Anna Shternshis, “Machine Guns, Mothers’ Graves and Hitler the Haman: Soviet Yiddish Songs of World War II”

Professor Anna Shternshis

Professor Anna Shternshis

On February 15th, 2016, Professor Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto) delivered her lecture “Machine Guns, Mother’s Graves, Hitler the Haman: Soviet Yiddish Songs of World War II.” Shternshis is the author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006) and the forthcoming When Sonia Met Boris: Daily Life in Soviet Russia (2016).

Shternshis spoke about her latest project, which she described as “something between history, literature, and art.” This project is based on a recently discovered archive of World War II-era Soviet Yiddish folk songs, collected by a team of Ukrainian (Soviet) scholars led by the Jewish ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky (1892-1961). During the war, Beregovsky and his colleagues at the ethnomusicology department of the Kiev-based Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture (including the famous linguist Elye Spivak) were evacuated to Central Asia, where they continued to collect songs, stories, and testimonies.  In 1947, they recorded hundreds of songs in Yiddish from Soviet Jews who had served in the Red Army, returned from Central Asia, or survived the war in Europe. Beregovsky and his colleagues prepared this material for publication under the title Jewish Creativity in the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War, but the volume was never released, likely due to its aberrance from Soviet ideology: Shternshis remarked that most of the songs emphasize specifically Jewish (rather than Soviet) suffering and/or heroism.

According to Shternshis, songs about service in the Red Army tend to emphasize violence and revenge. In the songs about life in occupied territories, a common motif is that of losing one’s parents: unlike Jews who joined the Red Army (of whom roughly two-thirds survived the war), the survival rate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Soviet territories was about 1%.  In many songs, Hitler is compared to Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther, over whom Jews celebrate victory during Purim. Shternshis mentioned that Hitler was cursed as a specifically Jewish enemy, in myriad ways: “there are not enough curse words in the Yiddish language to describe every way they cursed Hitler.”

In the context of Soviet culture during World War II, Shternshis said that music “played a role in ideology, entertainment, and social commentary.” Many songs were specifically commissioned to motivate people to build and fight for a communist state. Other songs functioned as an outlet for escape—humorous music was an important wartime genre. Finally, folk songs were a means of interpreting events, and served as a medium for the preservation of historical memory.

After the war, Stalin changed his policies toward Jews, and all institutions of Jewish culture were closed down. Beregovsky and his group were arrested and their work was seized by the authorities. Elye Spivak died during interrogation in 1950, and others were sent to gulag labor camps for years: Beregovsky was released after his “rehabilitation” in 1956. In the Soviet Union of the 1950s, it became dangerous to speak about Yiddish culture in public. The material collected by Beregovsky’s group was transferred to a “department of restricted access” at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, where it remained for decades.

When Shternshis discovered this material, which “changes our understanding of the history of the Holocaust and how Jews in the Soviet Union made sense of their wartime experiences,” she felt that it was important to share it with a broader audience. She wanted to tell “the story of the people who sang these songs, but also that of the scholars who risked their careers to collect this material.” As such, a central part of her project was recreating these songs, a process which Shternshis described as “a sort of archaeological dig”—while many of the texts did not come with music, “the majority of wartime Yiddish songs in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Europe were sung to already-existing tunes.” Once the preliminary work was completed, Shternshis brought together an “eclectic” group of classically trained musicians, the “Yiddish Glory” band. Yiddish Glory recently finished recording an album, and a Toronto-area promoter is now “booking shows [for them] all over the country.”

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.

Crimes against Humanity: Genealogy of a Concept, 1815-1945

Prof. Peter Holquist giving his lecture

Prof. Peter Holquist giving his New Directions lecture

On February 5, 2015, Peter Holquist (Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania) gave a fascinating lecture entitled “Crimes against Humanity: Genealogy of a Concept, 1815-1945” for REEEC’s New Directions in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasian Studies lecture series. Prior to his arrival at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, Professor Holquist taught at Cornell University. He founded and currently serves as the editor of Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, and he wrote the book Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921.

Professor Holquist traced the history of the term “crimes against humanity” and highlighted Russia’s involvement in its introduction. His lecture began by discussing an Allied note issued in 1915 to the Ottoman Empire regarding the Armenian genocide. This note focused on holding members of the Ottoman government responsible for the atrocities. Importantly, it introduced the term for the first time as “a penal concept.”

