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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News November 2004

November 10, 2004

The Jewish Archival Survey in the Former Soviet Union

The former Soviet archives are the "Cairo Geniza" of modern Jewish history — a treasure trove which was locked away and inaccessible for three quarters of a century. The Jewish Archival Survey in the former Soviet Union is, therefore, of monumental importance for Jewish scholarship and historical consciousness. It will expand and revise our understanding of the European Jewish experience by making accessible to scholars and researchers the millions of pages of archival materials relating to Jewish history which were once secreted in Soviet archives.

It is for this reason that the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture has supported the Jewish Archival Survey in the former Soviet Union, a major research initiative of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, from its inception in the early 1990's until today.

In January, 2005, the Jewish Archival Survey will publish Jewish Documentary Sources in the Trophy Collections of the 'Special Archive'. This volume will provide a detailed description of Jewish materials in the Special Archive, an extraordinary treasure trove of archival collections from all across Europe which were stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and seized by the Soviet army at the end of the war.

The Special Archive, whose very existence was a secret until the fall of the Soviet Union, contains ninety-four archival collections of Jewish organizations and communities from Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Belgrade, Salonika, and elsewhere. It includes the records of the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish National Fund, the German Jewish Central-Verein, HIAS-HICEM, the Paris office of the Joint Distribution Committee and other major Jewish organizations. Because of the special interest in this material among scholars in the West, an English language edition of this guide is also planned.

A guide to Jewish archival collections in Kiev, with descriptions of more than 800 collections, is now in the editorial stage, and is slated for publication in late 2005.

The reaction of the scholarly community to the guides and the ongoing survey activities has been one of universal praise and encouragement. Dr. Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, the foremost authority on Soviet archives, has described the database and guides as the "most extensive" resource in this field, and has commended the Jewish Archival Survey for "opening information access to many previously suppressed materials relating to Jews and Jewish affairs."

Work is now underway to accumulate descriptions of collections in the archives of St. Petersburg, the Russian provinces, and the Ukraine. The Survey's staff in Moscow maintains contact with all participating repositories, provides methodological guidance, and reviews and corrects all submissions. An on-site supervisor is responsible for survey activity in St. Petersburg and Ukraine.

Work in the Ukraine promises to be most challenging, but also most rewarding. This vast territory has been the center of intensive Jewish communal life for the last 500 years. The Jewish Archival Survey has accumulated 2,000 descriptions of collections from the Ukraine, and based on our activity to date, we estimate that there are 10,000 such collections in the country. We anticipate the publication of five volumes of archival guides covering different regions of Ukraine.

The Survey makes these archival materials accessible by providing comprehensive descriptions of all archival collections on Jewish history and culture in the former Soviet Union in a series of easily usable guides. The guides describe each collection individually, in volumes which cover a city or region. Each volume includes indices of names and places, thereby enabling scholars to review all the archival collections related to an individual (e.g., Vladimir Jabotinsky, Sholem Aleichem), a place (e.g., Minsk) or an institution (Poale Zion, the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre) in the given city or region.

The Jewish Archival Survey has published two major guides to date: Jewish Documentary Sources in Moscow Archives: A Guide (Russian, 1997), which lists and describes more than 550 collections held in the capital city of the Soviet Union, and Jewish Documentary Sources in Belarusian Archives (Russian, 2003), which provides descriptions of more than 1,000 collections in Belarus (including Minsk, Gomel, Grodna, and other cities), a region where Jews have lived since the 14th century.


Project Judaica

The Jewish Archival Survey is conducted by Project Judaica, the first university-based Jewish studies program established in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The program, co-sponsored, as I indicated earlier, by the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Russian State University for Humanities also offers a five-year program of instruction in Jewish studies, leading to a degree from the Russian State University for Humanities and a certificate from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Courses are taught by a combination of local and non-Russian professors of Judaica, including faculty from the Jewish Theological Seminary and other institutions of higher learning. The Foundation also supported the academic program since its inception. You may recollect that we visited the Russian State University when our Executive Committee met in Moscow on July 2-4, 2001.

Since its establishment in 1991, seventy-four students have completed the rigorous five-year course of study. More than twenty-five of them have gone on to assume positions in Jewish scholarship, education, and communal life. These include Artur Klempert, instructor of Jewish history and Museum Director at the Lipman Day School; Matvei Chlenov, Director of the Moscow office of the World Congress of Russian Jews; Anya Sorokina, Director of the Moscow Yiddish Center; and Masha Kaspina, Russia's first trained scholar of Midrash, who is now a full-time faculty member of Project Judaica, and its Assistant Executive Director for academic affairs.

Dr. David E. Fishman, Professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who serves as Director of Project Judaica, received doctoral grants from the Foundation in 1978 and 1979 while he was pursuing his doctoral studies at Harvard, and a fellowship in 1995 to support his research on East European Jewry. Dr. Fishman is the author of Russia's First Modern Jews (New York University Press); the forthcoming The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture (Pittsburgh University Press); and numerous other publications dealing with Russian Jewry.

It's a great source of naches for the Foundation that a scholar we supported from the beginning of his scholarly career has played such a pivotal role in creating a major academic body engaged in pioneering academic and research activities in the CIS, also with Foundation support. It is a perfect example of the Foundation's fulfillment of its mandate for the reconstruction of Jewish cultural life around the world after the Shoah.

Best wishes for a joyous Chanukah.

Warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President