Remembering Them All

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The Russian Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Fund have begun to implement a documentation project called “Russia’s Babi Yars” one of many initiatives aimed at the preservation of historical memory in Russia.

The old adage that the war is not finished until the last soldier is buried is also true in respect to the memory of large-scale tragedies. Such memories will live until the remains of the last victims are found and buried. But even afterward, those who are alive should keep remembering the deceased not only as a token of respect, but also in order to prevent a tragedy from happening again, for example, a tragedy such as the Holocaust. Unfortunately, it will take a long time to find the remains of the last Holocaust victim; making it imperative that we continue this work. The systematization of the data on Holocaust victims in Russia and the perpetuation of their memory is the main aim of the Russia’s Babi Yars project implemented by the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) and the European Jewish Fund (EJF) in cooperation with the Holocaust Education Centre.

Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor, President of the RJC and the European Jewish Congress, is one of the co-authors of the Russia’s Babi Yars project, which has been in development for over a year. According to Kantor, the project is designed primarily to remind the public, especially young people, about the crimes of the Nazis and to warn against indifference towards the current growing trends of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The name of the project is significant: “Babi Yar is one of the elements of the historical memory of humankind. It has become a symbol of suffering, cruelty and absolute misanthropy,” Kantor emphasizes. “It is a tragedy of not only the people of Kiev and Ukraine; the tragedy belongs to all the countries and nations of the former Soviet Union, Europe and other countries of the world.”

In its first stage, the project created a website (www.holomemory.ru) to be a virtual remembrance museum of our nation’s Holocaust victims. The website features a map of the Russian Federation pinpointing all the documented sites of mass exterminations of Jews. Here you can learn about the burial places of the Holocaust victims, where monuments are and what condition they are in, and share any information you have. Anyone can participate in the project. Today, the website provides information on almost 40 mass grave sites from 23 regions of Russia, where over 140,000 Jews killed by the Nazis are buried.

Yuri Kanner, Deputy Chairman of the EJF’s Board of Governors, one of the major initiators of the project, notes that the website is merely a tool. The principal task is to identify mass grave sites, establish memorials on them, and organize life around them. According to Kanner, local Jewish communities will be asked to formalize these burials in accordance with current legislation and Jewish religious traditions. Private individuals will finance all of the work. The project also plans to cooperate with local community organizations responsible for burying all the deceased during the war. In the future the Russia’s Babi Yars project will become part of a wider Europe’s Babi Yars project. Participants will collect data on Jewish mass grave sites in Moldavia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic FSU countries.

The Russia’s Babi Yars project is part of the RJC’s comprehensive plan to preserve the memory of Holocaust victims. This work became a major focus for the Congress after the election of Kantor as president of the organization in 2005. Within the framework of this activity, the RJC takes part in the World Holocaust Forums held by the European Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Fund, also led by Kantor. The third forum will take place in Brussels this November to mark the 70th anniversary of die Kristallnacht. The forum will be held with the active participation of the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as part of the European Day of Tolerance, a series of events aimed at combating all forms of discrimination, intolerance and racism in the modern world. This day will mark the transition to a new level of legislative and educational work to establish tolerance as the basis of stability in a unified European society.

Another initiative launched by Kantor and implemented with the participation of the Russian Jewish Congress was to hold “tolerance lessons” in Moscow schools in January this year. They were held to mark World Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27) with the support of the Moscow government and under the supervision of the Moscow Department of Education. According to department representatives, Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov gave the order to hold tolerance lessons at the end of January after receiving a proposal from the President of the Russian Jewish Congress in the beginning of 2007. Inspired by the tolerance lessons, many students went on a trip to Russia’s only Holocaust Museum, founded by the RJC at the Poklonnaya Gora memorial complex.

An RJC project to study the presentation of certain historical facts of World War II in Russian textbooks had wide public resonance. It became obvious that most textbooks used today do not give the Holocaust adequate coverage. This only confirmed the relevance of the Russia’s Babi Yars project and became an additional incentive for its rapid implementation.

“The educational part of the project is mainly youth-oriented. This is a kind of attempt to enter into a dialogue with them and compensate for the disadvantages of history teaching at school,” says the RJC President. “We have been aware for a long time that more than half of contemporary young people know nothing about the Holocaust. And education, if it is used in the right way, may become an instrument to help combat various manifestations of xenophobia and nationalism among young people.”