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.

Examining the Testimonies of Five World War II Veterans

by Sarah Dohan

The five veterans all were born between 1919 and 1923 in countries that eventually joined the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also known as the Soviet Union. All came from Jewish families, but Judaism meant something different to each of the five individuals as they practiced their religion and its cultural traditions to varying extents. Despite the variances, all identify as Jewish and reflect on the nature of their experiences from a Jewish perspective. All believe their Jewish identity impacted their experiences of military service for the Soviet Union during World War II. In order to understand the perspectives of the five veterans, it is essential to know the context in which they were born, matured, and later raised their own families.

Miriam Kogan

Aaron Chernyak

Moisey Chernoguz

David Zekster

Yakov Shepetinsky

Archival Document Project: Jewish Life Postcards

by Becky Wasserman, Fiona Rodgerson, Zack Strauss, Molly Kaminsky

This postcard collection from the Blavatnik Archives contains 44 postcards with backs and fronts portraying Jewish life across Europe and the Russian Empire from 1875-1934. The map on the following page illustrates the geographical and temporal range of the collection. While a few postcard backs contain writing, most are illegible or blank and offer little information. The fronts, however, provide pertinent information and a wide array of images ranging from World War I soldiers to Jewish markets, synagogues, and ritual practice. Publishers, locations, and dates were not always evident on the postcards, but it was possible to ascertain this information in the majority of cases. The postcards contained writing in German, French, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. It is interesting to note that although various postcards have Central European publishers, they depict Jewish life not in Germany, but within the Russian Pale of Settlement.

Inhibited by Identity: The Significance of Trotsky's Jewish Background in his Defeat Against Stalin

by Sarah Koenigsberg

Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known by his adopted name Leon Trotsky, has been slighted in historical studies compared to his infamous rival, Joseph Stalin. Despite his enormous contributions in the decades leading up to the Communist Revolution and during the foundational years of the Soviet Regime, Trotsky’s failure to succeed Vladimir Lenin as the principal leader of the Communist Party left him absent during many of the Soviet Union’s formative years. Stalin’s triumph over Trotsky can be attributed to numerous factors both circumstantially unavoidable and constructed by the victor himself. One element that often gets overlooked is the matter of Trotsky’s Jewish background. Though Trotsky himself insisted on the impossibility of a Jewish Soviet leader, the specific role this facet of his identity played in his political trajectory often gets under-emphasized. In the thoroughly anti-Semitic environment of early 20th century Russia, neither Stalin nor Trotsky was ignorant of the impact the latter’s Jewishness could have on his political success. While not the sole explanation for his downfall, Leon Trotsky’s Jewish background was a formidable political obstacle that hindered him at crucial moments in his struggle against Stalin, contributing extensively to, if not guaranteeing, his defeat.