and Yiddish tomes (photo credit: JULIE MASIS)
Along with its new digitized contents, the Jewish Museum in Moscow will not be without books, especially Russian and Yiddish tomes
(photo credit: JULIE MASIS)
Moscow A FEW years ago, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center here held a special inauguration ceremony for the Schneerson library.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attended.
The four and a half thousand Hebrew books, which had belonged to generations of Chabad-Lubavitch rebbes, were moved from the public library, where they had been kept for decades, to a special temperature- controlled room at the Jewish Museum.
The priceless volumes, including the prayer book of the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, are now kept in acid-free cardboard boxes in a locked space with a gas-operated fire extinguishing system that will ensure they are not damaged by sprinklers in case of a fire.
For years these books had been disputed between the United States and Russia, with an American court ruling that Russia should pay tens of thousands of dollars in late fees per day for failing to return them to Chabad.
But the interest in the Schneerson Collection, after the library opened in Moscow, has been disappointing.
On a recent evening there was not a single visitor in sight. One person came the day before, library employees said.
The problem is that the books are in Hebrew – and there is hardly anyone in Moscow who can read them. Even Svetlana Khvostova, the Russian State Library employee who is in charge of Collection at the Jewish Museum doesn’t understand the ancient Jewish language.
She only recently learned the Hebrew letters, so she can recognize the name of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe on book plates.
But now the Jewish Museum in Moscow is getting ready to open another library – with Russian books about Jewish culture and history in Russia, the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire and with a multimedia center that will give visitors access to hundreds of historic films and audio recordings.
It will be the first such Jewish library, not only in Russia but also in the world, says Alexey Golubev, who is responsible for the creation of the media library.
“We are pioneers in terms of a Jewish multimedia resource,” he says. “The Yad Vashem museum has a great audiovisual library, but it’s focused on the Holocaust.
You can say the same about the Holocaust Museum in America.”
The museum’s film collection begins with the first Russian-Jewish motion picture, which was made in 1910. The silent, black and white movie, called “Le Chaim,” tells the story of the rabbi’s daughter who is forced to marry a rich man she does not love, even though she is in love with someone else.
The film was made by French directors with a crew of non-Jewish actors – but it was set in the shtetl and intended for Jewish viewers, Golubev says. The title cards, which have been lost, were in Yiddish.
“There was a big Jewish audience in the Russian Empire, more than three million people. Don’t forget that Poland and Lithuania were part of the Russian Empire at that time,” he explains.
In fact, most of the early Jewish films in Russia were made by non-Jewish actors who were playing Jewish roles – because there weren’t many Jewish actors at the time, he says.
It was not until the 1920s and the 1930s that Soviet films made by Jewish directors began to appear. Some were screen adaptations of the works by Jewish authors, such as Sholem Aleichem’s “Wandering Stars,” and Isaac Babel’s “Benia Krik,” a story about a Jewish gang boss from Odessa.
The multimedia library will have these prewar films – as well as more recent visual materials with a Russian Jewish connection.
“It’s very important to keep it in one place to preserve it, because we know that it gets erased all the time, it disappears,” says Boruch Gorin, the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees.
Jewish theater The library will also give visitors a glimpse at the plays that were staged in state-run Jewish theaters in the Soviet Union between the 1920s and 1952, when they were all shut down. These theaters were so well-liked that even non-Jews enjoyed going there despite not understanding Yiddish, Gorin says.
Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to anyone to film an entire play from start to finish before the days of television, so only a few short excerpts from these performances survived, Golubev says.
Still, the multimedia library will give visitors some idea about what these Jewish theaters were like. For example, in its collection they have an eight-minute recording of “King Lear” from Moscow’s Jewish State Theater.
Interestingly, while all Jewish theaters were shut down in the Soviet Union in 1952, Roma (Gypsy) state theaters continued existing – and most of the actors and producers there were Jewish “because there weren’t enough Gypsy actors,” according to Gorin. For example, the first director of the Gypsy State Theater in Moscow in the 1930s was Moisey Goldblat, a Jew, he says.
However, the Jewish museum’s library does not plan to stock recordings of plays from Soviet Gypsy theaters, he explains.
Audio recordings In addition to film, the media library will give visitors access to the sounds of Russian Jewry.
