Friday, January 27, 2012

Rostov-on-Don: Keeping the Memory of Jewish Holocaust Victims Alive

Schoolgirl laying flowers at the Shoah memorial.
In what was once a deserted field on the outskirts of the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia lies a monument to Shoah (Holocaust) victims called Zmievskaya Balka. Sprawling green lawns and attractive walking paths stitched together by a memorial site now lie where some 27,000 – mostly Jews – were slaughtered by the Nazis on a single day in August 1942.

The sheer number of Jews that perished in that field that day has underscored the importance of this memorial site to Russia’s surviving Jewish communities. Not only did entire families perish in the tragedy, but a full accounting of the identities of the victims has so far, never been compiled. Thus Zmievskaya Balka, Russia’s Babi Yar, as it is referred to, symbolizes more than one day’s atrocity under the Nazi regime. It represents generations of Jewish history in Rostov, Poland and other surrounding areas that may never be reclaimed.

Recently, the commemorative plate that marked the site was replaced by the government. Reference to its Jewish victims has been removed and substituted with a more generic description. The plaque now states only that the victims were “citizens of Rostov-on-Don, (and) Soviet prisoners of war.” The Russian Jewish Congress has launched a lawsuit in an effort to repeal the change, but the Ministry of Culture has said the change will remain, stating that “the plaque does not distort or change the subject of (the) cultural heritage site.”

There’s a benefit to ensuring that other groups are not overlooked in the historical reference. But the Nazi’s actions at Zmievskaya Balka had one end goal: to obliterate Jews and any others who sheltered or supported them. And while Holocaust memorials can never replace the unimaginable numbers of lives they symbolize, they serve as powerful reminders to the Jewish people that those who died has meaning and carry historical weight.

The Russian Jewish blog Lemberik suggested that with the loss of this crucial reminder to Jewish history “the memorial complex of Zmievskaya Balka can no longer officially (be) considered a Holocaust memorial and has no relation to the Jewish people.” While the recognition of the 15,000-20,000 Jews that perished at Rostov will go on, its historical reference to an ethnic cleansing of Jews that once took place has been lost. For future generations the memorial will cease to exist as a reminder of the true cause of those deaths.

Laying Wreaths at August day of memorial.

For the worldwide Jewish community, the switching of the plaques at the memorial site is a reminder of how tenuous our grasp can be on history.  Artifacts only serve as temporary reminders – and often inaccurate symbols - of who we are and who we once were. Our ability to ensure that history stays true to fact lies in what we teach our children, and what their descendants carry forth as well. 

August 11-12, 2012 will represent the 70th anniversary of the massacre at Zmievskaya Balka. The regional Jewish community is honoring this year in the way that Jews throughout time have honored victims: with an affirmation of life. They are attempting to put together an accurate listing of the victims from that date, and have sent out a global call for relatives, friends and witnesses to step forward and help identify the names of those who perished at Rostov-on-Don. In so doing, they hope to compile a list of those who survived them as well.

Interested individuals who may be able to assist with this endeavor are encouraged to visit the website

Zmievskaya Balka memorial site to the 27,000 victims.

Photos courtesy of

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Israel and Presidential Elections: Finding the Center in Jewish America

Voting day - Debaird

Every four years, Americans undertake a seemingly impossible task. Armed with the information we glean from presidential candidates’ banners, television ads, sound bites, our personal research and whatever information we may have filtered out of the latest report of a candidate's alleged actions, we head to the polls to elect the new president of the United States. 

For American Jewish voters, the task is even more daunting. For many, the security of Israel – a hot topic these days – is always at the top of their voter’s tip sheet. Even my father, and his father, devout secular Jews who despised political rhetoric and boycotted most electoral debates, voted with an eye toward ensuring Israel’s safety. For my dad, as for many Jews in North America, a vote advocating support for Israel was a vote for plurality in his home country. For my grandfather, who had been raised Orthodox and later defied his father’s religious expectation by refusing to become a rabbi, there was nothing more sacred than representation that assured a Jew’s right to live and worship (or not worship) as he chose. From his vantage point, that could only be achieved by voting for candidates that would assure Israel’s right to exist.

Learning how to vote - Jewish women hear tips in Yiddish (1935).
But it was from my father, oddly enough, that I learned what I feel is the true secret to voting as an observant Jew. Commonality isn’t found in a candidate’s talking points, or his sworn love for Israel, nor even his willingness to tour the Holy Land, but in the precept that has guided Judaism since its beginning and has molded the very platform of Talmudic debate: The willingness to hear and to express all sides of a question, and to look for commonality over discord, before speaking one’s piece.

It’s a problem-solving process that has precedent in the actions of ancient rabbis who debated controversial issues like the rights of the poor to glean the edges of a farmer’s field, or the compassion of treating non-Jews as neighbors with needs and rights. It is guided by what has always been foremost in the Jewish heart: that there is strength in acknowledging the other side, and courage in seeking compromise, even when you believe one side is right.

This year however, it has been difficult to hear the moderate voice in America’s discourse. Calls for conciliation by the president have been mistaken in some cases for apathy or worse, betrayal. And election platforms by opposing candidates that four years ago were considered too extreme are now seen as having merit.

Politicians that appear to quickly and openly endorse Israel over Palestinian calls for recognition now appear more credible to Jewish voters than those who listen to both sides and then openly declare their support to Israel. Even platforms that espouse right-wing values such as upholding Christian prayer in school, opposing gay rights and blocking access to education for children of illegal immigrants now seem preferable over that of a moderate candidate who strives for political consensus. 

Protesters against gays in front of a high school graduation - K763
As American Jews have learned before, it is difficult to quantify extremism. The McCarthy era began in the late 1940s as a pretense to investigate communist values in America. By its decline almost 10 years later, senate investigations had moved far beyond the specter of investigating American values. Citizens of all walks of life had been blacklisted from working on the pretense that their moral views could not be proven to be genuinely “American.” Notably, homosexuality eventually became targeted by the investigations, as did one’s willingness to question the appropriateness of the investigations themselves.

It is interesting that Israeli political views appear to be shifting toward the center once again, suggesting that even in a land divided by deep political conflict, the yearning for consensus and mutual respect can be found.

As American Jews, we need to find our center as well. Israel needs our confidence in its future, just as we need Israel’s. Such mutual trust is necessary if we truly value Israel’s security as a nation, and a Jewish homeland.

The American spirit is strong - Ildar Sagdejev