Professor Holquist divided his lecture into three sections. First, he discussed how the term “crimes against humanity” had roots in the nineteenth century and how Russia played a significant role in its establishment. In particular, Professor Holquist discussed how the second half of this century witnessed the development of important war codes. Through Russian involvement, acts of war moved to the realm of “treaty law.” Professor Holquist mentioned the 1868 Petersburg Declaration, which outlawed exploding bullets in warfare due to the notion of “legitimate violence” and the concept that one “can’t violate the laws of humanity.” Additionally, Russia organized the Brussels Conference of 1874, which implemented major war laws. Professor Holquist examined how Russia proved highly influential at this conference in creating these laws. Furthermore, he explained that in the nineteenth century, Russia disagreed with the Ottoman Empire over “humanitarian intervention,” declaring that it had the right to “protect certain groups.”

In the second part of his lecture, Professor Holquist examined the history and construction of the 1915 Allied note. Relative to the other allied powers, Russia stood in a different position. The Russians received first-hand accounts of the atrocities committed against the Armenians. As a result, Russia played a significant role in drafting this note by their knowledge. Professor Holquist cited the Russian foreign minister as an instrumental figure in establishing the charges against the Ottomans. Next, Professor Holquist looked at the Paris Peace Conference and how the term “crimes against humanity” was applied. He described how a Commission sought to investigate “offenses of the Central Powers” during the war. Britain and France were using the terminology “crimes against humanity” and “violation of the laws of humanity” at this time. He noted that an important issue was “how to charge a government for the massacre of its own people.” I found it interesting that the United States blocked the Commission’s actions as they “opposed” the application of the concept to “international law in a penal sense.”

In the third part of his lecture, Professor Holquist examined how the term “crimes against humanity” was used after World War I and during World War II. 1919 was the year when the term began to “take off.” Yet, it was amazing to see how much the opposition from the United States impacted the treaty process. As Professor Holquist mentioned, the United States was against an internal high court and also against the notion of “violation of the laws of humanity.” Therefore, the peace treaties only utilized the term “violations of the laws of war,” which had tremendous implications. Professor Holquist explained that a government could not face charges for “massacring its own people.” Above all, he stressed that the “legal order” after World War II was deeply connected to past history. He discussed how this was exemplified during the Nuremburg Trials, which referred to previous notions of and use of the term. In contrast to 1919, Professor Holquist noted that the U.S. delegation now believed that heads of state should be put on trial and a high tribunal was necessary. At this point, the French were instrumental in applying the term “crimes against humanity.” They explicitly referred to a “tradition of intervention in defending minorities,” echoed in the words of the British Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials when he stated that the term was “extending a practice.”

I found this lecture exceptionally informative. I was unaware of the complicated history that the term “crimes against humanity” had and how long it took to be cemented into law. Furthermore, I did not know that Russian statesmen worked so tirelessly to promote the humanitarian practice of war during the nineteenth century and that the history of the term is heavily based on their accomplishments. Professor Holquist effectively linked the Nuremburg Trials with legislation and events from past history, and I now understand that these trials were significantly shaped by that history.

Ryan Eavenson is a MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  He is particularly interested in communist development in Eastern Europe.  His additional interests include Imperial and Soviet Russian history, Czech history, and Russian and Czech language.  He received a AB in History/Russian and East European Studies from Lafayette College in 2010.  After graduation, he hopes to find employment focusing on international affairs and then continue his education.

From the Great War to the Bloodlands: Rethinking Europe’s History

On November 10, 2014, Timothy Snyder, the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University, gave a lecture entitled “From the Great War to the Bloodlands: Rethinking Europe’s History.” Over the past few years, Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010) has attracted much attention, positive as well as negative, for his treatment of the mass killings that occurred in parts of Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. In this lecture, Snyder presented his theory about modern political violence, in which he sought to explain why so many Europeans, both soldiers and civilians, died in extremely violent wars and genocide during the twentieth century. To explain his theory of violence simply, Snyder utilized a comparative approach that explored contrasting concepts such as colonization and decolonization, integration and disintegration, expansion and oppression, and nationalism and empire.

