In Russia, a New Generation Vows “Never Again”

May 6, 2015


For Asya Gelman, participating in the “Memory. Assistance. Generations.” project isn’t just about reclaiming the names of Holocaust victims nearly lost to history — it’s about finding her own place in the story.

“It’s not just that I now have the ability to communicate with people who witnessed history firsthand,” Gelman said of the project, part of Maagal, a joint JDC and Hillel initative for young Russian Jewish leaders. “Every time I collect a new name, I become a part of all these stories. I’m the link that immortalizes these long-forgotten names.”

Gelman is one of 20 regular volunteers located in the Moscow region — and more far-flung Russian cities like Kaluga, Smolensk, and Bryansk, all near the border with Belarus — who collect the names of Holocaust victims not yet part of the Yad Vashem database. Already, more than 1,300 new names have been collected.

Maagal also organizes volunteer opportunities around Jewish holidays like Chanukah and Purim, giving young Russian Jews the chance to bring food, companionship, and more to often-alienated groups like the disabled, homebound elderly, and children with special needs.

“Memory. Assistance. Generations.” aims to counteract some of the gaps in Russians’ knowledge of the Holocaust and to teach young Jews that small actions — like speaking to a survivor and collecting the names of his or her family members — can make a huge difference.

“Some purely school-educated Russians can hardly explain the meaning of the word ‘Holocaust,’” said Maria Kunineva, project coordinator. “With this installation, created by the artists from the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “New Wing” at Gogol House and Yad Vashem, we’re trying to show that you can start with something small — exploring your own family story, speaking with your grandparents, exploring their place in history — to preserve their memories, document their stories, collect their photographs, and pass all of that to Yad Vashem.”

The interactive “Memory. Assistance. Generations” installation debuted at the ninth session of Moscow’s version of Limmud, the landmark participatory Jewish learning experience that began in Britain in 1980. Each year JDC sponsors the Moscow event, which drew about 1,500 people this year.

At Limmud, participants wrote the names of Holocaust victims found by the volunteers on blank pieces of papers. Some chose to add the names of their own relatives who had died, too.

On Saturday night, after Havdalah, Limmud participants saw the faces of the victims the “Memory. Assistance. Generations.” Volunteers had helped memorialize projected on the pieces of paper they’d written on. Many were moved by the project, sharing their own family stories and asking how to get involved with this Maagal project and other volunteer opportunities.

Mikhail Libkin, the conference’s co-chair, said Limmud Moscow always tries to take into account the Holocaust when planning the seminar’s agenda — especially this year, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation off Auschwitz.

“The tragedy of the Holocaust isn’t just a black page in the history of the Jewish people. The Holocaust turned the entire world upside down,” he said. “We have to understand that there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors, and we must work to make sure we do not forget what happened during the Shoah.”

For Liya Mashentcheva, a “Memory. Assistance. Generations.”  volunteer, the project isn’t just about stark, clinical facts — lists of names and locations and concentration camps.

It’s about letting an older generation rest easy knowing that their stories are safe, that their passions and their pain will not be lost to history.

“Our volunteer work is not only about preserving the memory of Holocaust victims. It’s also about honoring those we’re speaking with,” she said. “When a person dips into his memories with us and then is made to feel that his story is important and interesting for others, he knows his family’s story will not sink into oblivion after his death. It will be saved for generations to come.”

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories