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Library Events Explore the Soviet Jewish Experience

The Harvard Library hosted a series of events in concert with Lives of the Great Patriotic War, an exhibition presented by the Harvard Library and the Blavatnik Archive Foundation.


November 18, 2014—The Harvard Library convened scholars and experts for a series of discussions, films and panels inspired by the Blavatnik Archive exhibit “Lives of the Great Patriotic War,” which documents the lives and roles of Soviet Jewish soldiers during World War II.

Provost Alan Garber hosted an opening panel that included Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, and former ambassador R. Nicholas Burns, the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations, moderated by Board of Overseers member Tracy Palandjian ’93, MBA ’97. The panel discussed the era showcased in the exhibit before going on to outline the history of US-Russia relations from World War II to today. The panelists concurred that “underneath the present is the past”—the psyche of the Russian people still echoes with the wounds of the Great Patriotic War, in which at least 20 million Soviet citizens died. (Read more on the event and the exhibit here.)

The Harvard Film Archive hosted a retrospective of the works of Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, welcoming the director in person for discussion at two screenings. Throughout his career, Loznitsa has focused on stories of life, hardship, and conflicts within Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union. His work offers an unflinching look at life in the former Soviet Bloc, often focusing on the collective experience rather than a single protagonist. (Read the full story of Loznitsa’s appearance here.)

In a lecture on Jews and the Soviet multiethnic state, Harvard’s Terry Martin, George F. Baker III Professor of Russian Studies, gave an overview of the shifts in the Soviet state’s attitude toward Jews as a whole through political and geographical position. While Jews thrived in the country during the 1920s and 1930s, becoming in some cases “the most Russian of the Russians,” the initially Jewish-tolerant state progressed to an overall anti-Semitic atmosphere as national identity formed around territory, leaving the stateless Jewish population without a clear national affinity, Martin said. “There’s quite a bit of anti-Semitism during any stressful time,” he explained. “It’s clear during the war that policy turned against the Jews.”

In a discussion on war and the Holocaust on the Western Front, Harvard’s Joshua Rubenstein, an associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Eurasian and Russian Studies, and Boston College Professor of Russian, English and Jewish Studies Maxim Shrayer provided context and examples of the immense impact Hitler’s anti-Semitic campaigns had in Soviet territory during the war and after; as many as 2.5 million Jews in German-occupied Soviet territory were massacred.

In his portion of the talk, Rubenstein explored the role of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the social, political and cultural landscape of the wartime and postwar Soviet Union. The Jewish activists that had worked in support of the Soviet government in wartime were persecuted and executed afterward for their documentation of the Holocaust and support of Israel.

“The politics of the postwar period overwhelmed the committee,” said Rubenstein. He noted that this assault on Jewish culture sped the postwar diaspora of Soviet Jews.

“As you peruse the exhibit, you are immediately struck by one thing. Every Jewish family had victims who were killed in the Shoah [the Holocaust], but they also had family members who fought bravely,” said Shrayer, who gave an example through the life of Ilya Selvinsky, a Soviet Jewish poet soldier. “I don’t think there was another ethnic national community who could simultaneously speak of such valor and such victimhood at one time.”

Lives of the Great Patriotic War is on display at Pusey Library through November 26, 2014.