Prof. Timothy Snyder giving his Millercom Lecture

Prof. Timothy Snyder giving his lecture to a packed auditorium

Professor Snyder began by discussing how the forces of colonization and decolonization interacted in Europe and contributed to the causes of both World Wars. He asserted that the Great War was a prolonged, natural result of decolonization within Europe itself. He explained the different types of European empires that existed before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 – land empires or maritime empires. He described how each of the land empires (Romanov, Hohenzollern, Ottoman, and Habsburg) broke apart during or after the Great War, while the maritime empires (Great Britain, France, and the United States) emerged victorious and helped create the post-World War I boundaries of Europe. The idea of national self-determination had also won the war, and the empires that had crumbled were divided into numerous sovereign nation-states, such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

Snyder explained that these fragile new nations of the Interwar Period, which were mostly located in Eastern Europe, the region he has designated the “bloodlands,” needed protection to develop and remain autonomous nation-states, but the existing maritime empires failed to defend them from outside colonizing forces. In the 1930s, the Great Depression distracted the U.S., England, and France, which meant that no powerful nations were watching out for these smaller, more fragile states. Snyder asserted that this failure contributed greatly to the chaos of the Interwar Period and led directly to the Second World War. Without the victors of the Great War to protect the new sovereign nations’ borders, both Germany and the Soviet Union expanded and colonized these fragile nations. This seizure of the “bloodlands” by outside powers with assertive ideologies and objectives meant that the people who lived in Eastern Europe became susceptible to their new rulers’ desires, even when those desires included mass killings of parts of the local population.

Emily Lipira is a M.A. student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, with a primary focus on Russian history and Russian language. Her research interests include modernity, identity, and culture in early twentieth-century Russia in the decades around the 1917 revolutions. She received a B.A. in history from Northwest Missouri State University in 2008 and a M.A. in Modern European History from Saint Louis University in 2010.

Modern Greek Studies to screen “Twice a Stranger” documentary

This is a re-posting of an article from the May 7, 2014, issue of The Daily Illini. To view the original article, please see Featured in the article is Dr. Sebnem Ozkan, Outreach Coordinator  at the European Union Center, who is a colleague of REEEC.


Her name was Eleni, and she was just a toddler when she and her siblings fled Turkey barefoot with everything they could carry during the forced migration of the early 1920s.

With her brother at her side, disguised as a girl so the Turks wouldn’t take him, they set off toward boats that were sent to help evacuate her coastline town, Smyrna, and headed to their new life in Greece.

“My grandfather — her husband — was also from there, and he was about 11 when this was happening,” said Hellen McDonald, clinical assistant professor in Social Work. “Her mother dressed him up as a monk so the Turks would not keep him.”

They arrived at Pirea, the main port of Greece and began their new life in a country that saw them as dirty and not Greek. Returning home, where they were also viewed as outsiders, wasn’t an option.

She married at 16 and moved to a makeshift home that the community built for all of the migrants.

“The community built these huge apartment complexes for them and that’s where a lot of the refugees — they don’t like to be called refugees — a lot of the individuals that came from Smyrna settled in,” McDonald said.

She lived in a town called Peristeri until her death in 1999. In English, Peristeri means dove, the symbol for peace.

The Greek-Turkish exchange, German-Polish exchange, Partition of India and Cyprus Crisis are all events of forced migration in the 20th century, when millions of people were forced to leave their homelands, largely never returning.

The documentary “Twice a Stranger” combines video testimonies, rare film archives and photos from survivors to bring their stories to light. The film will be shown by Modern Greek Studies at 6 p.m. on May 8 in the Lucy Ellis Lounge of the Foreign Languages Building.

Dr. Stefanos Katsikas, director of Modern Greek Studies, will begin the screening with a short introduction to provide background on the historical events being highlighted.

“Twice a Stranger” premiered at an exhibition in the Benaki Museum in Athens and was highly successful, Katsikas said. He had to receive permission from the museum to show the documentary, making this the first time it will be screened in the Midwest.

A conflict between Greece and the Ottoman Empire in 1919 led to a war over control of the region around Smyrna. The Greek army was granted a mandate after World War I to exercise control of the region for five years followed by a referendum which would determine the future status of the area, Katsikas said.

Greek authorities took advantage of a strong presence of ethnic Greeks in the area. The outcome of the referendum would be in Greece’s favor and the region would become Greek territory. This was not seen favorably by Turks who wanted this region to be part of the Ottoman Empire or any succeeding Turkish nation state.

