Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

A Q&A With Irina Rebrova, HBI-BGI Scholar-in-Residence

March 21, 2014

Irina Rebrova is the first scholar-in-residence from HBI's partnership with the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry (BGI), dedicated to the mission of galvanizing the Russian-speaking Jewish community around the world by empowering young adults to actively engage in Jewish life. She comes to HBI from Krasnodar, the same region that recently hosted the Winter Olympics.

Irina's work involves looking at narratives from Jewish Holocaust survivors in the south of Russia. She is examining narratives for peculiarities and gender aspects. She is working on a PhD in the politics of memory. The HBI blog, "Fresh Ideas from HBI," recently interviewed Irina about her work.

Q: How did you get interested in this work?

A: I was invited to go to a conference in Rostov in 2012, devoted to the 60th anniversary of the mass extermination of Jews there, in Zmievskaya Balka. The organizer of this conference was the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center in Moscow. At that time, I already hold a Russian PhD on the topic of written memoirs from people who struggled in World War II. For this work, I had collected oral histories with the witnesses and war veterans in the region.

People who knew my work and interests encouraged me to come and present about the Holocaust. I had little time to prepare and did not find much research, only two dissertations; one in Hebrew and one in Russian. That's how I knew that a lot of work was needed to be done and I was interested.

I had already collected oral histories and mentioned places where Jews had been murdered so I had many leads on how to begin this research. By the way, I didn't go to the conference because I was in Berlin at the time and they were not able to pay for my travel to Rostov, but I still did the research, published it in Russian and then I decided to write my PhD about memory politics in South of Russia about Holocaust.

Q: How did you start?

A: I started with field research. I found storytellers and interviewed survivors. Until now, I interview Holocaust survivors in several southern cities: Krasnodar, Maikop, Rostov, and Taganrog. Leonid Terushkin, the head of Archives and Museum of Moscow Holocaust Center and local Jewish communities helped me a lot to find storytellers. When I moved to Germany, I continued to collect testimonies, which are stored in the Visual History Archive. I'm very happy that my Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at the Technical University in Berlin has access to this archive. And, I'm grateful to the director of this Center, Professor Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, who understood the importance of my research and became my supervisor.

Q: What hurdles and barriers have you encountered?

A: It is horrible to listen to these stories. They told me crucial things about how they needed to survive. Some of them struggled all their lives with this and did not get any help. But, there are many interested and positive stories, too. Many of my storytellers came from the intermarried and they learned more about their Jewish heritage as adults. There was one story about a Russian mother and her half-Jewish daughter who were forced to house a Nazi soldier. He left an ashtray in their house and they saved it. My storyteller, who was 8 years old during the occupation told me, with a humor, that she wishes to travel to Germany and find that Nazi solder and give it back so she can tell him she is Jewish and he never realized it. But, no one in her family died or suffered. Her story was not a tragedy. The tragedy for her were the stories that came out after the war and that became troublesome for her afterwards.

Q: Can you give me an example of memory politics you have encountered?

A: Russia is still hiding Holocaust history and if we now live in a democratic society, we need to confront the Holocaust history. We are only starting to do this. Some say that Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost were the beginning of confronting our history. For example, there is a monument in Rostov that is dedicated to the 27,000 "Soviet people" who died in World War II, but it did not say they were Jewish.

The monument was built in the 1970s. In 2004, a new inscription was made by the local Jewish researchers, who wanted to point out that this was the place, where on "11-12 August 1942 more than 27,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis. It is the largest in the Russian Holocaust Memorial." But in 2011, the local authorities changed the inscription. They did not wanted to mention the Holocaust or Jews as the main victims. After several trials initiated by the Jewish community, they achieved the agreement to mention "among the victims were Jewish people." The narrative of the former Soviet Union was not to segregate Jews into a separate category, but to only speak of Soviet citizens.

Q: Is anyone else doing this work?

A: When the Soviet Union fell into different regions, Jewish communities were established. Many of the Jews in the southern region were exterminated during World War II and so we don't have their stories. It is popular to study about the Cossacks, but not the Jews. It is so important and very few local historians and activists are talking about it. That's why I want to do this research.

Irina Rebrova is the HBI-BGI Scholar-in-residence. She will be blogging regularly during her residency at HBI.