Sharing stories of war and struggle leads to new friendships

As the 70th anniversary of Victory Day in Russia approaches, students connect with immigrants from the former Soviet Union to capture their stories.

Photos/Brandeis-Genesis Institute
Historians, story tellers, family—that’s what a team of Brandeis students has become to a group of immigrants from the former Soviet Union living at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Students in the “Individual Lives, Common Story” experiential learning practicum, a course offered with support of the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry and Genesis Philanthropy Group, have been meeting with the residents to listen to and record their emotional stories about living in the Soviet Union during and after World War II.
“This is a community of people that needs and deserves attention,” says Misha Vilenchuk ‘16, an undergraduate fellow with the Brandeis-Genesis Institute who interviewed Dora Ferman, an 85-year old woman from Ukraine.
“They’re overwhelmed with joy that someone other than their families and staff of the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center cares about them,” adds Vilenchuk. “This is extremely important. At first, Dora was skeptical and not really open, but after my first few visits, we reached a more personal level and she became my friend.”
Two of the practicum’s main goals are to capture and tell the story of the residents—their first-hand accounts of what wartime was like and their Jewish experiences in a post-war Soviet Union—and for the students to improve their Russian language skills. In doing so, the students are also forming a special connection with the people they interview, a bond that benefits both student and resident.
“There’s this idea of connecting,” says Irina Dubinina, a professor and director of the Russian Language Program at Brandeis who is currently conducting research in St. Petersburg, Russia. “It’s a whole different level of interviews and conversations.”
Toward the conclusion of the course, the students’ interviews are transcribed and translated, and then published in both English and Russian in a volume of books. The course, which is officially in its fourth year and fourth volume, wasn’t originally intended to be an experiential learning practicum.
Dubinina learned about the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center from alumna Anna Umanskaya ’10, who had interned there. It wasn’t until the following year that one of her students, Vlad Lukashevsky ‘11, started going to the center as part of an individual study course to improve his Russian language skills. Since then, the course has blossomed into a hands-on, emotional odyssey for students involved in the Russian studies program. In researching and interviewing, students often learn stories and information that not even the residents’ families know.
Genesis Book
This can make it especially emotional when students present their interviewee, and their family, with a completed volume that has documented a previously unknown story.
“I met Dora’s daughter, who often stayed with us for the interviews, and she was surprised at what she didn’t know about her mother,” says Vilenchuk. “Almost everyone in the practicum has that experience. I think it’s because of the depth we get into. So these people are more than willing to have us come in and record their parent’s or grandparent’s story, just to have it on record, because it’s well-intentioned and provides these individuals with something on paper that they can proudly pass down.”
May 9—dubbed Victory Day in Russia—is one of the major holidays in the former Soviet Union, as it marks the surrender of Nazi Germany and the conclusion of the Great Patriotic War. In Russia, war veterans will dress with all of their medals on in celebration. But here, many miles and years removed from the war, Brandeis students will celebrate differently.
“We tell students not to be surprised if an interviewee begins their life story with ‘this is where I was when the war began,’” says Dubinina. “It was the most traumatic experience. So May 9 is one of the holiest days of the year. This year, the students will go to the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, celebrate with their new friends and present the books. This course offers a great opportunity for students not only to acquire new language skills, but also to make a positive impact on communities outside of the Brandeis campus.”

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