Greece lost the war, and its troops withdrew, which sparked a negotiation between the two sides over the territorial status of Greece and Turkey, ending the signing of the Lausanne Peace Treaty. Part of this treaty was a protocol which provided for the compulsory exchange of populations so that all Muslims living in Greece moved to Turkey and all Greek-Orthodox people in Turkey would head to Greece. It was believed that a population exchange would guarantee peace and security between the two states.

A conflict between Greece and the Ottoman Empire in 1919 led to a war over occupying territory in Turkey. While Greece was granted a mandate after World War I to occupy the region, Greek authorities in Smyrna were working on a five-year referendum that would determine the fate of the same area.

Greece lost the war and its troops were forced to leave, which sparked a negotiation: the two states would exchange populations so that all Muslims living in Greece moved to Turkey and all Greek-Orthodox people in Turkey would head to Greece.

“In order to be a Greek, you need to speak a Greek language and be Greek-Orthodox. In Turkey, the established view was to be a Turk, you had to speak Turkish but also be a Muslim,” Katsikas said. “This resulted in one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the beginning of the 20th century – 1.5 million Greek-Orthodox and half a million Muslims leaving their homelands.”

Katsikas said one of the problems with this was many Muslims couldn’t speak Turkish and many of the Greek-Orthodox couldn’t speak Greek, causing them to be viewed as outcasts.

Today, McDonald’s extended family still lives in the suburbs of Athens. Eleni and her husband were able to move out after buying land and building a new home.

“My grandfather was able to put aside money – he did all sorts of jobs that weren’t originally accepted. They were considered dirty and like not real Greeks,” McDonald said. “They really struggled with assimilating, but through the years, I think they proved them wrong.”

McDonald remembers her grandmother as quiet and not very talkative, but she was strong in her values.

“Now that I’m in social work, I have a better understanding of why,” she said. “It might have been too traumatic to talk about it.”

On the other side of the conflict stood Esma, a Turkish woman who was forced to flee Greece with her five children. The hardships they encountered took the life of one of her twins. Sebnem Ozkan, outreach coordinator at the European Union Center, said her great-grandmother remembered packing all of their belongings and taking the trip to Turkey.

“She always remembered Greece as a nice place,” Ozkan said. “She always talked about her neighbors there, both Turks and Greeks, and she would tell stories about how everybody got along really well, there wasn’t really tension or any fighting … it was the politics and the government who were really messing up things.”

Esma and her family migrated to Sakarya, Turkey, where they ran an olive business to support themselves. Economic hardship after migrating was common because not all belongings could be taken with them, Ozkan said.

The migration didn’t happen in a single day. Political tensions had been brewing and the people knew they would have to leave, but they kept a separate identity, Ozkan said, although that identity has been withering away with each generation.

Like Eleni, Esma and her family also had trouble assimilating and were not welcomed. Even though they spoke Turkish, a difference in customs made them look suspicious. She never returned home but also never expressed the desire to.

“She was still sharp,” Ozkan said. “If somebody told her there were people from this town in Greece from Vodena where she was from, she would insist to go and find them. She was still very committed to her birthplace and she just kept talking about it until she died.”

Esma lived to be more than 100 years old despite facing so many challenges in life, including losing her husband in the war.

“It is quite a lot to deal with, but she never complained,” Ozkan said. “She just thought, ‘This is life,’ and you do the best you can do under the circumstances and you just move forward, stay positive, and I think that was one of the reasons why she lived such a long life.”

Partition of India

As the British left India, the question of whom to transfer power to was imminent. South Asian Muslims worried that if power transferred to the Congress party, there would be a Hindu majoritarian rule, leaving Muslims no say in politics.

“Around 1946, I think the British decided enough is enough,” said Tariq Ali, assistant history professor. “They wanted to cut their losses and run, which meant they needed a quick solution.”

The quickest solution was partition: dividing the country into one Muslim state and one Hindu state.

“This was a solution that no one really liked,” Ali said. “But it’s the solution the British were willing to give.”

Ali said hardly anyone foresaw the enormous violence that would ensue after 20 million people were forced to move. An English lawyer then drew abstract lines on a map and India and Pakistan were born.      When Pakistan gained independence in 1957, the new borders had still not been announced. People celebrated without knowing what country they were in, Ali said.

“What happens is we have Hindus and Sikh militias and Muslim militias going on killing rampages against the other religion,” Ali said. “The death toll was horrific.”

A large number of people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have family across borders today and still have memories of the homes they left behind, Ali said.

