“Never happened!” shouted new immigrant Mark L. when I began my lecture on the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939. Who was this giant of a boy shouting at me in front of my eleventh grade European History class? I deescalated the situation by asking Mark to join us the next day for class after he and I had time to talk privately about the existence/non-existence of this treaty. That night I phoned my sister Leslie. Leslie’s travels to the USSR and her work as an ESL teacher made her the perfect adviser for me.
“That’s what Mark learned in Soviet school,” Leslie informed me. “He’ll have an entirely different take on the Great Patriotic War than a non-Soviet and he’ll have it memorized.”
(To encounter this phenomenon in today's Ukraine Separatist zone, see the April 30, 2015 article in the New York Times about the newest guidelines on teaching the history of the famine in the Ukraine. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/30/world/europe/ukraine-separatists-rewrite-history-of-1930s-famine.html?src=me&_r=0)
(To read a reassessment of the USSR victory in 1945, see the May 9, 2015 article in the New York Times.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/09/opinion/mikhail-shishkin-how-russians-lost-the-war.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0)
Armed with background intel, I was now able to talk to Mark about history class in the USSR and history class in Minneapolis. It was a major conceptual adjustment for him when he realized that questions were welcome and primary sources backed up the claims in the history book. He would need a new lens through which to view both his present circumstances as a sixteen-year-old immigrant and his past.
I became a history major just because I liked reading history. I hadn’t given much thought to what I would “do” with history. As a college sophomore at Hebrew University, I learned how to learn about the past. Professor Buzzy Porten taught us to turn and turn and turn again when we examined a primary source. His twice weekly assignments--develop an analysis based on a particular primary source and write up your findings in 150 words or less. Years later I realized that Buzzy was teaching with a rabbinic model. We not only read primary sources and wrote about them, we debated their meaning and import in class. Now I was completely besotted with history.
Further cementing my academic bent was my predecessor at St. Louis Park Senior High. Knowing her reputation as the finest history teacher in the state, I consulted with her before I created a history curriculum for the private school where I worked. Her advice: keep up with academic journals. History is constantly reinterpreted and rewritten. One can’t be a historian and stuck in the past.
Through the years I have learned there is yet one other key element to understanding the past and that is personal history. When Vera and Alla recounted their life stories against the backdrop of the Soviet regime, the dry sentences from a text about Jewish quotas or lack of food in groceries or Soviet apartment blocs rose up like Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones and assumed shape and form and personality. The comment we hear most frequently from readers of Jewish Luck is that the book helped them feel what it was like to live in the Soviet Union. As our grandma Rae would have said, “better you should feel it from here than have lived it there.”
The personal lens does not distort history but selects and interprets. The integration reveals the truth about how we understand the world. The Soviet system buffeted Vera and Alla; yet, they created their own historical narratives where they are actors and not victims. Their choices and lack of choices personalize life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
We thank all of you who have shared your stories with us during a speaking engagement, in a book group, or via email. With each comment and thought you help us continue to reshape our views of history.