Hearing from a Ukrainian Holocaust historian in exile

Hearing from a Ukrainian Holocaust historian in exile

Dr. Svitlana Telukha, now sheltering in Germany, links up with the Ramapo College Holocaust center

Dr. Svitlana Telukha
Dr. Svitlana Telukha

History has been closing in on Dr. Svitlana Telukha — or perhaps Dr. Telukha has been closing in on history.

Dr. Telukha has a Ph.D. in the subject and is on the faculty of at Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute in Ukraine’s second largest city, which was a major battleground from the beginning of Russia’s invasion in February. (She and her teenage daughters evacuated to Leipzig, Germany.)

And so a career that began with archival research about the Kharkiv diocese of the Russian Orthodox church in the wake of World War I has turned to documenting in real time, with a project called “Unspeakable: Stories of Ukrainians who fled the war in Germany.”

Dr. Telukha’s involvement in oral history had her working on a project to chronicle the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl; next, she joined the team collecting oral histories under the auspices of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which was launched in 2016.

Last week, Dr. Telukha spoke about her work, her field, and the testimonies she gathered in a video seminar sponsored by the Gross Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Ramapo College, in conjunction with Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.

Dr. Telukha began by tracing the history of the field of oral history. Its pioneer, Allan Nevins, bridged the worlds of journalism — he wrote for the New York Evening Post and the New York World; biography — two of the many biographies Nevins wrote, “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage” and “Hamilton Fish: The Inner Story of the Grant Administration” won Pulitzer Prizes; and academia — he spent three decades on Columbia’s history faculty, and he founded Columbia University’s pioneering Center for Oral History in 1948.

The existence of the field provided academic grounding for the “Voices” research project undertaken by the Babyn Yar museum, for which Dr. Telukha conducted more than 150 interviews.

The project interviewed people who remembered what happened during the Holocaust: survivors, witnesses, rescuers. It sought the stories of those people who had worked to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive after the war in Soviet Ukraine — particularly those involved in commemorating the Babyn Yar massacre. And it interviewed descendants of the Holocaust victims and witnesses — what Dr. Telukha called “post-memory generations.”

Interviewing for oral history requires empathy. So perhaps not surprisingly, “Many of my respondents are good friends for me today,” she said.

And many are now going through a second fight for survival, with some exiled to Germany or Israel. One was killed by Russian rockets.

Borys Romanhchenko was 16 when the Nazis deported him to work in a German coal mine. He survived a concentration camp before returning to Ukraine after the war. But in March 2022, “he was burned alive in his home as a result of a Russian army missile,” Dr. Telukha said.

One commonality she found in the stories of the survivors: “It’s always the unexpectable turn in the biographical story,” she said. “It’s always about human creativity.”

She told the story of Yevgeny Grigoryevich Imas, a Jewish child born in the town of Uman in 1940. The Nazis conquered the town in August 1941.

“My mother went to town to get groceries,” Mr. Imas told Dr. Telukha in his interview. “I was left with my grandfather and grandmother. The roundup of Jews began,” so he and his grandparents were removed from the apartment.

“When my mother came home, there was no one there, and my mother started looking for me,” his testimony continued.

His mother found her way to where the Jews had been taken.

“I was in the arms of a woman right next to the window, crying. My mother heard me crying and recognized me and began to negotiate with the police to let me out. She made a deal with them that she would give them her gold jewelry and they would pass me through the window. That’s how I survived.”

And what happened to the others? “The others were all wiped out.”

In all, 17,000 Uman Jews were murdered.

Olga Andreevna Druzgalskaya was born in 1940 in Talne, which the Nazis occupied in July 1941. On August 16, they ordered the Jews to gather in the town square with their valuables to be transported to Uman to work.

In fact, they were taken to a field, lined up in front of freshly dug pits, and machine-gunned by the Nazis. “My mother and grandmother were killed, and I ended up in that pit,” Ms. Druzgalskaya told Dr. Telukha, retelling the story she had been told of her infancy.

“Apparently my mother was holding me in her arms and I had a wounded leg,” she said.

A woman walking in the nearby forest heard the baby’s cries, put her in her basket, covered her with handkerchief, and took her home.

But that wasn’t the end of the story, Dr. Telukha said.

“This woman’s husband was against having the Jewish girl in their house, and she was taken away to another family,” she said. There, in that second home, she survived the war.

As the museum assembles its archives of video interviews, it is also collecting interviews about the Holocaust in Ukraine that other institutions collected.

In the planned second phase of the project, the filmed interviews will serve as the basis for the exhibits at the planned Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which had been scheduled to open in Kyiv in 2025. Like everything else in Ukraine, its future is uncertain.

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