Tuesday, February 6, 2018

‘Is It Easy to Be a Jew in Siberia?’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 5 – The return of a 19th century Jewish synagogue long used for non-religious community to the Jewish community of Tomsk has provided the occasion for Tatyana Salimova of Radio Svoboda’s Sibreal portal to provide a description of the Jews in that Siberian city (sibreal.org/a/29016580.html).

            The first Jews appeared in Siberia in the 17th century, she reports. They were found among the prisoners Russian forces took in the course of the Russian-Polish wars of that time.  According to the community’s historian David Kizhner, 150 “’Lithuanian people’” arrived in Siberia, a group that included an unspecified number of Jews.

            After peace was concluded, these groups were allowed to return home, and many did. But some of the Jews preferred to stay in Siberia.  Later, this community was augmented by Jewish exiles; and in 1836, Nicholas I launched an effort to promote agriculturalism among Jews; but popular opposition ended that 45 days after his decree. Nonetheless, some Jews came to Siberia.

            And yet another group of Jews came to Siberia as “Nicholaevan soldiers,” young men who were drafted for 25 years and who were treated as dead by their relatives who had no expectation that they would ever be seen again. Some of these men were sent to Siberia and nonetheless lived long enough to also add to the Jewish community there.

            This last group, however, played a key role in the establishment of a “soldiers’ synagogue in Tomsk, the one that had now been returned to the faithful.  It was opened in 1872, joining several others in the city.  In 1930, however, the Soviet authorities seized the soldiers synagogue and two others and handed them over to the Tomsk State University.

             Over time, the Jews of Tomsk began to lose hope that their community would ever recover and even dispatched some of their torahs to Vilnius and Kaunas where “even in Soviet times was preserved comparatively intensive religious and communal life.” Now these things are coming back.

            The choral synagogue has already been restored, a Jewish community center is being built, and the community plans, now that ownership of the soldiers’ synagogue has been restored to it, to rebuild that synagogue as well.  There is even talk of creating a museum of the history of Jews of Siberia.

            “It is very important,” the chief rabbi of the city says, “that the return of this building openly for the community a new and bright page in the history of Tomsk Jews,” one where they can look forward to a future without any repressions or confiscations.

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