Nishant Makhijani, senior in Engineering, remembers his grandparents sharing stories from when they were forced to leave Pakistan during the partition.

Once they heard the news, they packed up their belongings and precious metals, mostly gold jewelry, and left.

When they arrived in India, they stayed in refugee camps until his grandfather’s brother found a job as a police inspector in a small town five hours outside of Mumbai.

“They didn’t know that they were leaving Pakistan for good,” Makhijani said. “They didn’t know that they were never going to see their houses again.”

German-Polish migration

During World War II, Germany had the intention of wiping Poland off the map, said history professor Peter Fritzsche.

What was left of Poland was turned into a military region occupied by Germany. Germany pursued three policies: to move in German settlers, to get rid of all the Jews and to move Polish people out.

“There was an ethnic cleansing,” Fritzsche said. “There would not be any German communities left in Eastern Europe, and so whoever didn’t flee in 1945 was basically kicked out in 1945 to 1947.”

Roughly one third of Germans were on the road without a home, but resentment and bitterness remained moderate, Fritzsche said.

“People made new lives,” he said. “Most Germans realized they started World War II, and they didn’t necessarily say they deserved their fate, but they understood their fate.”

While there were some groups that wished to return home, it was not possible, and as more generations were born, that desire vanished. Today, Europe is more homogenous than it was 100 years ago, Fritzsche said.

EuroMaidan, World War II Parallels, and “Feelings from the Past”

This is a re-posting of a blog post by Illinois alumna Areta Kovalsky. To view the original post, please see


This post is dedicated to EuroMaidan and the Ukrainians’ never-ending struggle to be free. These past few months, as I experienced a revolution and war for Ukraine’s freedom and integrity, I have often thought of my ancestors and how they must have felt during WWII (and earlier liberation movements) and the partisan struggle to liberate Ukraine from totalitarian powers. I’ve always been fascinated by WWII and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), but never in my life did I think I would feel what they felt, get a taste of war, death, and the fight for freedom, such uncertainty, and love for Ukraine in a context similar to theirs. Tying into the theme of my blog, this particular “shadow of the past” is one that I have felt rather than seen. I have encountered what I will call “feelings from the past.” These sentiments which were felt by Ukrainians in WWII have been transferred to a new generation of Ukrainians who are reliving the liberation movement, re-struggling for a free, prosperous, and democratic Ukraine. Of course, EuroMaidan and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine in no ways compares to the scale and consequences of WWII, and I don’t pretend to believe I understand the extent of the suffering that the people felt at that time (especially as I wasn’t in Kyiv during the bloodiest days), but nonetheless, I can’t help but draw certain parallels.


I remember one day in late February I was walking toward the Old Town from work. It was dusk and as I walked along the cobblestone streets, in the distance between the Austrian-era buildings I saw on the city hall tower’s the Ukrainian flag flapping in the wind. I immediately thought about how much Ukrainian blood had been spilled for it to be there. I couldn’t believe that in the year 2014 Ukrainians yet again had to fight for their freedom, fight against a new type of feudalism, new type of Russian imperialism, a new totalitarian power. Ukraine had been independent for just over two decades – the longest it has been a free country since the Middle Ages, the longest a blue and yellow flag had been able to fly safely on Ukrainian land – when again its sovereignty was being threatened.

The flag flies proudly in Lviv, but during the revolution, displaying the yellow and blue banner was an anti-government act, and my mother was even worried for my safety in Lviv because I had a yellow-blue ribbon on my purse and she told me to be careful at night in case some gave me trouble for it…

Kovalsky 2 - Ukrainian FlagLooking at the flag, I thought about all the people who had fought for a free Ukraine throughout the ages, but in particular about the heroes of the Heavenly Hundred who had just been shot down in the center of Kyiv. The heroes, mostly young men, couldn’t sit home while their future was being robbed. I heard so many stories from WWII about families being torn apart, about lost husbands, fathers, brothers. Was it really happening again, in the twenty-first century? Never in my life did I think I would be re-feeling some of what my grandparents felt when they were close to my age, re-living a similar struggle. It all felt so surreal.

I sometimes think that the main reason I moved to Ukraine, the reason I am so drawn here, pulled here by some forces, is because I needed to return to Ukraine in place of my grandparents who were forced to leave their beloved country, and who themselves were never able to return. I feel that I was guided to Ukraine because the love for and attachment to Ukraine was passed down from my grandparents, and as they couldn’t return, I am doing it for them. To me it really does feel like I returned home even though I was born and grew up in a completely different country and culture.

