Author Mikhal Dekel on the Holocaust, Gulags, and Memory


Danni Chacon, Contributor

When contending history, to whom does history belong? Mikhal Dekel, as well as other speakers of the Holocaust Lecture Series, answer this question through their levels of expertise on historical events that have created global shifts on perceptions. 

The Holocaust Lecture Series at Vanderbilt is the oldest continuous lecture series at an American academic institution. This year’s series featured distinguished professors in history and knowledgeable authors on the 2021-2022 theme: The Root of Hate: From Words and Images to Fear and Violence. 

On March 29, Mikhal Dekel, an expert on refugees during World War II and the Holocaust lectured at Vanderbilt. In addition to being the director of the Rifkind Center for Humanities and the Arts City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center as well as a professor of English, she is also the scholarly author of Tehran Children, A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey.

She began her talk with an introduction to the book, pointing out that many other scholars and families of refugees took interest in her book because the subject had not often been written about in the past.  

Dekel furthered the discussion of her book recalling the story of Polish Jews who escaped and unfolds the struggles they experienced along their journey. She explained their path from Poland to Arkhangelsk, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, British India, Egypt, and Mandatory Palestine. While her father was one such refugee who ended up in Palestine, she made the important point that many others remained in other nations within Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Drawing on her experience conducting research in Russia, Dr. Dekel expanded upon the Gulag population and brought attention to the occupancy heroism held in the Russian story of World War II as visually represented by the Monument to the Patriotic War on the Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow. She played a clip of a gulag cemetery, showing the extensive length of the forest that is unmarked and explained how such places reveal the uncomfortable truths of World War II. Dr. Dekel also addressed the absence of freedom that remains in Russia, sharing her experience of being followed around the country by the Russian police. 

Before reaching the end of her lecture, Dr. Dekel addressed the story of World War II outside of Russia. She raised questions for the audience to ponder: “Why hasn’t the story of the gulag prisoners been told? Why were archives on Polish Jews not saved? Why do the crimes of the gulag remain unacknowledged?”

She ended her address by encouraging the audience to conduct their own research and understand the full story. As Dr. Dekel affimed, “When you don’t have a narrative, you can think you’re the only one who has gone through an experience.” She insisted that these conversations can encourage people to work towards an understanding of multiple stories, rather than a singular one.