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Nurturing Holocaust Studies in the Former Soviet Union

Lawrence Bush
August 1, 2005

A Conversation with Ilya Altman, Director of the Center for Holocaust Research and Education in Moscow

The Jewish Community Development Fund (JCDF), a project of the American Jewish World Service, has helped to fund and nurture grassroots Jewish cultural projects in the former Soviet Union for the past twelve years. [To read our interview with JCDF founder Martin Horwitz in our July-August, 2004 issue, click here.] Among those projects is the Center for Holocaust Research and Education, founded in Moscow in 1992 as an arm of the Russian Holocaust Foundation — both headed by Dr. Ilya Altman.
Altman, age 50, and his colleagues are largely responsible for introducing Holocaust curricula in Russian secondary schools and universities. The Center has published books, monographs and teaching aids, and founded a Library of the Holocaust in Russia, consisting of catalogues, exhibitions, memoirs, and documents for classroom use. Altman has also written the first university textbook on the subject, based on his research in the previously inaccessible Russian archives.
Photo of Nazi Killing SquadIn a presentation at the American Jewish World Service in March, Dr. Altman observed that “about three million, half of all Jews killed in the Holocaust, were in the territory of the Soviet Union,” which suffered four million additional civilian casualties at Nazi hands and a total of 27 million war dead.
Yet of the thirty different high school history textbooks the Center has examined, only seven mention the word “Holocaust” or describe what happened to the Jews of Europe, including on Soviet territory.
The Center for Holocaust Research and Education has been vigorously seeking to change the status quo through outreach to writers, publishers, officials, and educators, and by translating European books and publishing its own materials. With the support of Yad Vashem, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and other organizations, the Center has set up seminars for teachers from Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia and sponsored writing competitions for school children, for university students and for educators, drawing up to 2,500 entries at a time. In the process, the Center has unearthed many testimonies about the Holocaust on Soviet soil.
Jewish Currents Editorial Board member Nikolai (Kolya) Borodulin joined several reporters in interviewing Dr. Altman following his lecture. Kolya is the assistant director of the Workmen’s Circle’s Center for Jewish Cultural Life in New York and a master Yiddish teacher who grew up in Birobidzhan.
Jewish Currents: What is the main goal of your work?
Ilya Altman: First, to establish a state Holocaust museum as an educational center. This is a goal we have not yet reached, although in 1998 we did establish in the center of Moscow a memorial synagogue with a large exhibition about the history of Jews and the Holocaust. President Yeltsin took part in the opening ceremony of this synagogue, and during his 2003 meeting with Ariel Sharon, President Putin declared that it will be a permanent exhibition. Second, we seek to introduce the subject to schools and universities. We published our own book, in 25,000 copies — but that is nothing for Russia, with 200,000 secondary schools. Still, there are now between three and four thousand schools that have the Holocaust in their curricula. About 10 percent of students now know what “the Holocaust” means.
JC: Why is this there so much ignorance about this subject in a country that is so conscious of the sufferings of World War II?
IA: The Russians rightly consider their suffering in the war to be much greater than the suffering of other European countries, hence, there is a tendency to minimize the Holocaust because they feel that they lived through their own holocaust. Every person in Russia knows, many in a very personal way, about the 27 million Soviet war dead. More rarely mentioned are the seven million civilians killed by the Nazis during the war, though this number is now appearing in some books. But recognizing the three million Jews among these seven million civilians has been very difficult for our pedagogical system, which is very bureaucratic. During Soviet times, the Jews were not identified as a special group of Nazi victims. So there exist today generations of people — people who are not anti-Semites — who think only of Russians and Slavs as Nazism’s main victims. It is very difficult to change public memory.
Our Center was the first Russian organization to organize events for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, which we have done since 1992. We do it not as a “Jewish event” but as a public event. More than a thousand people are invited — including teachers, students, and politicians. It was very significant that last April the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei sent a special letter to this gathering about the necessity of remembering the Holocaust. What I cannot understand is that only one Russian Jewish newspaper published any part of the text, and only one non-Jewish newspaper mentioned it.
JC: What turned you to focus on this issue in your work?
IA: At the end of the 1980s, I successfully located in the State Archives of the Russian Federation the full text of the Black Book, which everyone thought had been destroyed. At the time, I was an historian at the Russian State University for the Humanities, with my own television program, a certain amount of success — but this discovery made me change my life. The Black Book is a collection of eyewitness accounts of Nazi genocide against Jews on Soviet territory. It provided evidence for two trials in Nuremberg. It was published in America in 1946 as a very interesting mutual project between Soviet organizations and American Jewish groups, but it was suppressed in the Soviet Union.
One of the reasons for this is that the Black Book goes into detail about who actually killed Jews. It was not only Germans who were involved in the Holocaust on Soviet territory. Soviet prosecutors would use this information against, for example, Baltic state nationalists, or Ukrainian nationalists, but Russian collaborators would not be mentioned. Neither would the eighty million Soviet people who lived under the Nazi regime.
