In 2014 the Blavatnik Archive Foundation presented a collection of primary resources to students and faculty in the Jewish History, Russian History, and Translation & Interpretation departments at Middlebury College, in Vermont. In the following two academic years the results of our visit to the university have been meaningful and rewarding. In the course “Jews in Modern Europe” Professor Rebecca Bennette initiated opportunities for her students to become real-world historians and archivists, by engaging directly with the Archive’s materials. “This project is designed to allow you greater ‘real world’ experience in how those engaged in historical research approach the past,” Professor Bennette explained to her students. “In doing so, it asks you to play the role of a historian-archivist in both categorizing and contextualizing a set of documents as well as in using these documents to answer a scholarly question.”
Driven by the Archive’s materials, some students chose to do complete an archival project in lieu of their final exams. The student work that ensued is remarkable, reflecting deeper inquiry and learning, as well as practical application. They focused in groups and/ or individually on specific topics, wrote essays encompassing contextual background, document inventory and description, additional questions/research proposals, and bibliography.
After completing her paper, Sarah Dohan emailed Professor Bennette her feedback: "I loved doing the project and learning about the veterans' lives, as well as Soviet history. Reading the testimonies and seeing video recordings of the veterans provided a personal connection to history that you don't often get to experience in class. Thanks for providing the class with the opportunity to do the archival documents project - while I understand the usefulness of exams, I think doing the research was much more engaging and interesting than simply studying for a midterm and final, and I definitely learned a lot."
Sarah Koenigsberg commented on how much she enjoyed working with the postcard images from the Judaica collection. “[She] compared it to almost trying to solve a mystery in some cases,” Professor Bennette recalled.
Students who participated in the group project shared their experience with the Middlebury College President, Ron Liebowtiz: “In looking at these materials we were taken and then addicted to what they told us about the War and also about the young soldiers. They affirmed and complemented so well what we learned through Professor Bennette’s lectures and all our readings. They gave us a depth of understanding that was way beyond anything we have ever had in a course. And, in deciphering the materials, and working with students in the class who knew Russian, we were… we became historians!”
We are proud to share a selection of the students’ work, along with a selection of primary resources they researched. We are grateful to Middlebury College and to Professor Bennette for this exciting and deeply rewarding collaboration.