The Museum of Jewish Past and Future

Jewish home exhibit in Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Museum; courtesy public relations department of The Jewish Memory and Holocaust in Ukraine Museum
Jewish home exhibit in Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Museum; courtesy public relations department of The Jewish Memory and Holocaust in Ukraine Museum

by Ian Shulman

The Jewish Memory and Holocaust in Ukraine Museum, the biggest post-USSR Jewish memorial complex newly opened in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, was declared to have a somewhat larger focus group than other Jewish establishments of the city. Just like the Menorah Jewish Community Center, where the museum is situated, it aspires to attract people of all beliefs, heritage and interests.

A Jewish museum rarely becomes a major attraction for non-Jewish public, but looks like the rule is going to be broken in Dnipropetrovsk, and here are some reasons:

The museum is accessible. It is not only that one can find the exhibition in the very center of the city and enter it for free with no need to speak to a doorman or a cashier. No prior knowledge of Judaism or Jewish culture is required. The ground floor exhibition introduces a visitor with the main concepts of Judaism through an impressive collection of ancient items – Torah scrolls, tzitzit, Kiddush cups and many more. Further rooms familiarize guests with the milestones of the Jewish history and some major holidays. If a visitor would like to hear some more than what captions say, he is welcome to join a free guided tour held every two hours.

The museum is universal. The first introductory exhibition is followed by the main one, focused on the topic of World War II and the Holocaust. Yet it manages to touch some extraordinary and important topics, such as Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations or the involvement of the Jews in the Ukrainian Nationalists Organization. The third exhibition is dedicated to the Jewish life after the war, symbolically showing how the story goes on (a red ‘crack’ on the exhibition’s floor leads to the globe, a symbol of peaceful after-war life). Even though the Holocaust seems to be the main theme of the museum, both pre-war and after-war exhibitions are all-sufficient and full of interesting pieces.

The museum in innovative. All exhibitions are equipped with various interactive elements. One can track the movement of Soviet and German armies through the Ukrainian map projected on the wall; enjoy the animated early XX century postcards of Berdychiv or Lviv, or even use an ancient camera to take a photo of a friend standing on a street of 1910s Katerynoslav. Apart from interactivity, the museum features many modern art objects and decor complementing an exhibition’s theme (a monument to a broken piano is a strong symbol of the bright singing Jewish world destroyed by the Catastrophe).

Finally, summing up said above, the museum is important for the city. With its rich Jewish legacy, Dnipropetrovsk obviously lacked a Jewish museum. Even though the venue is dedicated to the Ukrainian Jewish history in general, the exhibitions provide a special focus to the Jewish heritage of Dnipropetrovsk, presenting many rare and surprising documents, photos and other valuable items. Moreover, the city simply lacked a modern and innovative museum. Most of Dnipropetrovsk museums offer some interesting collections, but haven’t been sufficiently renovated since the 1980s. Thus they lack modernity and interactivity needed to attract young audience – something the newly opened museum has and manages to do quite well. If the case will inspire other museums to follow the successful example, the whole city is going to hugely benefit from it.

And last but not least: it actually works. It’s 14:00 of a weekday and a dozen of visitors are waiting for a guided tour. This is quite a diverse crowd. Some of them decided to come here for the second time and still look quite captured by the exhibitions. Many of them are not familiar with the basics of Jewish culture, religion and history – they curiously follow the guide’s story. Many are not especially enthusiastic about the Holocaust exhibition – they prefer to pay attention to the Jewish customs, holidays and traditions. After a two-hour guided tour (covering only the most crucial points of the exhibitions) and a quick Q&A session another tour by another guide is already about to start. And again, a dozen of curious guests are exploring the exhibition halls.

The Jewish Memory and Holocaust in Ukraine Museum is an interesting phenomena no matter what you would like to find there – an impressive exhibition, a beautiful interactive center, a friendly introduction to the Jewish culture or even a combination of the three.