Day 3 (9 Sep) Jewish Moscow

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September 9th 2014
Published: September 16th 2014
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Our tour day started at 9am and Don and I got to the meeting point 10 minutes early! Miracles do happen.

We began at the Moscow Memorial Square. This is a square of various memorials dedicated to those who died in various wars. The first memorial was dedicated to the 7 million civilians who died in WWII. In total 27 million died. The newest memorial, just one month old was the memorial to those who died in WWI. This is similar to the memorial in Tiananmen Square in that it shows working peasants and townsfolk as well as soldiers. Compare with the photo in Day 20 (30 July) of our HK + NZ + China blog.

We passed the flower clock made up of 15,000 flowers until we came to the WWII official memorial. The obelisk is 150 meters tall and is most impressive. Russia entered the war when Germany invaded the country's western border.

Then past the eternal flame. There were many soldiers there so we scurried through to the Holocaust memorial. This is very emotional. It is a semi-circle depicting a family, and showing the degradation of humans until they are tombstones. The figures get lower in height and are placed like dominoes being pushed over. There are inscriptions on the tombstones in various Soviet and European languages as well as Hebrew.

From there we walked through a park where we saw a man practicing his skiing on roller skate skis and ski poles! In the park is the Moscow Memorial Synagogue and Jewish Museum.

This Jewish site was established in 1999 by the Jewish Congress which raised money for this building and other establishments like a Jewish school. The synagogue is built with some Jerusalem stone and one of the contributors was the famous artist Meisler who designed the sculpture over the Aron Chodesh. The side walls of the sanctuary are wooden so they are moveable when there is a barmitzvah or for the High Holydays when there is a large attendance. Being in the middle of nowhere the Shabbat congregation tends to be from the Reform / Conservative / Masorti movements as it is not possible to walk there on Shabbat. The three sifrei Torah were presented by the Israeli government.

Our very knowledgeable guide museum Alexander walked us round the exhibition. The showcases were divided into religious and historical. We bypassed the religious cases and learnt more about the history of the Jews. In 1770 Catherine the Great occupied Lithuania and that was when the Jewish community started. She moved all the Jews to the Pale of Settlement. When Nicholas I became tsar he declared "one country, one religion, one tsar" and took all of the children and put them in the army for 25 years. He took pre-barmitzvah boys in the hope that they would forget their religious teachings. Some took with them miniature siddurim and small tefillin and we saw examples of these. There were pogroms every year between Pesach and Easter as the non-Jews believed the story about Jews using the blood of children to make matzot.

In 1912 there was a blood libel case against Menahem Mendel Beilis. the prosecution's main witness was Pranaitis, a priest who could read Hebrew and who claimed he knew the Hebrew Scriptures. However, when cross-examined by Rabbi Yaacov Mazer, Pranaitis was unable to answer basic questions about the Talmud and so his evidence was sufficiently discredited.

Many Jews took part in the 1917 Revolution. A significant number belonged to the Bund which was a trade union opposed to Zionism - they wanted to live as Jews in Russia. There was a second group that followed Lenin and a third group that opposed him. After the death of Lenin, Stalin oppressed all of them. He also had Trotsky killed.

In 1917 the Pale was abolished and 70% of the Jews moved. Many moved to cities and towns for employment whilst their children lived with their grandparents. When the Nazis invaded Russia most Jews lived in areas which were within easy reach of the Nazis. For example Minsk is only a 6 day march. The Nazis did not conquer Leningrad (St Petersburg) but all territories to the west of it. No substantial fraction of Jews were murdered until they arrived in the Soviet Union.

While walking through the exhibits and looking at pictures of Jews who tried to fight the Nazis, suddenly I (Lesley) was struck immobile by one. The face looked exactly like my mother's brothers. We photographed him and his 2 line bio. When we get home I will send this to my cousin's daughter who is trying to put together a family tree, and we can try to determine if indeed he was a relative. Unfortunately we know so little about that branch of the family and what became of them, but then that is not unusual regarding families lost in the Holocaust and/or pogroms.

The museum is open to schools and also teaches Jewish history and Jewish tradition explaining those traditional items which we bypassed.

Then back on the bus to see more Russian history. We went to the Borodino panoramic museum. This is a huge painting in the round depicting the Battle of Borodino in 1812 when the Russian army defeated the French led by Napoleon. The French army was three times the size of the Russian army. The panoramic effect begins with a strong perspective for a feeling of 3D. This is further enhanced by physical objects placed in the foreground like broken wagons, with the painting continuing the scene behind them.

Lunch consisted of our pre-prepared sandwiches eaten in a street cafe where coffee was available. Onward to the Tretryakov art museum for a flying visit. We walked back to the bus over the Bridge of Locks. Padlocks are attached to trees with the initials of the two lovers etched into the padlocks, and the couple throw the keys into the river. We skipped the lock bit and simply had our picture taken on the bridge. Although we are indeed true romantics, just not to the tune of buying heart shaped locks and leaving them to rust over the years.

Then back on the bus to the Jewish museum and Tolerance museum. This is housed in an old bus garage which was built in 1927. The bus garage business moved from the location in 2001. In 2008 it the building housed a Museum of Contemporary Art and when that moved it was purchased by the Jewish Congress of Moscow with its money and donations from people such as Roman Abramovich. The museum is very much a hands-on interactive museum. We started off by watching a 4D film (with many special effects) of the history of the Jewish people from creation to the destruction of the Temple. Then we were taken to a shtetl where we saw what Jewish life was like, including a family Friday night with the mother lighting candles and the father making kiddush and breaking bread. All of this was by way of special effects triggered by participants. Then we progressed through the years to the holocaust and finally to the teaching of children today about tolerance.

It is not possible to give this museum its full credit and raison d'ĂȘtre without understanding a bit more of Russian Jewish history. After the 1917 Revolution, Russia became a secular state. Between 1922 and 1939 there were 600,000 known Jews. They served in the army and fought in WWII. In 1946 Stalin instigated an anti-Semitic policy against the Jews. In the 1950s 60s and 70s there was so much assimilation that it is not always possible to determine who is and who is not a halachic Jew. In the 1970s people started to receive Jewish ritual items from overseas. An awareness of Jewish heritage began to emerge. Many emigrated to the USA, Canada, Europe and Israel. Officially the Moscow area has 160,000 Jews today but nobody knows the true number. It could be many times more. When people come to the museum they may identify with stories from their childhood or even try to explain strange things which have been handed down to them from their grandparents.

This museum also teaches tolerance of others who are maybe of different ethnicity, or religion. A fascinating place and very well arranged.

There is now an unofficial Jewish quarter in Moscow housing the synagogue, a kosher restaurant and of course both of the Jewish museums.

Dinner was at the JCC and then a walk back to the hotel for an early night, our last in Moscow, as we had a very early start the next morning.

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