Since the start of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, 6.2 million Ukrainians have sought refuge outside of their home country, as reported by the UN’s Refugee Agency in July 2023. In Lynn, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Salem State University is showcasing a different mass exodus from what was formerly the Soviet Union – the one that occurred in the late 20th century, bringing refugees – and notably Jews – to Massachusetts.
On Sept. 21, the center, in collaboration with the Lynn Museum/LynnArts, launched an oral history exhibit documenting these stories. “Immigration Stories: An Oral History of Russian-Speaking Jews in Massachusetts,” opened to the public with a reception featuring comments from Mayor Jared Nicholson, President and CEO of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston Rabbi Marc Baker, and City Councilor Coco Alinsug.
In the 1990s, Lynn held the third-largest population of Russian-speaking Jews in the United States. According to Regina Kazyulina, a researcher at the Holocaust center, the North Shore Jewish Federation was providing aid to refugees from the Soviet Union as early as 1979.
The exhibit, which is originally in English, has been translated into both Russian and Spanish, and is part of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies’ larger project recording oral interviews with refugees from the Soviet Union and its successor states. Over the last two years, Kazyulina conducted 17 interviews with Russian-speaking Jews who settled in Massachusetts from the early 1970s through the early 1990s.
Christopher Mauriello, director of Salem State’s Holocaust center, worked on funding, coordination of the opening and reception, and staff support throughout the project. The university’s Dan Eshet brought the idea to incorporate the sketches of Boris Penson – a former refusenik known for the art of a Soviet prisoner – into the exhibit, and conducted an interview with Penson as well as research about refuseniks. He also co-wrote placards and panels for the exhibit with Kazyulina.
From the oral interviews, each an hour to three hours long, Kazyulina created bios and took snippets to use in the exhibit.
Kazyulina is Russian-speaking and is originally from Ukraine. She came to the United States in 1994, and is a historian of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. She earned her doctorate from Northeastern University in 2018.
Though the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine made this exhibit all the more relevant, the project was conceived in late 2020 when the Holocaust center received a grant from Combined Jewish Philanthropies to collect oral interviews and to do a traveling exhibit.
“The community is getting older,” Kazyulina said. “Each person has a unique story. These are stories of surviving the Holocaust, in some cases of KGB persecution, but also just of everyday life in the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union is gone … so these stories will disappear with these people if we don’t record them.”
The team received a second year of funding from Mass Humanities to continue the project, for which the Lynn Museum/LynnArts wrote a letter of support, emphasizing the particular relevance of documenting the history of Russian-speaking Jews in Lynn.
“As part of our support for the project, we expressed to the team at [the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies] and to the folks at Mass Humanities our interest in hosting the eventual exhibition,” said Doneeca Thurston, executive director of Lynn Museum/LynnArts.
“We have our own collection of over 10,000 objects celebrating Lynn’s history,” said Thurston. “But we recognize that we also need to be very much present in our community. So, we often look to have these community collaborations to celebrate stories and members of our community that may have not had the opportunity to have their voices or stories uplifted in this way.”
Kazyulina intends to continue interviewing Russian-speaking Jews and adding more voices to the project. The full interviews are in the Archives and Special Collections at the Frederick E. Berry Library at Salem State.
“[These] kinds of stories are universal,” says Kazyulina. “They really speak to the immigrant experience.” Θ
The exhibit will run at the Lynn Museum/LynnArts through Dec. 11.