When I taught history, I sought conversations with students at the end of the semester about the course. What mattered to them? What would they remember, if anything, in the semester or years to come? Learning outcomes assessment evaluations and summary grades are valuable, but there’s nothing like an open-ended conversation with a student. It is often humbling to learn from their perspective.
My students never mentioned facts, textbooks and monographs. What they said did matter to them were assignments that involved research – especially if it called for interviews – and for a few, the realization of the influence of contingency in our lives as Americans. It was almost always expressed with surprise: “I had never realized that . . . . ”
Many of my students were immigrants, or the children or grandchildren of immigrants (as am I). The stories of why their relatives immigrated were as much about sanctuary as opportunity. The course often gave their family narratives a context and framework. As we studied, the choice to journey to the United States was more often than not a smart decision. Historical study of the twentieth century necessarily highlights terrible wars and violence. One student told me that she had no idea that recent history was so sad. She also said that history helped her understand just how fortunate she was to live America.
I still wrestle with her observation, which carries with it a profound awareness of the possibilities and limits of history. Traditional history, a triumphant account from the victor’s perspective, does not negate sorrow. Much of our recent history is, in fact, at odds with a positive view of human nature. History can render things complicated. On the other hand, keeping it simple and focused on facts and dates will not necessarily lead to knowledge and understanding. Real comprehension of the past is difficult and elusive. It demands revisions and rethinking. That is one of the reasons, I think, that professional historians often write multiple accounts of the same event or period. Clarity comes from thoughtful retelling and retelling.
All of this and more emerged from my reading of Judith Summfield’s moving book, A Man Comes from Someplace: Stories, History, Memory from a Lost Time. Summerfield is an emerita professor of English from Queens College, CUNY. Her book is a story of a story of a story, interconnected nesting dolls of personal and professional histories. It is uplifting, sad, complex and straightforward.
The book is about her Jewish father, who fled the Ukraine in the 1920s. Through courage, luck, and perseverance, he eventually settled in southwestern Pennsylvania, where he raised a family. He was an inveterate story-teller, often sharing tales of his life in eastern Europe. He had a large family and there were many happy memories. There was also violence. Pogroms, international politics, and antisemitism killed many of his relatives and scattered survivors. Summerfield’s extended family nevertheless survived. Oral history, letters, and primary source material gave her the means to examine her father’s life in the old world and to recount his challenges moving to a new world. He was born as Mordechai, but he became Motye and later Martin.
The book is also about Summerfield’s investigation into her father’s history and his world. She traveled to the Ukraine to find Novokonstantinov, the town of her father’s stories, and other places her relatives inhabited. She talks with Ukrainians, tracks down the Jewish cemetery, and looks for traces of life long ago. She follows old paths and imagines what once was. Local records anchor her heritage with dates and deeds.
The book is also about antisemitism, genocide, and the atrocities of mass killing in the twentieth century. While Motye survived and prospered, many of his relatives and fellow Jews were victims of violence. They faced antisemitism and the day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year horrors of the pogroms. Remember, too, that this took place well before the rise of the Nazis. Knowing this and exploring it in early 20th century Europe helps to place the rise of Nazism within a context of prejudice. The “final solution” did not emerge out of the blue. Systemic antisemitic policies, practice and violence scarred the history of Eastern Europe for decades.
Summerfield’s stories are unique, a history particular to her and her family. They are also representative of the broader “History” of the classroom. What makes A Man Comes from Someplace such a satisfying read is that author is aware of the multiple ways in which stories, and history, make meaning. It is a book that I think my students would understand. Just like her father, she is very good at telling stories.