Nataliya Proskura and Vladislav Shapiro

Ukrainian mathematicians donate Einstein portrait to Brandeis

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Ukrainian mathematicians donate Einstein portrait to Brandeis

Nataliya Proskura and Vladislav Shapiro

When husband-and-wife mathematicians Vladislav Shapiro and Nataliya Proskura wanted to commission and donate a portrait to Brandeis University, they swiftly decided on its subject: Albert Einstein.

“Einstein was not only known as a physicist, but also as a civil rights advocate,” Shapiro said in a joint Zoom interview with Proskura. “He tried to bring people together, fight for peace, fight injustice. It’s what he did in his life.”

In the mid-1940s, Einstein’s legacy was recognized by the founders of a new college in Waltham, who described it as nonsectarian but created under Jewish auspices. The founders successfully recruited the Jewish Einstein to reach a national audience and gain the endorsement of the most respected academic figure in the world.

On April 29, Shapiro and Proskura were on hand for the dedication of the portrait in the university physics department. The Bedford residents have multiple Brandeis connections. Shapiro got his master’s degree at Brandeis, the couple’s older son, Bernard Shapiro, is an alumnus, and their younger son, Michael Nikolas Proskura, is currently a sophomore studying math.

The family has connections to Ukraine. Shapiro and Proskura are both from Kyiv – as is the artist who created the portrait, Tetyana Kolechko. She is still working there during the current war with her husband and fellow artist, Serhiy Kolechko, who aided her in creating the portrait.

Last year, when the couple was discussing the portrait project, several motivations came to mind.

“One of the things we’d like to do is raise awareness that Ukraine is not only a country of fighters,” Shapiro said, but also “painters, scientists, musicians, artists, dreamers, people with high achievement not known by the rest of the world. Our goal is to display these achievements, so [the] world can appreciate them.”

Another desire was helping the West better understand the Ukrainian-Jewish relationship, which according to Shapiro has been characterized by misinformation.

“Jews and Ukrainians have lived together for hundreds and hundreds of years,” he said. “Ukraine, way before Russia even existed, gave [a] place for Jewish families to settle, so both cultures are very interwoven into each other.”

Shapiro is Jewish, while Proskura identifies as both Jewish and Ukrainian Orthodox Christian.

“I am a very classic representation of some Ukrainians – my father is Ukrainian and my mother is Jewish,” Proskura said.

During the Holocaust, her mother, Olena Proskura, was among the Jewish children whose lives were saved by Ukrainian cleric Andrey Sheptytsky, the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. He sheltered them in the homes of Ukrainian non-Jews – in Olena’s case, with a Christian woman named Irina Romanovskaya and her family. Later in life, Olena became a psychologist and wrote a book about the woman who sheltered her.

Last year, Shapiro and Proskura contacted the Kolechkos with a request to do a portrait of Einstein. The artists agreed. They did research by reading a biography of Einstein and watching a YouTube documentary about him.

The portrait was created using enamel over a copper plate, baked in an oven, with different colors being added through successive layers – eight in total. It took several months to complete.

“We thought, one year ago, that we would be able to invite [the artists to the U.S.],” Shapiro said. “Of course, who knew that unfortunately it would be completely impossible today. One day, I hope they will be able to bring some other work.”

Seventy-five years ago, Einstein similarly captured the zeitgeist in Waltham after Jewish community leaders recruited him for a push to create a new kind of campus on the site of the former Middlesex University.

“Einstein was the most famous scientist who ever lived,” said Stephen Whitfield, an emeritus professor of American studies at Brandeis, “not only because of his achievements in theoretical physics, but because he lived in an era of mass communications and visual culture, which neither Newton nor Darwin lived in. He, according to Time magazine at the end of the 20th century, was the person of the century – the most important person of the 20th century.

“The founders [of Brandeis] were even willing to let the university be named after Einstein, which he refused, because he had so recently even become a U.S. citizen.”

As a result, the founders named the university after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice on the Supreme Court, who had died in 1941.

Einstein continued to support the project for a time, although he eventually became disillusioned.

“Einstein was afraid Brandeis University would not be progressive enough, liberal enough, for his taste,” Whitfield said. “Therefore, he withdrew from active support. It was a brief interlude at the very beginning of the university, but an extremely important one.”

In 2005, a ceremony in Berlin honored the 100th anniversary of one of Einstein’s most enduring accomplishments: the theory of relativity. The speakers included Proskura’s father, Dr. Oleksandr Proskura, a physicist who had recently emigrated from Ukraine to Germany.

“Our family connection to Brandeis, USA, Ukraine, to physics, to Einstein, all of this came together to represent why we decided to do this,” Shapiro said.

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