Making Strides In Russia?
01/08/2008 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

Olga Glebova identifies herself as part of a distinguished and highly regarded class in Russia, hailing, she says, from “a very old, noble Russian family.” Like much of the country, she’s also Russian Orthodox, a faith whose leaders have often been at odds with Russian Jewry.

But Glebova, an English teacher in Moscow, tries to discuss the Holocaust as much as possible at the high school in which she works.

“I’m not the [school’s] teacher of history,” said Glebova, 56, speaking in a recent phone interview from her Moscow apartment. “But I touch on the topic of the Holocaust whenever I can,” especially if there’s an item in the news that lends itself to such a conversation. “I think it’s extremely important,” she added, imparting a sense of “empathy” to her students and affecting how “they think and act toward ‘the other’” — groups different from themselves.

Glebova discussed Holocaust education in Russia several weeks after she and other Russian educators came to New York for a three-day seminar on the subject. The seminar, organized at this end by the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, helped train the participants to teach about the Holocaust in their native country.

The museum worked with the Russian Holocaust Research and Educational Center, which enlisted the seminar’s 10 participants, said Igor Kotler, the museum’s senior historian. The 10 participants included two leaders of the center — Alla Gerber and Ilya Altman — and eight educators, six of them non-Jewish.

Kotler, a former Soviet refusenik who arrived in this country in 1987, described the center as the only one of its kind in Russia — a small organization, housed in 10 rooms, that trains teachers, organizes conferences and publishes great volumes of material.

The center chose to hold last fall’s seminar in the United States, rather than in Israel, where it has held past seminars, “to look at how Holocaust education is done in America,” Kotler said. He pointed that, while Israel is a mostly Jewish nation, the United States is multiracial, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society — all traits it shares with Russia. The museum itself appealed to the center because many of its visitors are non-Jewish, Kotler added.

The seminar featured tours of the museum, as well as talks about Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust by Kotler; Lou Levine, the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions; and Atina Grossman, a professor of modern European history at Cooper Union. Participants also heard from Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, a Holocaust survivor from Ukraine, and met with local teachers from Catholic and public schools.

Only three years ago, Altman, founder and chairman of the Russian center, called Moscow “the world center for Holocaust denial.” In a speech at the American Jewish World Service, which has helped fund the center, the 52-year-old Altman recalled his own days as a student, The Jewish Week reported at the time. He and others heard “12 lessons about the history of World War II and the major battles,” he said, “but we did not speak about the Holocaust and who killed Soviet Jews.”

Indeed, Kotler said that many “ethnic Russians” still resent any discussion of the Holocaust or the Shoah’s uniqueness to Jews when so many of their families also suffered tremendously during the war. They ask why Jews should be singled out or discussed separately, above and beyond all others, Kotler said, describing the feelings behind the resentment. Some estimates put the number of Soviet residents killed during the war at about 20 million, he said, a figure that may include the victims of not only the Nazis, but of Stalin’s labor camps. More than half the estimated six million Jews killed the Nazis were from the Soviet Union, experts say.

But the resistance to teaching the Holocaust appears to be melting, according to Gerber, the center’s president and a former member of the Duma, the Russian parliament.

Speaking in Russian to Walter Ruby, a contributor to The Jewish Week, Gerber referred to a “wave” of Holocaust education in Russia — much more than ever before, she said, and certainly more than 10 years ago, when no such lessons were offered. Gerber said that roughly 650 Russian schools have covered the Holocaust in some fashion. Moreover, while most of the education is taking place in large cities, she added, some of it is happening in less populated regions, like Siberia and the Urals.

Glebova concurred, saying that many Russians seem much more receptive to hearing about the Holocaust than they were only a few years ago. “It’s like a chain,” she said. “Step by step, chain by chain, it’s enlarged.”

Kotler, speculating on the change, suggested that much of it may be due to curiosity. Between 1948 and 1988, he said, “You had a large country with a highly developed culture and a visible, highly educated Jewish population. But no one knew anything about them. You could read about the Tatars, you could read about the Chechens, but nothing about Jews.” As a result, Jews and Jewish identity are a “puzzle” to many people, prompting a growing interest.

Even with the change, the Holocaust is not a required subject in Russian schools, where it’s taught purely at the behest of individual teachers. Many, if not most, of those teachers have attended seminars at the Russian Holocaust Research and Educational Center, created in 1992 and run initially from Altman’s Moscow flat. Since then, Altman, an archivist and a professor of history, has edited “The Unknown Black Book,” the first major review of research and archival material on the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union.

Another challenge facing those educators who discuss the Holocaust may be a lack of Russian-language material on the subject, said Grossman, the professor at Cooper Union. As a result, even the most well-intentioned teachers have large gaps in their understanding of the Holocaust, as demonstrated by one gentleman who asked Grossman whether the Nazis might have had an economic reason for targeting the Jews. “They need all the tools we can provide them,” Grossman said.    

When the Holocaust is taught, the approach in Russia differs from the methods used by American or Israeli teachers. Since the war affected Russia so much more than it did the United States, with battles fought on Soviet land, “it’s easier to get in touch with people who remember [that period],” Glebova said. “We have some very, very old people in Russia — people who went through the concentration camps, who were eyewitnesses to these disgusting things.”

The Holocaust center also emphasizes the role of Jews in the Red Army, which, among achievements, liberated Auschwitz — a refutation of the view, common among Russians, that Jews failed to resist the Nazis. “For Russian Jews living in Russia, it’s very important to show to their non-Jewish compatriots that Jews resisted,” Kotler said.

The educators also try to link the Holocaust and the current situation in Russia, which is rife with hatred and distrust of ethnic minorities and foreigners, said Altman.

Alluding to the xenophobia, Glebova said she has a ready response to colleagues who ask why she teaches such a horrifying subject: “I say because it’s real and that without understanding the past, you have no future.”