Israeli President Shimon Peres on Thursday opened a major new Jewish museum in Moscow housed in a converted 1920s bus garage which aims to tell the story of Jews in Russia from Tsarist times through the horror of the Holocaust to the present day.
Peres and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov opened the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre which is based around Moscow’s stunning Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, designed in 1926 by constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov.
“There is no museum like this,” Peres said at the opening ceremony. “This is great historical evidence of the greatness of man but also his weaknesses.”
President Vladimir Putin hoped the new museum would become “a place for dialogue and agreement between peoples,” said a statement read at the ceremony by Lavrov.
“Any attempt to review the contribution of our country to WWII victory or to deny the Holocaust is not just a cynical lie but a forgetting of history,” Putin’s statement added.
The building was handed over by the Russian authorities to Moscow’s Jewish community in 1999 after it stopped being used as a bus depot. Its redevelopment as a museum has been designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates.
Before it was turned into the Jewish museum, the building also served up to last year as the temporary home of the Garazh modern art exhibition centre of Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich’s partner Darya Zhukova.
The galleries aim to evoke the lives of Jews in Russia since the late 19th century using historic exhibits, letters and also 13 hours of video testimony recorded with Russian Jews living all over the world.
High-tech multi-media rooms aim to recreate the sights, sound and even smells of the past. By contrast, a memorial gallery offers complete silence where visitors can remember the tumultuous history of Jews in Russia.
Jews were repressed in Tsarist times when starting in the late 18th century they were largely forced to live in an area of the western Russian empire known as the “Pale” where many lived in impoverished towns known as shtetls.
Hitler’s armies in World War II then occupied most of today’s Belarus, Ukraine as well as western Russia, leaving Soviet Jews exposed to the full brunt of the Nazi killing regime.
Heavily targeted during the 1930s purges, Jews suffered even after World War II in the USSR under Stalin’s rule, especially when the purported discovery of a so-called “doctors’ plot” against him unleashed a wave on anti-Semitic hysteria.
Nonetheless Jews have over centuries made a huge contribution to Russian culture, ranging from the writer Sholem Aleichem, the Vitebsk-born artist Marc Chagall or the poet Osip Mandelstam who died in the Stalin camps.
Of major interest are newly declassified documents relating to the fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary in World War II and them mysteriously disappeared in the Soviet prison system.