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Guest Lecture: Dr. Sarah Cramsey

It’s fitting that Dr. Sarah Cramsey delivered her lecture to RELG 311 via Zoom. As she explained the nuanced lived realities of caretakers during and after the Holocaust, each box on the screen provided a glimpse into domestic life, with sounds of Thanksgiving preparations and glimpses of family members wandering through backgrounds. In recent years, scholars have viewed the Shoah more and more through the lens of family. Dr. Cramsey, however, is specifically concerned with caretakers. Her research highlights the mothers, fathers, doctors, friends, and strangers who worked together to nurture young children during a period of upheaval and uncertainty. She narrows in on Polish Jewry in the Soviet Union, a group that experienced a significant wartime and post-war baby boom. Studying these expanding young families allows us to see the experiences of these refugees with the same subtlety that we view our own lives. Dr. Cramsey explores questions about pregnancy, diapers, and circumcision that appear mundane but infuse history with humanity. 

There is little archival evidence of the invisible world of caretaking. Instead, refugees pass stories down from generation to generation. This is why testimonies are so invaluable to Dr. Cramsey’s research. To prepare for her lecture, students watched the testimony of Rachel Koplwitz, a Holocaust survivor born in Poland in 1915. When Koplowitz became pregnant with her first son in 1943, she thought she had a stomach tumor inside her, not a child. Koplowitz goes on to detail the trials of giving birth, breastfeeding, and caring for a baby while searching for a home. This testimony is just one example of the challenges of parenting in the 1940s in central eastern Europe. Dr. Cramsey’s work urges us to analyze the Holocaust in the context of these complex caretaking networks. 

Dr. Cramsey graduated from William & Mary with a BA in History and Religious Studies in 2004. Currently, she is an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her book Uprooting the Diaspora: Jewish Belonging and the Ethnic Revolution in Poland and Czechoslovakia, 1936-1946 is coming soon from Indiana University Press.