DNEPROPETROVSK, Ukraine — On a frosty evening last week, 1,200 people gathered around an empty lot on Gogol Street in this former military-industrial city for what some observers said was a long-overdue dedication.
Shivering Holocaust scholars, local businessmen and boldface names from Israeli politics and society — including Israeli Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky and Chief Rabbi of Israel Meir Lau — presided over the laying of the cornerstone for Ukraine’s first memorial to the Holocaust, the Tkuma Ukrainian Memorial Holocaust Museum.
The museum will be attached to Dnepropetrovsk’s main synagogue, a gleaming modern building and the focal point of the growing Jewish community there. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Dnepropetrovsk — with a population of 1.3 million, including 78,000 Jews in the metropolitan area — has come to be known to some as the Jewish capital of Ukraine. In a country once marked by a fierce strain of antisemitism, and later by the code of silence imposed by Soviet authorities, the Jewish community in this city has burgeoned during the last decade, opening a Jewish day school, a Jewish community center and a welfare center. In 1999 representatives of the community decided it was time to add a physical acknowledgement of the Holocaust.
“In the former Soviet Union, there was a total denial of the Shoah on the part of the Communist regime, and the suffering of Jews as a distinct group was never addressed,” said Amos Avgar, former Ukraine director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who is now the chief programming officer. “As the Jewish communities develop in the Ukraine there is a great tendency to look back at the atrocities of the past. Many of them wonder what happened to their grandparents, why they don’t have uncles or aunts.”
The $3 million project, slated to open in 2005, will be funded mainly by the Joint, with additional support from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk.
In a country known as the birthplace of the chasidic movement and Yiddish literature as well as a bitter strain of antisemitism, officials claim they are attempting to design a museum for both the Jews and the gentiles of Ukraine.
Although most Ukrainian Jews were murdered in ravines by mobile killing squads, such as Babi Yar — as opposed to the concentration camps in neighboring Poland — one of the wings of the museum, Memory Hall, will be in the shape of a crematorium. A memorial in the shape of a tree, filled with stones, will be on exhibit, a symbol of the Jewish ritual of putting stones on a grave.
In addition to such exhibits on Jews in the Ukraine, the museum will sponsor educational programs designed to teach non-Jewish Ukrainians about antisemitism and the Holocaust, as well as initiatives within the Ukrainian public education system.
According to Tetyana Ladychenko, who serves on the Ukrainian Education Commission and heads the Education Department of Tkuma, original documents will be used in classrooms, and Ukrainian teachers will be encouraged to teach students about their country’s culpability during the Holocaust.
The Tkuma board is also aiming toward building positive Jewish-Ukrainian relations by honoring Ukrainian righteous gentiles with a walkway of plaques bearing their names outside the museum complex. According to Mark Shyplak, a Dnepropetrovsk businessman who donated funds for the museum, the board is also planning to pay pensions of relatives of Ukrainian righteous gentiles.
“The idea of the museum is that a person attending will get an idea of what happened and become part of a movement that it should never happen again,” said Dnepropetrovsk’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Kaminezki, a Lubavicher rabbi who immigrated to Dnepropetrovsk from Israel with his wife 13 years ago. Kaminezki, who argued that Ukrainians are not inherently antisemitic, believes that education can mend the historically bitter relationship between Ukrainians and Jews.
“Ukrainians are good people, but they encountered many bad circumstances from being occupied by other nations,” he continued. “Most of their misconceptions about Jews comes from ignorance, and a lot of them are open to learn.”