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Shrayer Selected for Guggenheim Fellowship

“Western scholarship and popular literature on the Shoah (Holocaust) still holds that specified Jewish losses were totally obscured by Soviet historiography and silenced in Soviet media and culture.” — Maxim D. Shrayer

By Patricia Delaney | Deputy Director of News & Public Affairs

Published: Apr. 24, 2012

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has awarded a 2012 fellowship to Professor of Slavic and Eastern Languages Maxim D. Shrayer, to support a research project designed to bring a new perspective to Holocaust studies through exploration of the experience of Jewish-Russian poets during World War II.

Guggenheim Fellowships recognize advanced professionals in all fields who exhibit unusually distinguished achievement and exceptional promise for future accomplishments. This year, the prestigious awards were presented to a diverse group of 181 scholars, artists, and scientists, chosen from nearly 3,000 applicants.

“I am honored and humbled by this recognition of my research,” said Shrayer, who joined the University in 1996. “I also regard it as a hopeful sign for the future of Russian and Soviet studies, of Jewish studies, and of Holocaust studies here at Boston College.”

“Maxim Shrayer’s work explores the literatures of old worlds and new, and his writing helps us better understand a range of modern cultures,” said College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean David Quigley. “It’s wonderful to see that the Guggenheim Foundation now joins us in recognizing his original voice.”

Through his project, tentatively titled “Jewish-Russian poets bearing witness to the Shoah, 1941-1946,” Shrayer hopes to highlight an important, yet unexamined dimension of the world’s awareness of the Holocaust.

“Western scholarship and popular literature on the Shoah (Holocaust) still holds that specified Jewish losses were totally obscured by Soviet historiography and silenced in Soviet media and culture,” Shrayer said. In his new research he examines the wartime Jewish-Russian poetry about the Shoah created and published in the Soviet Union.

Among the earliest texts about the Holocaust were poems by Jewish-Russian poet-soldiers — the majority of whom were combat officers and/or embedded journalists — bearing witness to the immediate aftermath of the killings, first in the occupied territories, and later in the death camps in Poland.

“It fell to Jewish-Russian poets to tell the Soviet people and the world that the Nazi atrocities, which the Soviet government tended to present as aimed at ‘peaceful civilians,’ were systematic acts of genocide carried out with the purpose of a total annihilation of the Jews,” said Shrayer, who co-founded the Jewish Studies Program at BC in 2005.

“While it’s true that poetry is a special medium of language and of transmitting information, in the case of bearing witness to the Shoah, it is especially important to recognize how much official resistance these brave poet-soldiers encountered, and how they managed to say so much in a few words and lines.

“The heroes of my research paid a very high human and literary price for breaking the official silence,” he said. “In fact, under the conditions of harsh wartime censorship and of Stalinism, these poets spoke of the Shoah and of specified Jewish losses some 20 years before the subject entered the cultural mainstream in North America.”

Born in Moscow to a Jewish-Russian literary and academic family, Shrayer spent almost nine years as a refusenik before immigrating to the United States. He has published three collections of Russian poetry, as well as numerous poems, stories, and essays in both Russian and English. In 2007, his monumental two-volume Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry won the National Jewish Book Award.

Other publications include the path-breaking critical studies The World of Nabokov’s Stories and Russian Poet/Soviet Jew. He also has edited and co-translated from Russian two books of fiction by his father, David Shrayer-Petrov, as well as published a collection of short stories, Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, and the acclaimed literary memoir Waiting for America.

He has previously received a number of fellowships, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bogliasco Foundation.