'Schindler's List' brings the Holocaust to Moscow

September 19, 1994|By David Filipov | David Filipov,Boston Globe

Yury Krylov had sat down to watch "Schindler's List" expecting to see something along the lines of "Jurassic Park."

Mr. Krylov, who plays for Russia's national water-polo team, could not have guessed the true content of Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film, which debuted in Moscow last week. Like many Russians, he had never heard of the Holocaust. "I never knew that these things happened," Mr. Krylov said as he left the theater.

Although Nazi troops killed as many as 2.9 million Jews on the territory of the former Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944, little has been said here about Hitler's efforts to exterminate the Jews.

This has changed dramatically over the past week, with the Moscow premiere of "Schindler's List" and the belated release of a Holocaust account even more brutally graphic than Mr. Spielberg's film: "The Black Book," a compilation of eyewitness testimony, documents and photographs of mass killings of Jews on Soviet territory that was banned by Stalin in 1947 for containing "political errors."

Jewish leaders hope "Schindler's List" and "The Black Book" will help make ordinary Russians aware of the dangers of fascism, which is seen as a solution to the country's problems by a significant number of people here.

"I've asked people what the Holocaust is, and few know," said Alla Gerber, a member of the Russian parliament and an organizer of Moscow's first Holocaust resource center. "People need to be told to prevent it from happening again."

So far, however, the Holocaust has been a bit of a hard sell -- on Wednesday, the third day of "Schindler's" run in Moscow, seats were available in the one cinema showing the film, a far cry from the repeated sellouts in Poland and Japan. And while a cheap paperback Russian-language edition of "Mein Kampf" sells freely Moscow's streets, "The Black Book," published in Lithuania, is available only in limited quantities for the ruble equivalent of $13, a prohibitive price for many Russians.

Edited by Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg, "The Black Book" details the fate of 2.7 million to 2.9 million Jews believed to have perished in death camps and by firing squads in occupied Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. In contrast, the official Soviet accounts of World War II used in Russia's schools make no mention of the Nazis' systematic efforts to eliminate Jewish people. Many Russians agree with the ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has said Soviet Jewish victims of the war should not be viewed any differently from the rest of the estimated 20 million Soviets who lost their lives.

Neofascist groups such as the Russian National Union, whose estimated 15,000 supporters sport army fatigues with swastikas, have gone farther. They blame Russia's economic woes on "democrat Jews" and call for a "new world order" based on Hitler's ideas. A group called Werewolf has threatened to put bombs in theaters showing "Schindler's List."

Russia's mainstream political leaders have responded to the growing popularity of the right by striking a more nationalist stance. Recently, President Boris N. Yeltsin attended a nationally televised tour of an exhibit by artist Ilya Glazunov, whose work contains anti-Semitic themes.

None of the leading Moscow and Russian government members invited to attend Monday's premiere of "Schindler's List" did so. Aron Zusman, who heads a support group for the 350 Jewish concentration camp survivors remaining in the former Soviet Union, took the snub as a sign that traditional, official callousness toward Jews lingers. Citing another example, Mr. Zusman said that monuments at sites where Jews were massacred throughout the former Soviet Union still commemorate the "Soviet citizens" killed there.

They were killed because they were Jews, Mr. Zusman said. "But when the monuments were put up, they became Soviet. Now that there is no Soviet Union, nobody knows what to call them. But they were Jews."

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