The Power of the Testimonies: One Scholar’s Journey
Mon, 03/02/2009 - 12:00am
Historian Tyaglyy arrives in Los Angeles to make use of archive.

Historian Mikhail Tyaglyy recently traveled from Ukraine to Los Angeles in order to continue a journey he started nearly 15 years ago as an interviewer for the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Last month, he arrived as a scholar, to make use of the testimonies in the Institute’s archive to aid his research and contribute to the historical record of the Holocaust in his home region.

During his research at USC, Mikhail Tyaglyy took the opportunity to connect with the larger campus community. Along with presenting his research to a general audience, Tyaglyy also visited an undergraduate Psychology class, Psychological Adjustment Following Traumatic Life Events: The Case of Genocide, to share his experience interviewing Holocaust survivors. Dr. Beth Meyerowitz, Professor of Psychology, noted that her students appreciated Tyaglyy’s unique perspective: “As a historian, Mikhail asked different questions than psychology students might have asked. The conversation about our different approaches was very instructive. He helped the students understand that not everyone around the world has learned about the Holocaust in the way that young Americans or Western Europeans have learned about the Holocaust. Also, the enthusiasm and humanity that Mikhail brought to the room was inspiring. He showed us that for people doing this kind of work, it can remain a meaningful, human interaction—it’s not just a research project. Students were inspired by his dedication to the testimonies as his life work.”

Tyaglyy's beginnings as an interviewer

Tyaglyy’s work on this topic began in the late 1990s, when he interviewed nearly 100 survivors and other witnesses living in Crimea, an autonomous republic of Ukraine, for the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. For Tyaglyy, a new university graduate, this experience documenting the past would shape his future: interviewing and helping to document these personal accounts would keep him connected to the Institute through today, nearly 15 years later. The interviews Tyaglyy collected have since been catalogued, indexed, and digitized, and are part of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s archive of nearly 52,000 testimonies. Collecting these testimonies inspired Tyaglyy to go on to research further the impact the Holocaust had on the history of his home region in Crimea, and he subsequently pursued his PhD on the topic, Jewish Population of the Crimea (Ashkenazim, Krimchaks, Karaites) During the Nazi Occupation, 1941-1944.

Keeping the memory alive

Coming back to work with the Institute in 2007, Tyaglyy co-authored Encountering Memory, a kit designed to help teachers make educational use of Spell Your Name, the Institute’s documentary film about the Holocaust in Ukraine. Following the release of Encountering Memory, Tyaglyy spent a year and a half helping train teachers throughout Ukraine and Crimea on how to use the kit in their classrooms. So far, this national program has trained 3,200 educators who, in turn, have introduced the kit to over 14,000 students.

Shedding light on a lost story

Last month, Tyaglyy arrived at the Institute as a visiting scholar in order to use the testimonies of Krimchak survivors to shed more light on their history. “Some historians began focusing on the fate of the Krimchaks as early as the 1950s, and there is some recent literature on the Nazi decision-making process concerning this group they had never encountered en masse prior to their arrival in Crimea,” Tyaglyy said. “However, there remains a large gap in covering the subject of the Krimchaks ‘from the inside,’ so to speak. It is important to learn about how they experienced persecution and their understanding of the events that happened; their communal and individual strategies for survival during the Holocaust, and their ethno-psychological behavior after it; the place of the Holocaust in their collective historical memory; and the construction of their postwar ethnic identity. Fortunately, the Institute’s archive contains over 40 testimonies given by Krimchaks; these will form the foundation of my research.”

About the Krimchaks

The Krimchaks (also spelled Krymchaks) are a group formed from various waves of Jewish immigrants to the Crimean peninsula since the late Middle ages and early Modern times that gradually consolidated into one community. Their customs and language are similar to that of the neighboring Crimean Tatars. When Einsatzgruppe D came to the Crimea in the fall of 1941, the Krimchaks were included in the annihilation of the Jews in the USSR, while the Karaites were spared, per Himmler's decision.  Between November 1941 and December 1941, thousands of Krimchaks perished in the massacres in localities such as Simferopol, Karasubazar, Evpatoria, Feodosiia, and Kerch. After the war approximately 1,500 Krimchaks (less than a quarter of the prewar community) remained in the Crimea.