Traces of the Past
Nancy K. Miller
Chair: Henrietta Foster
How do a historian and a literary critic recreate the pasts of people they have never met, with little more than papers and a few objects to go on? Orlando Figes and Nancy K. Miller shared the challenges of building a picture of ordinary lives, with their Jewish Book Week audience, in a discussion of his new collection of letters home from the Gulag and her American family chronicle.
Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag and What they Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past offer examples of the quest to reconstruct lives otherwise lost to history from the poignant traces they have left behind. Figes’s book is based on 1,246 letters smuggled in and out of the Pechora labour camp between 1946 and 1955, to and from a prisoner and his girlfriend in Moscow.
Miller’s prize-winning story reaches back to the world of pogroms and mass emigration at the turn of the 20th century. Her quest began with the discovery of a tiny family archive including an unexplained land deed, a postcard from Argentina and a box containing unidentified locks of hair.
Orlando Figes is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of seven books of Russian history translated into over 20 languages.
Nancy K. Miller is distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author or editor of more than a dozen books. What They Saved won the 2012 Jewish Journal Book Prize.