JC: What was the Russian response to the worldwide observance of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Amy last January 27th?
IA: Five or ten years ago, the date was never mentioned. This year, because Putin visited Auschwitz and spoke of anti-Semitism in Russia today, there was some recognition.
Some years ago, we published the memoir of General Vassili Petrenko, who liberated Auschwitz, under the title Before and After Auschwitz. During the war, he said, he didn’t know that Auschwitz existed. Even in October, 1944, when Stalin was planning the campaign in Poland in the area of Auschwitz, he did not mention any word about the concentration camp to the chief military commander! Yet Auschwitz was mentioned in SS documents captured in August when Maidenek was liberated. The information appeared in Russian newspapers. Unfortunately, it was not a priority for Stalin to liberate concentration camps. It was only when Field Marshall Ivan Konev received information on January 25th about a big concentration camp that he ordered 1,000 tanks from the German territory near Oder to change direction. This saved the last seven thousand or so prisoners of Auschwitz from being killed.
Auschwitz, of course, was in Poland. But there are hundreds of places in Russia itself that are linked to the Holocaust, hundreds of sites that each saw tens of thousands of Jews killed. Right now there exist only twenty-three monuments at such sites, so there is a major opportunity for young people to identify these places and set up monuments. I will give you examples. For five years in a row, we held a children’s conference in the Brest-Litovsk fortress a sacred place for the Soviet people, where many soldiers gave their lives defending the border against the Nazi invasion on June 22, 1941. We brought our conference participants to a site where seventy four members of a single Jewish family were killed during the war. Children from a nearby village joined us, and we all paid tribute to the Jews who were killed there.
Then there is a place that almost everyone in the Jewish world knows about, Lubavitch, where the original Lubavitcher hasidic rebbe was born and lived, near Smolensk. There is a museum there devoted to the rebbe and his movement, but almost nobody knows that exactly five hundred meters from the museum is a grave with no words or signs. More than five hundred Jews, killed in the fall of 1941, lie in this grave. Each year we bring students from Germany and Austria, together with students from Moscow, to view this site.
JC: What is the status of Holocaust denial in Russia?
IA: In my opinion, Moscow has become a worldwide center of Holocaust denial. Jurgen Graf, the Swiss Holocaust denier, is living now in Russia and has visited Moscow, as has David Duke, the American racist leader. One of Graf’s books was published, 200,000 copies, and made widely available in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, too, many university teachers today get most of their information about the Holocaust from a Holocaust-denial website and begin to think, “Maybe the deniers are right.”
JC: What is the situation with anti-Semitism in Russia? Are you afraid to run a Jewish organization?
IA: The Center for Holocaust Research and Education is not a Jewish organization. In our activities, we invite all people — it doesn’t matter who is Jewish and who is not. We teach about the Holocaust as part of Russia history, European history, international history. This was reinforced by the Swedish teachers who came to educate our teachers about the Holocaust, which showed vividly to our bureaucrats that the Holocaust is not only a Jewish subject. Yet the focus of the Swedish educators was not tolerance, not genocide as a whole, but solely the Holocaust. They provided their services to more than a thousand teachers from forty regions of Russia.
Still, in the eyes of the anti-Semites, we are a Jewish organization. On November 10th last year, the anniversary of Kristalnacht, a swastika appeared on our building with the words, “Holocaust is a big lie”. We caught on camera a man of about 40 preparing the swastika, and we sent our information to the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights and press releases to all the Jewish newspapers. It was included in a report about anti Semitic incidents, but it was not mentioned in any article.
Many of your readers have probably heard about the anti-Semitic letter signed initially by nineteen members of the Russian Duma. When the letter was published, it had more than 500 signatures; when they put it on the Internet, it will be signed by thousands. Interestingly the letter was published exactly one hundred years after the Black Hundreds, the notorious anti-Semitic organization of tsarist times, appeared in Russia.
After this letter appeared, editor of the Moscow Evreiskaya Gazeta, Tankred Galenpolskii, wrote to President Putin and mentioned that there were 250,000 Jews who had made their choice to stay in Russia, and that these kinds of anti-Semitic letters could change the situation. Of course, we are living in a country where one person decides everything — so Galenpolskii sent his protest not to the Duma, but directly to Putin, in order to put a stop to this outburst.
Russian anti-Semitism has deep roots, but at the same time, it’s not as dangerous as is often portrayed in the press. When one journalist came to me and told me that he saw my name and home address on the website of one of the anti-Semitic organizations, he asked if I was afraid. I don’t think about it, and I’m not afraid.
JC: How is the economic situation in Russia affecting Jews?
IA: The situation is difficult for Jews and for everyone. Many old people come to our discussion club at the Center. We offer tea and something to eat — and I have seen that, for some of them, this was very important as a supplement to their modest food ration. For my own children, who have graduated from university, it is very difficult to get a good job. I don’t think the economic situation is getting better. With oil prices jumping so high, Russia, which possesses huge oil resources, has an advantage, but it doesn’t use this advantage to make the living conditions of its population any better. An enormous portion of Russia’s people lives in poverty. It is painful to observe the country, which played the major role in the victory over the Nazis, permitting its own people, including the war veterans, to become paupers.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.