Two Binghamton University students spent the summer of 2016 collecting oral histories from Boston-area women who were part of the Soviet Jewry movement.
Alexandra Kiosse, a sophomore from Brooklyn, and Georgia Westbrook, a junior from Binghamton, interviewed the women and compiled their remembrances as part of a new internship program between the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA), a nonprofit group in Brookline, Mass., and Binghamton University’s Department of Judaic Studies.
“I come from a Soviet background, so I thought it would be interesting to learn about my own roots,” said Kiosse, a philosophy, politics and law (PPL) major. “I also thought compiling these interviews would be a good experience for me.”
Kiosse and Westbrook were the only interns to interview Jewish women who fled the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. They also met with women in Boston who helped the refugees settle in the United States.
“We did our own research on the movement and these women,” said Westbrook, an art history major who previously served as a research assistant for Binghamton University’s Past 2 Future Project. “We then contacted them to see if they were interested (in meeting with us).”
Stressing the value of each story was important to Kiosse and Westbrook.
“Some women discounted their experiences because they were working in the U.S. and helping Soviet Jews to re-settle,” Westbrook said. “They didn’t think their experiences were necessarily as valuable as the women coming here from the Soviet Union. … We almost let these experiences slip through the cracks, but we were able to take them down.”
The interviewees – most of whom were age 60 or older – were cooperative, understanding and helpful during the talks, Kiosse said. A couple of women still stand out to Kiosse and Westbrook.
Kiosse recalled a woman who faced gender and religious discrimination in her job as a space researcher in the former Soviet Union.
“She now works at Brandeis University and is training astronauts,” Kiosse said. “She is still an important person in space research.”
Westbrook met a nuclear protester who became known for bringing people together.
“She organized a seder so that Jewish women in the Boston area and Soviet women who had re-settled could meet at Passover to share their experiences,” she said. “It was interesting to learn about that.”
Following the interviews, Kiosse and Westbrook picked out quotes and inserted them into the JWA system along with photos of the women. The information is now being used in a Brandeis University course on the collection of oral histories and will at some point be accessible on the JWA website.
“Jewish stories aren’t often told – and the stories of Jewish women are told (even less frequently),” Kiosse said. “It’s great that there is an archive centered around this specific population.”
The six-week internship taught Kiosse and Westbrook how easy it could be to lose the perspectives of different people.
“Actually speaking to those who were fleeing and the women who helped the refugees settle was so personal,” said Kiosse, who hopes to find a law- or nonprofit-related internship next summer. “You can understand what they went through and what the situation was like at the time.”
Westbrook also believes that the interviews will prove beneficial when she spends the spring semester studying in Prague.
“The experience of putting myself out there with the intent to learn about other people and appreciate their cultures will be helpful,” she said.
Both Kiosse and Westbrook noted that all of the other JWA interns were from Massachusetts or from schools in the state. This gave them plenty of chances to tout a school more than 300 miles away: Binghamton University.
“It was cool to be Binghamton’s ‘boots on the ground’ in Boston,” Westbrook said. “It was great to say: ‘I’m from Binghamton University’ and be mushy about why I like it so much!”