NYU History of Soviet Union Jews Project Receives $2.3m Gift

Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center; courtesy
Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center; courtesy

New York University has received a $2.3 million gift from Eugene and Zara Shvidler to support “A Comprehensive History of the Jews of the Soviet Union,” a seven-year project led by researchers in NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.

“For much of the 20th century, the Soviet Union stood as one of the world’s principal Jewish centers,” says Gennady Estraikh, professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and director of the effort. “However, compared to Jews in the United States and other parts of the world, very little is known about the experience of Soviet Jews.”

The recent availability of documents in the former Soviet Union offers the opportunity to understand the history of Jews who lived under the Communist regime.

“Archives in the former Soviet Union that were closed to researchers for over eight decades have now become accessible,” explains co-director David Engel, department chair and Maurice R. and Corinne P. Greenberg Professor of Holocaust Studies. “In fact, the breadth and depth of those archives arguably constitutes a documentary repository equal to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Cairo Geniza in its importance for understanding Jewish history.”

NYU Press will publish the seven-volume work in print and in an open-access digital format upon completion of the research.

“This comprehensive study is about the lives of my grandparents, my parents, my friends, and myself – as well as millions other people,” says Eugene Shvidler. “For over 70 years, Soviet Jews persevered despite isolation from the larger Jewish world and the realities of life in the Soviet Union. It’s very important to preserve our history, and I am privileged to be a part of the project.”

The scholarship will focus on official Soviet policy toward the Jews as well as on the history of everyday life in Jewish communities as they experienced it in the homes, synagogues, schools, and streets of the Soviet Union. This multi-volume history will document the many ways in which the Jews were affected by the rise, dominance, and fall of the Soviet totalitarian regime and in which they confronted their complex situation under totalitarian rule.