This includes speeches by famous Russian Jews, like the revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the recordings of Russian Jewish poets, such as Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky reading their work aloud, as well as old Jewish songs and music.
Some of the recordings were made by S. Ansky, an ethnographer who traveled throughout the Pale of Settlement between 1911 and 1914 recording Hasidic and Yiddish folk songs on phonograph cylinders.
The museum collection also has recordings of popular Russian Jewish singers from the time of the First World War performing humorous songs in Yiddish about Jewish life, Golubev says.
The perception of the Jew in the Russian Empire A separate section of the multimedia library will focus on how Jews were perceived in the Russian Empire in the 19th and early 20th century. To this end, a research group at the museum has been working on a project entitled “The Image of the Jew in Visual Discourses in the Russian Empire.”
This digital collection also includes Russian antisemitic articles from newspapers and magazines, as well as caricatures, photographs and drawings featuring Jews from that time period.
“We don’t say it’s good, but if a person wants to understand history, they need to use historical sources,” says Ilya Barkussky, a senior library researcher at the Jewish Museum when asked whether the decision to include antisemitic materials in the library was a controversial one. “If researchers come here, it’s good for them to have access to it.”
The library will also have approximately 3,000 digital images of Russian and Yiddish Jewish postcards with depictions of Jews, Jewish architecture, and antisemitic caricatures from the beginning of the 20th century.
The only similar postcard collection is at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, but those postcards are Polish, while the ones in Moscow will be Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Lithuanian, Golubev says.
Books and periodicals A physical library with Russian and Yiddish books is also being planned. It will stock such volumes as Yulii Gessen’s “History of Jews in Russia” published in 1914, Heinrich Graetz’s “History of the Jews” in Russian translation published at the end of the 19th century, and works by Simon Dubnow, who taught Jewish history at Petrograd University a hundred years ago.
A highlight of the collection is the archive of Aron Vergelis, the editor-in-chief of the only Yiddish magazine that was published in the Soviet Union and the man who is known as the most influential person in Jewish literature in the USSR.
“He was the minister of Jewish affairs in the USSR, the only legal channel of Jewish literature,” Gorin says.
The collection was donated by Vergelis’s widow and includes unedited manuscripts by Soviet authors who wrote in Yiddish, official correspondence between the Soviet government and the magazine (which was called “Sovetish Heymland” or the Soviet Homeland), a collection of photographs, and even the lists of Yiddish books that were confiscated by Soviet customs at the border.
“They confiscated them because they couldn’t read them, so they didn’t know if it was something illegal,” Gorin says.
The library will also stock the magazine itself with stories by the Soviet Union’s best Yiddish authors, some of whom were never translated into other languages, Gorin says.
Here people will also be able to leaf through an older Russian Jewish periodical, Voshod (Sunrise), a monthly that was a published in the capital of the Russian Empire between the 1880s and the beginning of the 20th century.
It gives a rare glimpse at what life was like for Russian Jews back then. Anyone who knows Russian will be able to read it – although with some difficulty, because spelling rules were changed after the Revolution of 1917.
In one of the issues, for instance, is an article discussing the measures that were taken by the Russian government in the 1880s, after the pogroms that followed the assassination of Tzar Alexander II. Allegedly in an effort to prevent further violence against the Jews, the Russian government at the time introduced a number of laws further limiting Jewish freedoms: Jews were forbidden to do business on Sundays and on Christian holidays and to sell alcohol except out of their own homes.
What was the response of the Jewish community? If you read the article, you will find out that the Jews at the time were concerned about whether the law meant that they were allowed to sell alcoholic beverages only if they owned the land on which their home stood, or even if the land did not belong to them.
The new library is expected to attract more interest in Russia than the Schneerson Collection.
“In Moscow, there are maybe only ten people who can read the books in the Schneerson Collection. It’s mostly for tourists,” Gorin says. “That the Schneerson Library ended up at our museum – that was the president of the country who offered it. It wasn’t our plan to have that library; it came down on our heads.”
Museum employees hope the new multimedia library will also host events such as film screenings, classes and lectures – and that it will be an invaluable resource for students and researchers.
“We want to popularize it, make it accessible to everyone. We want to create a space that people will be comfortable in,” Barkussky says.
The multimedia library is expected to open before the end of the year.