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Irene Madrigal working remotely from her home in Brooklyn, New York.

Finding and Sharing Eastern European Voices

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This is a question-and-answer guest post by Irene Madrigal — a Brooklyn native in her senior year at Barnard College in New York City where she studies English, History, and Spanish. Irene was selected for an internship in the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division (LACE) through The Washington Center (TWC). When she’s not watching documentaries, Irene can be found going for a run or baking her favorite desserts to share with friends and family.

Tell us about your work on the Eastern and Central European Voices Guide?

Over the summer, I had the pleasure of working for the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division at the Library of Congress, where I focused primarily on conducting research for the Eastern and Central European Voices Guide, an initiative to recognize the cultural contributions of American diasporic groups from nations and communities in Eastern and Central Europe. This initiative will result in the creation of a multi-paged guide with links to physical and digital resources pertaining to the history and culture of Americans from Eastern and Central European backgrounds, including Polish-Americans, Ukrainian-Americans, Hungarian-Americans, and Serbian-Americans to name a few. The guide will feature introductory information on each diaspora group in the United States along with works of literature, films, community organizations, and websites all created for the purpose of sharing Eastern European voices within American culture.


color image of historical map
This historic map when consulted with reference to more current maps helps underscore the shifting boundaries of Eastern and Central Europe.

Why create an Eastern and Central European Voices Guide?
My project mentors Alyson Williams and Suzanne Schadl note that current events in Ukraine and Russia inspire renewed interest in the history of this region and its connection to American history, but it is important to note that Eastern and Central European ancestry in the United States are hard to track and define because of the nuanced ways geographical, national and international political, religious, linguistic and cultural categories have shifted historically and more recently. Throughout the course of this project, I have learned that the United States Census Bureau classifies Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia as Eastern Europe. The Migration Policy Institute notes that the largest and first significant wave of migration from these places came with other immigrants from Southern Europe not long after the Civil War in the United States, and generally between 1880 and 1920. During that period an estimated 12.5 million people came from parts of Eastern Europe as defined by the above list of countries, but many of those people would not claim ancestry in those countries. For instance, an estimated 3 million European Jews fled various Pogroms during that period. This Russian word denotes violent attacks by non-Jewish populations on Jews, which were perpetrated historically in the southern and western provinces of the then Russian Empire between 1881–1884 and throughout the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in parts of current day Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. Many Jewish-Americans identify with their Jewish communities rather than with geopolitical categories. Other forms of conflict throughout the same parts of Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries are important to understand as well. With the expansion of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, many smaller countries like Poland lost their political autonomy and several ethnic groups like Czechs and Slovaks were removed from their homes. World War I and World War II also resulted in drastic geopolitical changes and displacement for millions living across the region. Most of those who found their way to the United States were looking to escape oppression or political upheaval, while also improving their socio-economic prospects. Many also made parts of Latin America home – a fact people do not often address. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, another wave of migration from Eastern Europe added yet another layer to the complexity of stories about Eastern and Central European influences in the United States. As I understand it, the guide is a way to curate Library of Congress resources to help tell some of those stories and bring greater awareness to the myriad of ways in which Eastern and Central Europeans have transformed the United States, big or small.

black and white photograph of children on a dock
This photograph from 1921 shows a group of children orphaned as a result of World War I, newly arrived in New York harbor and about to begin a new life, posing with American flags.
Image of a map in newspaper
This map of the eastern front in World War I, probably dating from late 1914. The map was published by O Imparcial, a leading Rio de Janeiro newspaper.


What have you found most compelling about this internship?
I am interested in history and film making, especially documentaries, so I embraced the opportunities to research the Library’s collections and identify electronic content for the guide, while reaching out to documentarians whose storytelling projects help people understand complex histories. At its core, the Eastern and Central European Voices Project seeks to preserve the Eastern and Central European American community’s point of view and the connections forged between Eastern Europe and other regions of the world. To accomplish this, I worked over the summer to compile a list of Eastern European projects which received federal grant funding and compiled list of resulting books, articles, and documentary films held in the Library, which help bring the story of Eastern Europe to life. This research culminated in interviews with three American filmmakers who sought to tell unique stories pertaining to the region. I am excited to share a little about their work here.

Collage of film covers
These films enable dialog between American and Eastern European experiences.

The first filmmaker, Slawomir Grunberg, released the heartfelt documentary Saved by Deportation: An Unknown Odyssey of Polish Jews in 2007. Unbeknownst to most, of the 300,000 Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, Grunberg argues that 80% did, ironically, because they were deported to the Soviet Union instead of being sentenced to death in Nazi concentration camps. While I have previously studied the Holocaust multiple times in my coursework, this portion was never addressed. Grunberg noted that this segment of World War II history is often excluded from mainstream conversations on the topic, making the message of his documentary all the more important in bringing to light the full story.

