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'LOST' PAPERS GIVE NEW LOOK AT RUSSIAN JEWISH PAST
STANFORD -- Lost for 70 years, papers uncovered in a "locked" file in what was formerly the Archive of the October Revolution in Moscow will serve as a focal point for a fresh look at the Russian Jewish past.
History Professor Steven Zipperstein, head of Stanford's Program in Jewish Studies, this spring found the papers of Piotr S. Marek, a Russian Jewish historian and school inspector, who had died in exile on the Volga in 1920.
Zipperstein was in Moscow from March through June teaching courses in Russian Jewish history at the Russian State Humanities University as part of the first accredited program in Jewish history in Russia since the 1920s. The program is co-sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, both in New York.
While doing research, Zipperstein came across the Marek archive, complete with diaries, town maps, volumes of letters and even full-length book manuscripts, including a history of Russian Jewish intelligentsia.
The opening of Soviet-Russian archival material and the training of a new generation of Russian Jewish historians "should have an impact on the way we imagine the past," Zipperstein said.
The Marek archive "provides intimate, previously unavailable knowledge of Jewish childhood, schooling, gender relations and everyday community life," Zipperstein said, and should affect the writing of Jewish cultural history.
For example, he said, little has been known about the lives and education of girls, a topic of special interest to Marek. The archival material should yield information on what Jewish girls were taught, particularly those in Lithuania and Belorussia, "and what the curriculum presupposed they would become," Zipperstein said. "We should get a much fuller sense of the cultural life of Jewish women and a more vivid sense of women as actors in the Jewish community."
Since Russian Jewish history only emerged as a profession in the last years of the 19th century with pioneers like Marek, and then was closed down by the late 1920s, Zipperstein said, "there wasn't much time to produce a sophisticated body of historiography."
The evocation of the past was left to emigrants and their literature, and thus the focus has been on emigration and pogroms.
"Reimagining Russian Jewry" will be Zipperstein's topic when he gives the Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies at the University of Washington in May 1995. He will spend next winter and spring at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Hebrew University in Jerusalem writing the lectures, which also will be published as a book by the University of Washington Press.
Zipperstein traced the Marek papers to what is now the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The archive's formerly locked sections - which contain material on extremely sensitive subjects, such as crimes of the Stalin era and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl - were opened up a year ago by order of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. It was in a room of formerly locked files that Zipperstein found the Marek material "mostly just piled in envelopes with very little inventory."
Apparently, Zipperstein said, the Marek papers were acquired by the Jewish National University in Moscow, which was established in the early 1920s and closed very soon afterward. The university's files eventually were stored in the Archive of the October Revolution, their existence unknown to scholars.
The Marek find, Zipperstein said, "suggests the wealth of material that exists just below the surface" in the former Soviet Union.
He also found a great deal of material during four days he spent in Odessa, three of them at state archives that he had never been permitted to use when he was writing a book on the Jews of Odessa, published in 1985 by Stanford University Press.
It took Zipperstein six weeks to organize the Marek archive and two months to photocopy 3,000 pages, using a portable machine he had taken with him to Moscow. Arranging to leave the country with those 3,000 pages provided a case study in the incredible difficulties of negotiating business in Russia, where everything is in flux and the rules seem to change from day to day.
Having spent one week paying for the photocopied material and receiving the receipt, Zipperstein then was told that any material that is photocopied to be transported out of Russia must have a document number and the date inscribed on every sheet. No date stamp was available, so Zipperstein and a Russian archival official had to write the numbers by hand on all 3,000 pages.
Daily life in Russia is a constant struggle, Zipperstein said. He and his wife, Sally Goodis, a teacher at Stanford's Bing Nursery School, lived in Moscow with their two sons, ages 4 and 6, in two dormitory rooms.
Before he set out to teach in the morning, in a building across the city, Zipperstein said he would go through a checklist of items he had to take with him: chalk, eraser, key to the classroom, bottled drinking water, toilet paper, paper for the students to write on.
"You can't come to an exam assuming the students will have paper; they won't," he said. "Nor can you assume there will be any paper in the university."
"Before you did anything even slightly complicated, you would have to think through every step and try to imagine every contingency. Almost inevitably something would go wrong."
Russian cultural life is embattled because physical life is so hard, Zipperstein said. Most people he knew have two or three jobs to make ends meet. One Russian historian said to Zipperstein: "Every morning I look in the mirror and ask myself how am I going to make money today?"
Despite the formidable obstacles, Zipperstein said, he was impressed with the quality of his students, some of whom could well emerge as substantial Judaica scholars.
Even with a rigorous curriculum that has the students in class six days a week, some have found time to do Jewish community work. One young man puts out nearly every week a newsletter called Yom Sheni (Monday), which summarizes Jewish cultural and community events and is sent throughout the former Soviet Union.
Anti-Semitic tracts are freely available and quite visible, Zipperstein said, but anti-Semites appear to be politically marginal.
"Freedom has permitted all kinds of previously suppressed passions to come to the surface, among them anti-Semitism," Zipperstein said. "Anti-Semites are able to draw from a very potent wellspring in Russia. At the moment, however, the Jews I came to know were not primarily concerned with anti-Semitism, although there is fear of what might happen if there is a coup or countercoup."
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