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Odessa’s only Jewish museum faces imminent closure

A gem of a museum in Ukraine is in danger of closure if it fails to attract sufficient voluntary donations to keep it going.

    Migdal Shorashim

    A gem of a museum, one graphically picturing the lives of the Jewish population of Odessa before the Holocaust, is in danger of closure if it fails to attract sufficient voluntary donations to keep it going.

    I have just returned from visiting Odessa. In the week after Yom Kippur, when we remembered “the six million who died”, it was deeply poignant to be in Odessa exactly 76 years since those terrible three days, in October 1941, when 100,000 Jews were shot or burned alive during the Nazi occupation there.

    Of course I was eager to see the famous Potemkin Steps, gaze admiringly at the statue of Alexander Pushkin and be taken down to the catacombs where the partisans lived for two years fighting for freedom, but my most memorable visit was to the Museum of the History of Odessa Jews (Migdal-Shorashim), which is in desperate need of support.

    This is the only Jewish museum in Ukraine. It has gathered together a splendidly diverse and rich collection of photographs, letters, documents, books, newspapers, religious garments, household articles, musical instruments, furniture, clothes and even children’s toys donated by descendants of those Jewish families who managed to escape, or somehow survive the terrible extermination.

    The small Odessa Jewish museum is at risk
    The small Odessa Jewish museum is at risk Migdal Shorashim

    The museum is housed in a humble house.  You reach it through a battered courtyard, past a line hung with washing. Its welcoming Jewish director Michael Rashkovetsky is not paid by the government, will have no pension when he retires, and gets no government support. The continuation of this museum is entirely dependent on voluntary donations.

    Two grants have come from the Rothschild Foundation and donations come from the visitors from all over the world, but especially from the US and Israel. Most of them are descendants of Odessa’s Jews.

    For me, among the most interesting photos are one of 1919, showing the first boat carrying Zionist pioneers to leave Odessa for Palestine; a photograph, dated November 1917, of the crowds welcoming the announcement of the Balfour Declaration, the Union Jack draped over the front of the town hall; and of the Potemkin Steps in the 1920s, before Eisenstein made his classic film. 

    There are many pictures of families, distinguished Jewish writers and poets, display cabinets of silver, glass and kitchenware.  In one room there is a child’s cradle, a piano, and a Mohal’s velvet cushion with his instruments, visiting card and trademark watch. Odessa, I learnt, was the hub for Jewish publishing, so manuscripts, poems, articles came from all over Ukraine and beyond, from Poland, to be printed here.  

    This museum is a treasure house; walking through its small rooms, you instantly absorb the atmosphere of a Jewish home as it must have been before the massacres. Less than 1% of Odessa’s citizens call themselves Jewish today but in the 1920s 44% of the population were Jewish and Yiddish was spoken widely.

    A century later, with right wing nationalism, even fascism on the rise, it is important to learn lessons from the past. And museums like this must be kept going. On the museum website, visitors can see some of its wonderful treasures.

    Margaret Owen is the director of Widows for Peace through Democracy. She was in Odessa attending a Conference on “Gender in Revolution, War and Peace-building”, invited to make a keynote speech focusing on “Invisible Widows, Victims of Revolutions and Conflicts”.