Throughout the film, Grunberg tells the story of seven deportees who owe their lives to Gulag labor camps, focusing on their experiences during and after World War II. Specific focus is given to Asher and Shifra Scharf, elderly Chasidic Polish Jews, who traveled with Grunberg from the United States back through Poland, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan as they revisited their places of exile. Grunberg’s documentary highlights the human connections forged between deportees and the countries they visited in exile, particularly in Central Asia, where the local Muslim population welcomed the Scharfs and other Polish Jews with open arms—despite their religious differences. Central to the film’s narrative is an emphasis on the power of cross-cultural connections and the ways in which humans band together to support one another during times of strife.

Afterward, I spoke with Gabrielle Pfeiffer, a New Yorker whose documentary, A Poet on the Frontline: The Reportage of Ryszard Kapuscinski (2004), tells the story of famous Polish poet, photographer, and war correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski. Known as “Indiana Jones with a notepad,” Kapuscinski was recognized for journalistic reportage that blended magical realism and allegory with news of more than 27 revolutions and coups between 1956 and 1981 while serving as the Communist-era Polish Press Agency’s only correspondent in Africa. Two of his most famous works of literature, Shah of Shahs (1982) and The Emperor (1983) focus on the downfall of famous political figures, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, and Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie. Both were also written as satires of Poland’s then-Communist government, demonstrating the importance of allegorical literature in Poland at a time when anti-Communist literature was censored. Speaking to the New York Times in 1985 about Shah of Shahs, Kapuscinski made note of the universality of his writing and the lessons we can all learn from the stories of communities different than our own. With war waging in Ukraine, Kapuscinski’s poetic reveries on the tragedy and absurdity of war continue to be relevant.

In my final interview, I spoke with Andrea Simon about her 2017 documentary Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon. The film’s story depicts a striking portrait of Angel Wagenstein, a Bulgarian Jewish filmmaker, novelist, partisan warrior, and revolutionary. Growing up in France and returning to Bulgaria as a teenager, Wagenstein became an avowed anti-fascist, leading a Jewish resistance group in Sofia during World War II. For his actions, he was imprisoned twice by authorities, tortured, and sentenced to death, but saved from this gruesome fate by Hitler’s demise. As Simon revealed, these experiences of hardship and perseverance profoundly shaped Wagenstein’s career, compelling him to produce politically provocative works of film and literature that offered intelligent and subtle critiques of the emerging Communist regime. After becoming the first international graduate of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), Wagenstein penned over 50 screenplays for films, documentaries, and cartoons. Much of his work centered around the unspoken—meaning derived from the silence between words—and frequently incorporated music as a means of evoking the places, languages, and traditions central to Bulgaria’s history and thriving folk culture. His films offer unique insight into life under Communist rule and the political ideologies’ impact throughout Eastern Europe.

As an author, Wagenstein also drew upon his life experiences, most notably in Far from Toledo, part two of a triptych series discussing the fate of European Jews during World War II—a tale of love, sadness, hope, and tolerance. During our interview, Simon emphasized Bulgaria’s mixed ethnic and religious culture, which serves as the backdrop for Far from Toledo, set in the old city of Plovdiv. In 2002, the book was awarded the Alberto Benveniste annual prize of the Sorbonne and the Annual Award of the Union of Bulgarian Writers for best novel. Recently passing away at the age of 100 in June 2023, Wagenstein’s legacy is all the more pertinent to explore. From Wagenstein’s example, Simon desires for her viewers to ask themselves the question: “Why am I alive?” much, in the same way, as Wagenstein does in Art is a Weapon while contemplating the importance of sacrifice and fighting for your beliefs. Rather than letting events simply pass by, Simon hopes her viewers can learn how to effectively intervene in the shared history of their country, using the talents they possess to create a positive impact.

Further Reading
Check out this selection of Polish American publications I helped identify during my internship!

An advanced search in the Handbook of Latin American Studies for the subject Migration –
Hungarian and any of the following Czech, Italian, Jewish, Lebanese, Lituanian, Polish, Russian will idetify key studies on these populations in Latin America.

The Cartographic Resources for Genealogical Research: Eastern Europe and Russia sheds some light Eastern and Central Europe, for people researching family histories involving East Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and western Russia. 

Search the Library catalog for other works by the documentarians and authors discussed in this post.

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