Kevin Ostoyich, Ph.D., department chair and associate professor of history, has spent the past six years researching the history of the Shanghai Jews. He has become an expert in this emerging topic and will be featured as such in the new, six-part PBS history series “We’ll Meet Again” with Ann Curry premiering this winter.
“We’ll Meet Again” explores major historical events through a personal lens, delving into the history of people who were once strongly connected, but have been separated by time and distance, and culminating in a reunion. Professor Ostoyich was interviewed for the second episode in the series, which features two Shanghai Jewish refugees who were childhood friends in China and haven’t seen one another since 1945.
Continually seeking further information and insight into the Shanghai Jews, Professor Ostoyich reached out and interviewed one of the refugees featured in the PBS series and is working on a piece to share the story.
Professor Ostoyich’s interest in the Shanghai Jews was sparked while doing research in Bremen, Germany, in summer 2011. Seeking to broaden his horizons, he was in search of a project that would bridge German and Chinese history when he discovered a group of 106 Jewish people who took refuge in Shanghai during the Second World War. This group of refugees turned out to be a fraction of the approximately 18,000 to 20,000 Jewish people who traveled to Shanghai in order to escape Nazi persecution.
“Most of the history that I’m looking at is intensely negative. It’s about darkness and man being awful to another man,” Professor Ostoyich says. “This history reveals that there are elements of hope even in that darkness, and we need to be aware of that.”
Immediately following his summer in Germany, Professor Ostoyich began a yearlong stint as Valpo’s Study Abroad director in Hangzhou, China. While there, he began initial research into the Shanghai Jews with the assistance of Yun Xia, Ph.D., assistant professor of history, and six dedicated undergraduate students. This group traveled to Shanghai together to perform their research. Each student chose a facet of the Shanghai Group they were interested in to study, taking the project in different, personalized directions of interest. The group presented their work at a symposium on Valpo’s campus and jointly produced a manuscript, which Professor Ostoyich anticipates will be published in the near future.
Looking for a new way to connect with his students in terms of history, Professor Ostoyich launched an experimental, interdisciplinary course titled “Historical Theatre: The Shanghai Jews” in spring 2017. This interdisciplinary course was taught in tandem by Professor Ostoyich and Kari-Anne Innes, Ph.D., lecturer and program director, arts and entertainment administration, and brought students together to simultaneously learn theatre and the history of the Shanghai Jews.
The students wrote and performed their own, historically accurate script based on a collection of oral histories as well as the multitude of interviews Professor Ostoyich had conducted with former Shanghai Jewish refugees. The performances resonated with the campus, the local community, and perhaps, most importantly, Ralph Cohn, a Shanghai Jewish refugee.
“You got this right,” Ralph said. “This is the story of my life, and you’ve gotten it.”
“There wasn’t a single theatre major in the course. The students were doing things they never thought they were capable of,” Professor Ostoyich said. “I think undergraduates are capable of doing so much. If you raise the bar, they will meet it and even go over it.”
Professor Ostoyich places great significance on research into the Shanghai Jews and sharing their story, especially in light of this time in our own country’s history. They survived what millions did not. They survived for one reason — they did not need a visa to land in Shanghai. They wanted to go to the United States, but went where they could.