However, within a few months of obtaining my permanent residency, settling into a promising new job, feeling ready to settle down, Ukraine was caught it yet another war for its independence. It started as a peaceful revolution, first for closer ties with the EU, then against corruption, lack of rule of law, and a totalitarian government. Eventually the center of Kyiv became a real battlefield, a frontline between Ukrainians who just wanted a better a future and the paid government police and hired thugs defending the money and opulence of the government.

Barricades at Maidan in Kyiv (December 2013)

Barricades at Maidan in Kyiv (December 2013)

My grandparents’ generation fight for freedom didn’t succeed, there was no independent Ukraine after the war, and so being intelligentsia and having taken part in the liberation struggle, my relatives would have been persecuted under the Soviets. Thus in 1944 when the Soviets were again approaching western Ukraine, my grandparents had to flee west. During EuroMaidan, I remember thinking that one of the reasons that EuroMaidan had to succeed was so that the active members would not be persecuted. Many people took risks by defying the government, like the mayor of Lviv, the administration and many of students of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, etc, and they would have all have been punished for it in one way or another…

A Sunday national assembly on Maidan in Kyiv in December

A Sunday national assembly on Maidan in Kyiv in December

I remember even when the revolution was just beginning, and all the organizing that was taking place, when people were finding food and shelter for people who wanted to go to Kyiv and protest, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the way families in the villages sheltered and fed the partisans during WWII. Eventually sotnias (defense/military units) were formed during EuroMaidan and I couldn’t help but think that the last time sotnias were formed was during the war by the UPA.

Barricades in the center of Lviv - probably the last time Lviv was barricaded was during WWII

Barricades in the center of Lviv – probably the last time Lviv was barricaded was during WWII

The UPA slogan “Glory to Ukraine” and response “Glory to the Heroes” as well as UPA songs sounded from maidan’s across the country, and the black and red UPA flags flew next to the yellow and blue ones. There are in fact a lot more parallels between WWII and EuroMaidan/the Russian invasion…


And once we finally had a taste of victory, finally ousted the corrupt president, finally felt we had a chance to completely reboot the country, root out the Soviet mentality once and for all, put an end to corruption, we realized we were up against something potentially a lot more serious and even more unpredictable – the superpower to our north-east. Although our taste of victory was bittersweet, as it was tainted with the grief we felt for the heroes who lost their lives, we felt that the country had changed for the better, that more was accomplished in those few months than the 20 plus years of Ukrainain independence. After the Yanukovych government was disbanded, I felt as if I were living in a new country, it felt easier to breath, things were starting to look up, and I felt like the deaths were not in vain. But less than a week after the government was overthrown we were faced with war. Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and currently Russia’s attempts to destabilize Ukraine are only increasing. The situation in eastern Ukraine is very serious and it seems Putin has no intention to stop the aggression.

When the invasion first began, my foreigner friends and I were often asked if we planned to leave Ukraine. I never considered it for a moment. My mom told me I could stay with my parents’ friend’s parents in Poland if I did have to leave. And just the other day she said her friends in the States asked her if I have an exit strategy. I don’t think the conflict will ever physically reach this part of Ukraine, but it was and still is a scary time to be in Ukraine. If the conflict did spread, I, like my grandparents, would have to make the difficult decision of deciding whether to stay or leave. Of course my move wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as theirs was – I wouldn’t have to make a fresh start in a country where I don’t know the language, leaving behind close relatives and the only life I had – but it would still be heartbreaking for me.

Almost every time I talk to my mom she tells me to think about what I would take with me if I needed to make a quick escape from Ukraine. It made me think about what my grandparents took with them when they left Ukraine. Very few things of theirs from their lives in Ukraine have survived. They couldn’t take a lot with them and a lot was lost, stolen, or broken along the way. They took photos, documents, a china set (only one mug survived with a broken ear), some embroidery (pillow cases, portières), kilims, jewelry, wedding rings, a balsam wood cross from Jerusalem. My mom said to make sure I take my antique embroidered blouses.

