Jewish Studies Professor Dr. Natalia Aleksiun Awarded Three Research Fellowships

Marking an outstanding achievement in academia, Graduate School of Jewish Studies Associate Professor Dr. Natalia Aleksiun has earned three research fellowships for the current academic year at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv, Ukraine.

January 23, 2012
Dr. Natalia Aleksiun
Dr. Natalia Aleksiun

“Professor Aleksiun is an internationally renowned scholar, and the prestigious fellowships recently awarded to her serve as eloquent testimony to her status as one of the preeminent contemporary academicians in the fields of Eastern European Jewish history and the history of the Holocaust,” said Graduate School of Jewish Studies Dean Michael Shmidman, Ph.D. “Dr. Aleksiun is a master teacher and mentor to students, and an ideal colleague. The Graduate School of Jewish Studies is privileged to count her among its faculty members.”

Dr. Aleksiun, associate professor of modern Jewish history at Touro, said she was both thrilled and surprised to be awarded three different fellowships in one academic year. “It has been a wonderful year for me professionally. These fellowships giveme the opportunity to spend time in archives and libraries on my research projects and to collect material I will be working on for quite a while. In a way, it is just the beginning.”

This spring, Dr. Aleksiun, who was born and raised in Wroclaw, Poland, is continuing a research project at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that she started during another fellowship in 2009 at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The research will be focused on the daily lives and ‘micro history’ of Jews who lived in hiding during the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia, which is today part of the Ukraine.

Dr. Aleksiun’s interest in the research on Galicia was sparked by a chance meeting in Israel a few years ago when she was introduced to survivors who shared stories about their daily lives in hiding. “They talked in great detail about their experiences hiding together in a bunker in terms of who cooked the food, how portions were divided and who took the risk to go out to try to find food,” she said. “They also spoke about the complex relationships between parents and their grown children. These seemingly mundane aspects of daily life caught my attention so I started collecting testimonies on the subject. I will continue working on the project at the U.S. Holocaust Museum using its rich collection of oral and written testimonies. Hopefully, I will write articles based on my research but possibly a book as well.”

Dr. Aleksiun said that while Holocaust scholarship has been thriving at research institutes and university centers in recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the perpetrators of the killings and in that research the Jews often become “a collective and rather generalized victim.

“The Jewish experience during the Second World War is often missing from the picture,” she said. “To the degree that was possible, the victims tried to respond to what was happening to them in their lives and in their deaths. I would like to try to understand what life was like for Jews trying to survive in hiding in Galicia. These were Jews who had survived ghettos and labor camps and then escaped to go into hiding. I’m also interested in their interaction with their non-Jewish surroundings and researching whether they were assisted in any way.”

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum awards fellowships to senior scholars and advanced graduate students who do their own independent research in the archives and library of the museum and meet together at a weekly seminar for fellows. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet and discuss research with academics from all over the world as well as eminent scholars working at the museum,” said Dr. Aleksiun, noting that the project on Galicia marks her first research project on the Holocaust itself rather than its historiography, or Jewish history in Eastern Europe before or after the Holocaust.

This past fall, Dr. Aleksiun researched the work of Eastern European Jewish historians before the Holocaust through the Dina Abramowicz Emerging Scholar Fellowship at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan. In a further exploration of her research on the topic over the past few years, Dr. Aleksiun is now examining “Aspirantur,” a non-accredited graduate program in pre-war Vilna, Poland, in the mid- to late 1930s that trained young Jewish scholars through coursework and individual research projects in various fields including philology, economics, statistics, psychology, education and history.

The YIVO Archives are in possession of 14 boxes of materials from the Aspirantur program, which are mostly in Yiddish. “As a fellow, I have been given a chance to look through the archives of this program. I believe my research can shed new light on the vision of Jewish scholarship in Eastern Europe on the eve of the Holocaust,” Dr. Aleksiun said, noting that she hopes to publish her research on the topic.

Founded in 1925 in Vilna (which is today Vilnius, Lithuania) as the Yiddish Scientific Institute, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has been headquartered in Manhattan since 1940. It is considered one of the world’s preeminent resource centers for East European Jewish Studies, Yiddish language, literature and folklore, and the American Jewish immigrant experience.

For her final fellowship at the Center for Urban History in Lviv, Ukraine, Dr. Aleksiun began her research last summer while also teaching a course on the history of Jews in Galicia. She returned to Lviv during the semester break in January to continue her research on the so-called cadaver affair, in which Jewish medical students in Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s were told during the course of their studies that they had to dissect only Jewish cadavers provided by the Jewish community, a violation of Halacha, or Jewish law.

Although scholars of Polish Jewish history and researchers of anti-Semitism in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe have mentioned the affair, it has not been researched in-depth, Dr. Aleksiun said. She said her research would focus on the discourse about the Jewish presence in the medical profession at the time and the opposition to the cadaver affair, which included signed petitions and letters of protest sent to university authorities in Warsaw, Vilna, Krakow and Lvov, now Lviv. “The cadaver affair combined religious prejudice with economic competition. Radical student organizations used religious terms, speaking of Jewish and Christian corpses, not Aryan and non-Aryan corpses,” she said.

Only five applicants were chosen for the fellowship program at the Center for Urban History. “The fellowship in Lviv is certainly a great opportunity because Jan Kazimierz University in Lvov between the two world wars, which is now Ivan Franco National University in Lviv, was one of themain sites of the cadaver affair,” said Dr. Aleksiun, who is also teaching graduate courses and guiding students who are writing their master’s theses in Jewish studies at Touro this year.

Having earned her MA and doctoral degrees in history from Warsaw University, Dr. Aleksiun received her second Ph.D. in modern Jewish history at New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies in 2010. During the course of her graduate studies, she was a Junior Fulbright Fellow at NYU and a Lady Davis Fellow at Hebrew University. She joined the faculty of Touro’s Graduate School of Jewish Studies in the fall of 2006.

Dr. Aleksiun has pursued her studies of Jewish history on three continents. Her fluency in Polish and intimate knowledge of Poland enhance her research of modern Eastern European Jewish history. “Without a doubt, my personal connection draws me to East European Jewish history and especially to topics in Polish Jewish history,” she said. “It adds to my passion as a scholar and a teacher.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Touro Links, the graduate division magazine of Touro College.