Peres inaugurates Russian Jewish museum

Museum includes section on persecution experienced by Jews in former USSR; project to help normalize interfaith relations.

Shimon Peres reading gigantic Torah 390 (photo credit: Mark Bayman / GPO)
Shimon Peres reading gigantic Torah 390
(photo credit: Mark Bayman / GPO)
MOSCOW – President Shimon Peres joined Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday to inaugurate the city’s new Russian Jewish museum and tolerance center, the world’s largest Jewish museum.
In a moving speech, Peres said the museum evoked memories of his childhood back home in Poland. He thanked the Russian people for their role in helping defeat the Nazis in World War II.
“The Nazis murdered about a third of our people. They murdered 6 million Jews, among them 1.5 million children, in concentration camps and gas chambers,” the president said. “Such a tragedy must never happen again.”
Turning to the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, Peres said Tehran threatened the Jewish people with another Shoah.
“[The Iranian regime] claims that its religion prevents it from creating a nuclear bomb. And the regime is developing a nuclear bomb,” Peres said, calling on Russia to stand with Israel in preventing a nuclear Iran.
The new center is housed in the former Bakhmetevsky bus garage, an avant-garde Moscow landmark designed in 1926 by Konstantin Melnikov, the leading figure of Russia’s Constructivist movement.
The museum, which brings together different cultural traditions through a Jewish prism, is the brainchild of Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar and Alexander Boroda, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, who came up with the idea back in 2007.
Lazar discussed the idea for the museum with Putin, who lent his support saying it would help normalize interfaith relations.
Nikolai Patrushev, the then-director of the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, also supported the museum idea. In September 2007, Patrushev gave Lazar 16 documents relating to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who helped save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis during WWII.
Lazar said the museum heralded a new epoch in Russian Jewish life.
“For a long time the story of Russian Jewry was very hard and even tragic. Now things have changed,” Lazar said, adding that Russia’s Jewish community should not forget the hardest parts of its history.
Lazar praised Putin for his support of the venture.
The museum includes a section on the persecution experienced by Jews in the former USSR.
Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg, who donated toward the museum, also praised the venture for not shying away from sensitive questions about Russian Jewish history.
“It’s very important especially now to show the real story about the Jewish nationality and religion in Russia, and particularly to young people,” he told The Jerusalem Post.Among the “sensitive questions” the museum addresses is the persecution of Soviet Jewry, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s.
The museum explores those dark decades through documents, photographs and other artifacts, including a typical joke from the period: A Soviet government officials asks a Jewish man, Rabinovich, who his father is.
“The USSR,” Rabinovich replies. “Excellent,” the government official says. “And who is your mother?” “The Communist Party,” answers Rabinovich. “Wonderful!” the ecstatic Soviet official says.
“And what is your greatest wish?” “To be an orphan,” says Rabinovich.
On a more serious note, the exhibition shows a collection of anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish propaganda, including a pamphlet in Russian entitled Judaism: a past without a future and an anti-Semitic book published in 1963 by the Ukrainian Soviet Academy of Sciences, titled Judaism without the Jewels.
A handwritten translation of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) from 1973, whose pages have yellowed with age, stands as testament to the determination and bravery of the Soviet Jews.
The writer risked imprisonment to translate and write out the book, since its publication was prohibited by the USSR.