The years of World War II became a huge tragedy for the Jewish population of Europe. Over many years of planned destruction, millions of Jews were killed. The Shoah is one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. This genocide is a unique example of a worldwide known tragedy. Thereby, wide visibility of the Holocaust triggers a wide spectrum of possible reactions, including all kinds of denying and distorting discourses. Dealing with such discourses and the prevention of anti-Semitic and xenophobic ideas automatically becomes one of the common objectives of every Jewish museum or cultural institution, especially in Europe, which faced the tragedy.
For the same reasons, every Jewish institution plays a very important role in the memorialization of the Holocaust. Without a doubt, the most obvious memorial spots of the Holocaust victims are the very places where the massacres actually took place. Nevertheless, it is equally important that historical memory be preserved everywhere. The embassies of Israel and Eastern European countries, Jewish communities’ organizations, associations of veterans and ghetto prisoners organize annual memorial events, exhibitions or lectures worldwide. Such events usually present positive aspects of the Holocaust memorialization nowadays, though not the whole complexity of the tragic events and discourses that unfold to this day.
In this context, the objectives of the Jewish museums have a wider scope. As cultural institutions, museums take on a difficult mission that includes:
- Preserving the historical memory;
- Transferring it to the younger generations;
- Raising interest for common history;
- Learning from dramatic events;
- Study and prevention of the Holocaust denying and distorting discourses.
These objectives happen to be common to all Jewish museums – memorial and not.
The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center (JMTC) in Moscow is not a memorial museum. It is located in Moscow, a city that has never been under Nazi occupation. Accordingly, no Jewish ghettos or concentration camps ever existed on the territory of Moscow, and there was no deportation of Moscow Jews to camps or ghettos.
Another specific feature for the JMTC is that, for a number of reasons, the memorialization of the victims of the Holocaust began quite late in the Soviet Union. The human losses of the Soviet Union during World War II were so great (according to modern data, the demographic losses of the USSR amounted to 25-27 million people) that it took more than a decade for the public to finally be aware of the Jewish tragedy. The first monuments and memorial practices appeared unofficially. At the State level in the 1960s, monuments were erected to the "victims of fascism", without specifying their nationality. The first notable official monument to the Holocaust victims appears only in 1975 in the Zmievskaya Balka – the site of the most massive executions of Jews on the territory of modern Russia. The emergence of Jewish cultural organizations became possible in the Soviet Union only in the 1980s in the wake of Perestroika. The Jewish Museum came into being only in post-Soviet Russia.
The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center opened in Moscow on November 8, 2012. The main topic of its permanent exhibition is the history of Russian Jews. The interactive exhibition that takes a modern edutainment format, covers several centuries of history.
Being a modern cultural platform and an open multipurpose institution, the Museum takes on the mission of holding annual memorial events, regular excursions dedicated to World War II and the Holocaust. In addition, there are two memorials in the premises of the Museum: the Hall of Memory for those killed and reported missing during World War II and the Monument to the Heroes of Resistance in concentration camps and ghettos, opened in 2019.
The peculiarity of the perception of the role of Jews in the events of World War II in Russia includes four main aspects:
- Over 2.5 million Soviet Jews died during the Holocaust. In memory of these victims, regular events are held on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, May 9 (when Russia celebrates Victory Day) and Yom HaShoah (on the 27th of Nisan (which falls in April or May), unless the 27th falls on the Jewish Sabbath, in which case the date is shifted by a day).
- According to various estimates, between 350,000 and 500,000 Jews served in the Red Army from 1941 to1945. Between 120,000 and 142,000 of them were killed. In the Hall of Memory, visitors can see the names of those who fell and perished. There are also two monitors that provide access to the integrated data bank of personal information about people killed in action, dead and reported missing during WWII. Visitors can light a candle to pay tribute to the victims. To highlight the contribution of Jews to the victory over Nazism, films about the most notable biographies supplement the exhibition in the World War II hall.
- A large number of Jews contributed to the victory over Nazism through home front working. For their participation in the development of new types of weapons and military equipment and for the active part they played in plants and design bureaus that for the needs of the army, more than 180,000 Jews - scientists, engineers, executives and workers received orders and medals of the USSR. The exploits of the home front workers are also mentioned in selected biographies included in the Museum's exhibition. Including a film about the history of Tankograd in the Chelyabinsk region (a major tank manufacturing plant).
- Remembering the resistance of people, ghetto and concentration camp prisoners is no less important than honoring the memory of the victims.
The creation of Jewish ghettos where the entire Jewish population was deported and mass Aktions for its destruction began immediately after the declaration of war. The active creation of death camps began after the start of Operation Reinhard in 1942, e.g. with the Sobibor and Treblinka camps. A year later, they became a hotbed of insurrection that proved that Jewish resistance was possible even in the most difficult conditions.
Also in 1942, the elimination of more than 600 ghettos created in Eastern Europe began. In many cases, news about the destruction of ghettos or impending deportation to death camps pushed ghetto residents into active resistance – the uprisings began.
According to official data, in Belarus the number of Jews participating in the partisan movement (excluding Jewish family detachments) was about 5,000 people, 3,000 in Ukraine, more than 1,000 in Lithuania. In total, the number of Jews active in underground resistance amounts to 14,000. Research literature provides information on about 100 Jewish partisan detachments in Eastern Europe.
To preserve the memory of the heroic resistance of the Jews, a monument was erected in 2019 in the premises of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. An important feature of the JMTC is its edutainment stance. Therefore, in addition to the monument as such, the memorial includes an interactive stand dealing with the history of the most notable uprisings in camps, ghettos and Jewish resistance.
Thus, Jewish museums are faced with a serious, complex task, which consists not only in memorialization, but also in in-depth analysis, study of the specifics of discourses around the Holocaust. There are problems common to all, such as anti-Semitism, denial and distortion of historical events. However, there are also peculiarities of public perception of the Holocaust tragedy, which are specific to each country and culture. Making historical statements accessible, understandable and relevant is one of the most important tasks of every cultural institution.