When Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies quickly helped to create a fellowship program to support 12 scholars working under unimaginable conditions.
Today, the program, which is jointly run by Fordham, the American Academy for Jewish Research, and the New York Public Library, continues to support these scholars, many of whom had to flee their homeland.
When the program was conceived, Fordham offered a year-long fellowship to a student pursuing master’s level studies in the area of Jewish and Slavic studies. The others, a mix of Ph.D. students and scholars working in the same area, were provided stipends, access to electronic resources at Fordham and the library, and invitations to five remote workshops.
Magda Teter, Fordham’s Shvider Chair in Judaic Studies and an administrator of the program, said the program will help scholars document this period in history. She said a source of inspiration for the project was the work of Samuel Kassow, who wrote about the efforts to document the experience of living in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust in his 2007 book Who Will Write our History? (Indiana University Press, 2007).
“I think it is important for the moment to gather, to collect, to preserve, to remember,” she said.
“It is our duty to help these scholars in any way we can. Even small stipends mean a lot to them when their institutions have been bombed or are inaccessible.”
Working Even When the Lights Go Out
When Tetyana Batanova delivered the lecture “Yiddish Sources and Resources: My Personal Path to Jewish and Yiddish Studies” virtually from her apartment in Kyiv in the lecture series “Scholars at War” on April 8, it was a welcome splinter of normalcy. Russian armed forces, which had occupied her Kyiv suburb of Bucha in the opening month of the war, had only retreated from the area a week earlier.
Batanova, the acting head of the Judaica Department at the V. Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, had been conducting research for her dissertation about the five Jewish political parties that participated in Ukraine’s national government in 1917-1918. At the time, Yiddish was one of four officially recognized languages in the country. Today only Ukrainian is officially recognized by the government.
With her country facing an existential crisis, Batanova said she had serious doubts about the importance of her research. The fellowship has helped restore her faith.
“Seven months later, I’m more confident in what we do, and that we should continue,” she said.
“But in April, it was not that obvious for me at all. When I was invited to give my lecture, it was good that it was in April, because in March I was not able to speak at all.”
Historical research is only as good as the original sources one can acquire, and having worked at the New York Public Library in 2006, Batanova knew what kinds of archival documents and journal articles she’d need. As a result of the fellowship program workshops, she was able to access new books from Fordham University Library online resources providing the context for her research, such as Stephen Velychenko’s book Life and Death in Revolutionary Ukraine : Living Conditions, Violence, and Demographic Catastrophe, 1917-1923 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021).
Her research focuses a great deal on Yiddish, a language intrinsically tied to the Holocaust and its victims. It was also the primary language of the 30,000 to 70,000 killed in anti-Jewish pogroms that swept Ukraine in 1919.
Although it is still spoken in pockets around the world, its importance is not widely known, making it an ideal path for the average citizen to learn about Ukrainian history, Batanova said.
“The story of Yiddish is quite similar to the story of Ukraine in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.”
Fleeing War for NYC
Andrii Pykalo was just beginning his graduate studies when the war began. He attended V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city just 25 miles from the Russian border. Feb. 24, the day that Russia attacked, will forever be cemented in his mind.
“I will never forget the sky over my neighborhood. It was yellow, because of all the Russian rockets,” he said.
“It was very, very noisy, and I remember the panic. It was a horrible surprise for all.”
Continued study in Kharkiv was never an option; for starters, the university library was hit by a Russian missile. Pykalo said he tried to help save some of the books from the collapsed structure.
He had to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops to leave, but he was granted permission in May, and he arrived in New York City to attend Fordham on Aug. 23. He has been living in an off-campus apartment in Harlem and attending classes, such as one on antisemitism with Teter and another one about advanced research methods by history professor Grace Chen, Ph.D.
For his research project, “Soviet Jews and the History and Memory of the Holocaust in Ukraine,” he’s been able to use his time in New York to locate documents that show how Americans viewed Jews in the Soviet Union at that time.
Apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp have made it possible for Pykalo to stay in touch with his friends and family, and he’s also connected with the Ukrainian diaspora in the East Village. But the decision to leave Ukraine was a fraught one.
“I understood that I should have been in Ukraine defending my country. I should be with my family, I should be with my friends,” he said.
“I was really afraid for my family, but they all told me that I must go because it’s my profession. This is my task.”
Seeking Safety in Michigan
Yurii Kaparulin, Ph.D., an associate professor of history and legal scholar at Kherson State University in southern Ukraine, found himself on the wrong side of the border when war broke out. While his wife and son were home in the city of Kherson, he was in Bucharest, Romania. His family spent a month in Kherson while it was occupied by Russian forces before they were able to evacuate and reunite. In August, they moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Kaparulin received a separate, “scholars at risk” fellowship from the University of Michigan’s Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia.
For Kaparulin, the Fordham fellowship, which he was offered after moving to Ann Arbor, has been invaluable for the completion of his book, “Between Soviet Modernization and the Holocaust: Jewish Agrarian Settlements in the Southern Ukraine (1924-1948),” which he began seven years ago.
The war forced him to leave behind some of his own research, but more importantly, he lost access to his own university’s archives.
“Before Russian troops left Kherson, they looted the biggest part of the Kherson State archive. So I needed to figure out where I would look for sources and get some of the newest articles and books,” he said.
Through the Fordham fellowship, he’s been able to access resources such as the article Farming the red land: Jewish agricultural colonization and local Soviet power, 1924-1941 Jonathan L. Dekel-Chen, (Yale University Press, 2015), and “Men inspecting foals at an artel supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Kherson, Ukraine” a black and white photo from 1924.
His project addresses mass violence and wartime collaborators from the past–both of which have ties to the present. One of the reasons why Russian President Vladimir Putin has smeared Ukrainians as Nazis, he said, is because there were, in fact, Ukraine citizens who collaborated with the Nazi regime during World War II.
However, Russian propaganda effectively ignores the contribution of millions of Ukrainians to the victory over Nazism, he said. That is, when it comes to examples of collaborationism, the Ukrainian origin of the accused is emphasized, he said, and when it comes to heroism and victory, “Soviet heroes” are mentioned without ethnic context.
The phenomenon of collaborationism has also been observed during Russia’s current war against Ukraine. For example, during the occupation of Kherson from March to November 2022, some residents cooperated with the Russian occupiers.
“Their motives are currently being established by law enforcement agencies. However, in general, we see that the majority of the city’s residents have maintained the Ukrainian position despite various risks, including to their lives,” he said.
Providing Tools for Research
To help the scholars with their research, Shawn Hill, an instructional technologist in Fordham’s department of informational technology, delivered a workshop in November that walked participants through the reference tool Zotero. The bibliographic and citation tool makes it easier for scholars to organize papers, monographs, books, and articles.
He also demonstrated Art Steps, a tool used by interior designers, art historians, and gallery managers to create virtual exhibits.
“You may have a painting in Kyiv, a sculpture in Kharkiv, and something in Odesa. You can’t bring them together in the real world for obvious reasons, but you can create an Art Steps exhibition space and give the URL to a guest or a friend or the public as a whole.”
My Soul Is Still There
Lyudmila Sholokhova, Ph.D., Curator of the Dorot Jewish Collection at the New York Public Library, grew up in Kyiv, and like Batanova, she worked at the V. Vernadsky National Library before moving to the United States.
In 1997, she was the recipient of a fellowship and spent time at the United States Library of Congress. Now she’s the point person for the fellows in the program working with New York Public Library.
The fact that she’s able to now help other scholars from Ukraine moves her deeply. “My soul is still there. I want to help my people in any way possible. I want to support them,” she said.
“I know the value of access to all these enormous resources that these libraries can provide. When I was in Ukraine, I had access to the primary sources, but I didn’t have access to scholarship on the documents,” she said.
“When you work on this subject, you really need the context. You really need access to a much larger corpus of resources.”