Center of Lviv after the bloody events in Kyiv

Center of Lviv after the bloody events in Kyiv

Spring has arrived in Lviv, the summer terraces have been built, on the weekends the center is packed with tourists and locals – life goes on, but we are all still very worried about what is happening in the east of our country and no one has any idea how things will end…

And we have not forgotten about the fallen heroes – memorials, graffiti, shrines, billboards commemorating them are found all over the city. Now in addition to the Heroes of UPA Street, Lviv has a street named after the Heroes of EuroMaidan. Just as the heroes of WWII have not been forgotten, they live on in the people, memories, urban landscape, hearts, so to the heroes of EuroMaidan live on.

One of the first shrines in Lviv to the fallen heroes

One of the first shrines in Lviv to the fallen heroes

I hope one day these particular feelings from the past will stop being passed on to new generations, and instead only the feelings of love and pride will be passed on.

Areta Kovalsky graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a major in International Studies and an undergraduate minor in the REEEC degree program. She went on to get a master’s degree in Eastern European Studies from the University of Toronto. The last couple of years, she has been living in Lviv, Ukraine, working as a translator and for various IT companies.


Remembering the Good: Social Memory and the Resistance to Violence in the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon

Dr. Margaret Paxson, Anthropologist and Research Fellow at Georgetown University, has conducted research in the Russian city of Solovyovo, the North Caucasus, and in rural France, which has led to findings on the development and maintenance of social memory.  In her November 8 presentation for the European Union Center Lecture Series, which REEEC co-sponsored, Dr. Paxson drew our attention to the small, rural town of Le Chambon sur Lignon, France, which has an extraordinary legacy.

Dr. Margaret Paxson

Dr. Margaret Paxson

Le Chambon sur Lignon is located on a plateau in south-central France, but neither the geographic disposition, religion, or nationality can fully explain the events that transpire there.  During World War II, this rural Protestant town orchestrated, what Dr. Paxson maintains, as one of the greatest rescue efforts, but what the locals there simply call “normal.”  What distinguishes that effort is the level of group involvement and the long-term duration of the activities.

After the German invasion of France in May 1940, there was an exodus to the southern portions of France.  The Vichy government was established. By October 1940, anti-Semitic legislation was passed and mass deportations began.  Starting in 1942, refugees were given shelter in Le Chambon sur Lignon. They numbered roughly 5000, of which 3500 were Jewish refugees fleeing deportation to concentration camps.  They came from numerous European countries and for various reasons, but the inhabitants of Le Chambon sur Lignon never questioned anything, despite the enormous risk to their own safety.  They opened their doors to these tired and war-torn people, saving thousands from the death camps.

World War II was not the first time that this type of effort had occurred.  In the 16th century, Le Chambon sur Lignon had also sheltered Huguenots, then Catholics, followed by refugees from disaster areas in the 19th and 20th centuries. Throughout the years, the community has continued to provide asylum to those from a variety of countries even beyond Europe, including Laos, Algeria, Tibet, Chechnya, Iran, Armenia, and Dagestan.

This exceptional effort appears to be a natural response from the people of Le Chambon sur Lignon, but it is not a typical response to stress or strangers, according to Dr. Paxson.  Oftentimes, a community tends to maximize self-interest and become closed to outsiders, who might pose a threat.  She has noted some habits and characteristics of the people there, including: their idea of “stranger” and their openness to those in need and the prominence of “doing unto others, as you would have done unto you,” both of which are apparent in how the people of Le Chambon sur Lignon provide shelter for neighbors and strangers when caught in the intense wind that periodically rips across the plateau.  Another attribute is the silence about the rescue efforts.  Dr. Paxson notes that the silence may be part of the attitude they have toward their actions as simply being “normal.” Repeating the stories would only cause the rescue to seem out of the ordinary.  Dr. Paxson’s observation raises questions about how memories of the past can be preserved if they are not remembered beyond that generation.

The next generations growing up in Le Chambon sur Lignon, though, do in fact continue to live out the tradition.  Children have been integral as the social bridge between cultures and generations.  Often meeting and befriending one another at school, children continue to build bonds across cultural and social barriers, thereby weaving their parents and the adult community into a closer network as well.  Such integration is evident in the shelter developed in Le Chambon sur Lignon, which has provided assistance to families of refugees over the past 10 years.

The events that occurred during World War II in Le Chambon sur Lignon were neither rational, nor intuitive, as demonstrated clearly by what transpired across Europe during the war.  Dr. Paxson expresses the singularity of this effort in this small French town, by reminding us of how many cases of missed opportunity to do this there have been.  Le Chambon sur Lignon was recognized as Righteous Among Nations for its actions during the war and continues its legacy to this day.

