By Irina Rebrova
Recently I gave a lecture to Brandeis University students who study Russian Jewish history. Professor ChaeRan Y. Freeze (Department of Near Eastern & Judaic Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies) invited me to speak in her class about Russian and Soviet Jewry.
The majority of my presentation was devoted to the oral testimonies that I conducted with Holocaust survivors in the South of Russia. Students seemed to be very interested in learning about oral history as a method of understanding the past. I described testimonies of people who survived the Holocaust in their childhood. This subgroup of survivors was not captured by the Nazis and was not sent to concentrations camps. To survive, Jewish people had to hide their nationality and live in hiding, dependent upon the local non-Jews who helped them. The main narrative lines are the constant persecution and wandering, the fear of being betrayed and captured by the occupation authorities and the everyday humiliation and pain. There are no official statistics about the number of Jews who survived the mass extermination.
The quotations from oral testimonies portrayed the atmosphere of the tragedy far better than any scholar. The interview excerpts became the most important knowledge I conveyed during the lecture. Students were interested in the testimonies of Jewish survivors and in the differences between their testimonies and ones from non-Jewish children. Students also tried to find any gender specifics of the oral testimonies of Jewish children as a subgroup of Holocaust survivors.
It is hard to study such themes; it is even more difficult to translate this knowledge for the audience. And, it is hard to remain a scholar and not a moralist. I think that together, the students and I, had a useful experience and obtained important information. I hope they will join me in investigating this tragedy.
After my presentation, there was time to discuss some issues and respond to questions. Students were interested in the region I talked about. Thinking about the history of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, everyone can name Babi Yar in Kiev, Ukraine as a famous place of mass extermination of Jews during the Second World War. But there was another place of sad memories in the territory of contemporary Russia. In Zmievskaya Balka, Rostov-on-Don more than 20,000 Jews were exterminated during three days in August 1942. I tried to give the students an impression of the characteristics of the World War II and the tragedy of the Holocaust in the North Caucasus.
Irina Rebrova is a scholar-in-residence for one semester at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the Brandeis-Genesis Institute. Funders of this position include BGI, HBI and Dr. Laura Schor of HBI. In addition to her research, part of her role as a scholar-in-residence, is to expose students to this research.