Transregional Academy “After Violence: The (Im-)Possibility of Understanding and Remembering”: the Museum of Jewish Memory and the Shoah in Ukraine.
Ursula Woolley, UCL
If one of the indirect purposes of the Transregional Academy in Dnipro in June was to lead all the participants to a re-examination of their own approaches to their research, one step on this journey, on the first full day of the Academy, was our visit to the Museum of Jewish Memory and the Shoah in Ukraine, located in the Menorah Centre in the middle of the city of Dnipro where in fact we were also all staying and where the seminar and lecture elements of our Academy all took place.
We had had all the different ingredients of a good start to an academy over the preceding few sessions: an informal welcome dinner at the hipster corner restaurant, a morning session of personal introductions in a circle (who came from where, who was working on what, who had what expectations), and an introductory lecture by Professor Teti’ana Portnova, giving us all at least a common baseline of knowledge of the history of Dnipro, on what for many of us was a first visit to the city. How although there were records of Cossack settlements and trading posts on the site of the city from the middle of the sixteenth century, it was the rapid expansion of the Russian empire southwards at the end of the eighteenth century which brought the legislation inviting and formalising settlement from elsewhere, including Jewish settlement. How by the time of the 1897 census when the city was the ‘Manchester of Ukraine’, an engine of the industrialisation of the Russian empire, standing at the midpoint between the iron ore of Kryvih Rih and the coal of Donets’k, the Jewish population of the city stood at 37%. How despite the Shoah during the Second World War and in contrast to other sites in Ukraine where evidence of long Jewish history had been obliterated, in Dnipro a continuity of Jewish history and community had been sustained. How the lost status of the city as the elite ‘closed’ centre for ICBM development in the Soviet Union continued to influence its character and culture, and how its position now as the ‘Heart of Ukraine’, as the centre of the region which had supplied most troops and seen most losses in response to the Russian invasion of the Donbas was forming it today.
Our guide for our afternoon in the museum was the historian Denys Shatalov, the museum’s Director of Research and a graduate of the history faculty of the influential local university, a specialist equally in the Cossack history of the region and the Jewish history of the city. It is impossible to avoid reading a visit to a museum, let alone a group visit to a museum, as a metaphor for cognition, and in this case collective cognition; and when it is a museum which sets out to challenge our assumptions about and question our approaches to what we think we know about the history of this part of Ukraine, and we are visiting as a group of academics already fine-tuned into reflexivity and the rare opportunity for collective interaction provided by the Academy, the result was intense.
Denys set us off ‘on our own’, like a half-cooperative, half-rebellious group of school pupils, on the lower floor of the museum, which presents the history of the Jewish community in Dnipro; then gathered us to hear our first impressions; then took us upstairs to the displays which explore the various factors which led to the Shoah in Europe, and in particular in Dnipro: how it happened; and its aftermath and consequences. Vocalising and pooling our contradictory reactions, some impressed, some surprised, some indignant (“Why is it laid out like this?” “Why don’t they show you in which order to view the different displays?” (!) “My emotions are being played with!” “What is this mixture of commemoration and enquiry?” “Why does this text take this position?”) was our collective introduction to the clashes between our different focuses and blind spots and enthusiasms – and a brilliantly challenging bonding session. In my own mind I referred back perhaps most of all to the Museum of London, the place-based museum most familiar from my childhood (and there were many similarities of approach); to my visit to Yad Vashem twenty years ago; and to altogether more recent visits in the spring to see some of the new displays at the Museum of the History of Ukraine and the Museum of the History of Kyiv. And what stayed with me, as a student of the history of memory politics, or perhaps the politics of history, in Ukraine, was the breadth of vision of the history of the city as a whole, through the lens of its Jewish history. Here in one instance was the truly shocking establishment anti-semitism of the early years of the twentieth century, and the valiant defences of Judaism from famous contemporary Russian writers; and here at the same time were the party lists for the elections to the short-lived pre-revolutionary imperial Dumas, with Jewish names alongside Ukrainian names standing for pro-Ukrainian parties. I will continue to turn over in my mind, with enduring pleasure and curiosity, all the highly-nuanced but not entirely uncontentious presentation of every part of the display, aware at the same time that they will impact the perceptions of some and entirely evade the attention of others.
So after this pedagogically skillful museum-induction we were tuned and ready for the rest of our academy programme and ready to be challenged further, by Iuliia Buyskykh’s training on the value of anthropological reflexivity in the study of Ukraine (Siarhei Hruntou’s piece elsewhere on the blog describes it in more detail), by the sites of memory of our group fieldwork (layer upon layer of commemoration of trauma…and revisionist commemoration of trauma…and commemorative elision, though for what combination of psychological and political reasons it was often hard to discern) and by the difficulties and possibilities brought to bear by our shared and competing responses and our own project presentations. The Forum Transregionale Studien and the Chair of the Entangled History of Ukraine at Viadrina had launched us on the journey of understanding Ukraine as a (painfully) refracting prism of current and historical European experience.