Elizabeth Stegeman is a second-year M.A. Student in REEEC.  Her interests focus on foreign policy and security, especially as expressed through energy politics, between Russian and Eastern Europe.  She received her B.A. in Germanic Languages and Literature with a minor in Russian in 2009, and a Graduate Certificate in Translation Studies in 2010, both from the University of Illinois.

Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams

On November 7, 2013, Dr. Charles King, a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, gave a lecture at REEEC about the Ukrainian city of Odessa as part of the New Directions in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies series.  The title of the lecture was the same as the title of his book, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams.

Prof. Charles King

Prof. Charles King giving his lecture with a picture of Odessa’s port on the screen

Throughout its short history, Odessa has been known for its diverse inhabitants from many different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. At least during part of this history, these cultures and ethnicities managed to coexist peacefully. This mixture of cultures, within the same neighborhoods and even families, equaled, said King, “more than the sum of [its] parts.”

Odessa, as we know it today, was born when its territory was annexed to the Russian Empire. It is a younger city than Washington, D.C., founded in 1794 with the help of a general under Catherine the Great, José de Ribas, from Naples. In the 1820s, Russia’s great poet Aleksandr Pushkin lived there during his exile and most likely had an affair with Lise Vorontsova, the wife of the governor-general of New Russia. According to King, Pushkin likely doodled Lise’s portrait in the margins of his notebook, where he wrote Evgeny Onegin.  The governor-general, probably suspecting Pushkin was up to no good, ordered him to write an official report about Odessa’s locust infestation. Pushkin never wrote that report.

Some years later, the iconic American writer Mark Twain visited Odessa and, after gazing into the distance from the Odessa Steps, remarked that it reminded him of America.

Though all of these facts make for an interesting narrative, they comprise only a small part of Odessa’s history.

The story of Odessa that King wanted to tell began when he showed the audience a picture of an old, dilapidated building on an Odessa street corner. King remarked that the old building is symbolic of Odessa’s mystery. The building, originally an old synagogue, changed into a worker’s club during Soviet times. Today, it houses the city’s archives. The enigma of Odessa, King stated, was that it fluctuated drastically between a comfortable coexistence among diverse cultures and ethnicities on the one hand, and massive violence between them on the other.

The shift, from peaceful coexistence between the Jews and other Odessans to unthinkable violence, comprised a large portion of King’s lecture. Odessa was not only a very important port for the Russian Empire’s grain trade, but also a place with its own myths and literary culture, in which its Jewish population exercised considerable influence. It was a population that included Isaac Babel (author of Red Calvary) and Vladimir Jabotinsky, a revisionist Zionist who was the founder of Odessa’s Jewish Self-Defense Organization and writer of The Five.

Despite the fact that Odessa was a place of flowering Russian, Yiddish and several other cultures, pogroms against the Jews started in the 1820s and continued into the twentieth century. King compared the scale of violence surrounding these pogroms to a mini-civil war, as many Jews violently fought back. Sadly, these pogroms were neither the last nor the worst catastrophe to befall the city’s Jewish population. The Romanian occupation of Odessa during World War II brought even more anti-Semitic violence and devastating losses. Jews were moved into ghettos and murdered on a massive scale.  In one instance, a Soviet-perpetrated explosion of a Romanian military headquarters in 1941 precipitated the mass murder of 20,000-30,000 Jews. Just a week separated this event from the better-known tragedy of Babi Yar in Kiev. When the Soviet army conducted a census of the Odessan population in 1944, they were only able to find 48 Jews. Though Jews returned to Odessa after the war, until this day, no more than 12 percent of the city’s population has been Jewish. As a result of these tragic losses, Odessa, as King put it, is actually a city “that devoured itself.”

Fortunately, the story of Odessa is not yet finished and does not have to end with complete destruction. King decided to end both his book and lecture in Brighton Beach, New York, a place where “Odessa has recreated itself.” Its inhabitants even call it “Little Odessa.” King concluded that his book is less about Odessa’s rise and fall, and more about how “cosmopolitanism” (meaning peaceful coexistence of many cultures) “takes work” and is a “project, not a virtue in itself.”

Emily Ewers is a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in 20th-century and contemporary Russian literature and film. She is also interested in Ukrainian language and culture. She received her B.A in history from St. Mary’s College of Maryland.