Research Spotlight: Dr. Zelda Abramson

Research Spotlight aims to shed light on the diverse research culture of Acadia University by celebrating the work and interests of our researchers. Each profile features six questions: five about research, one just for fun. Learn about what’s happening across campus and get to know the faces you see every day.

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Dr. Zelda Abramson
Dr. Zelda Abramson

Dr. Zelda Abramson


Faculty of Arts

In terms of research, I hear you’ve got a new book on the way. What’s it about?

My book is about the displacement, migration and resettlement experiences of Holocaust survivors who came to Montreal in the immediate years after World War II. Why Montreal? The manufacturing industries were booming and the jobs were there. About 54% survivors who came to Canada settled in Montreal; we’re talking about thousands of people who settled there.

I’m a Montrealer, an ex-Montrealer, and when my parents came to the City they had no home, no land; they were starting over with two small children. In 2005, just before she died, I asked my mom about her arrival in Montreal: “hey, who helped?” and she said “no one, we helped each other.” She shared a story which inspired and is shared in the book.

Later I read an article in the New York Times about how Holocaust survivors were received by the Jewish social welfare agencies in New York City, and it didn’t paint a pretty picture. They were treated disparagingly. They were mocked and viewed as freeloaders.

I was curious about the survivors’ experiences in Montreal: how did they start over, how did they rebuild their lives, what supports did they get, locally, nationally. I was very determined that I didn’t want the book to be about my parents; I wanted to capture the larger narrative of migration and resettlement.

I had a sabbatical; we packed up our car, our dog, and off we went to Montreal. That was in 2012; I had left Montreal forty years earlier in 1972. My parents were dead, my sister had moved, I had one good friend still living in the City. I didn’t really want to use interviews of friends or family, but I had to start somewhere. While I was getting the interviews set up, we spent days and days in two archives: the Canadian Jewish Congress archives and the Jewish People’s Library archives.

At this point, did you already have an inclination that your mother’s story was a common experience?

I began looking at the literature, and found a book, Delayed Impact by Franklin Bialystok, that looked at the experiences of Holocaust survivors who arrived in Toronto and Winnipeg; they weren’t well received by the Jewish Canadians. There was one article about community self-help groups in Montreal, but there was no comprehensive study that looked at the lived experiences of the survivors, which to me was surprising, given the size of the community.

How does the book fit with your broader research interests?

It really doesn’t. I had written a couple of related pieces in the past, but this topic hadn’t been a focus for me. I guess on some level I wanted to keep this personal part of my life separate from my professional work. But sometimes things just linger in your mind and won’t go away; my mother’s words didn’t. I also knew that to do this kind of study it would take time, a lot of time; when a sabbatical came up there were different ways I could have gone, but I decided that, given the age of the survivor population, “I think I want to answer that question”. There was a big gap in Canada’s social history post World War 2 and I thought I would like to take a stab at filling it.

As I said earlier, for me this was a story about forced displacement: refugees, migration, resettlement, rebuilding juxtaposed by government policy; it was that larger narrative that I was interested in. How are policies determined? What effect do they have on groups of people? What groups of people are allowed into the country, when, and where? These questions are all so relevant to what we’re experiencing today, certainly with the Syrian refugees most recently, and what’s going on in the US.

I understand you conducted over 70 interviews. How did these stories inform the book?

In Sociology, we code them for themes, largely. So you have these overarching themes – three, four, sometimes more – that emerge from the research project that you can talk about. But in my book, I didn’t do that. I found that, by organizing the data by themes, the lives of the interviewees became fragmented.

How so?

If I used themes, for example mother-work, I would gather all of the narratives that have to do with mother-work, and talk about them in terms of that theme: talk about what mother-work is, what other scholars have written about mother-work; dialogue my findings with those of other scholars. The lives of my interviewees would become fragmented into little pieces, washed away in the sea of the theme by my voice

My book is organized differently: it’s organized by individual narratives. In that narrative there could be issues around housing, mother-work, employment paid or unpaid, relations with community. The analysis comes from the voice of the person, as opposed to my analysis; the theorizing of the subject matter is happening through individual voices.

Was that approach a formal device for the book, because the stories were the central thing and you didn’t want to break them apart?

I initially started by fragmenting them, mining the data. I began looking at the interviews and organizing them by themes. And then I realized, oh my god, the power of the interview – their story – is lost. I wanted survivors’ voices to prevail, their ideas to prevail, and the analysis of the topic and the theorizing of their experiences to be done by their voices.

Presenting my research this way caused me great anxiety because it really isn’t a typical way of presenting data in sociology, through individual narratives. There are some scholars whose writings I have drawn on who believe that mining data in the social sciences is problematic; they argue that we should be theorizing about social life with our interviewees instead of what we typically do, which is theorize about them.

So what are you doing for fun these days?

I’m planning book launches. I’m not sure how much fun it is; it’s taking a lot of work. The way we’re doing the book launches is through dramatic readings of the narratives. It’s had a great response, and it’s an interesting way of presenting the book. And there seems to be a lot of interest – the drama department at St. Thomas University is putting on a number of readings, as an example, so I’m working with them; working with Pier 21 to organize a launch; there will be launches in Montreal and Toronto, those are the big centres. They’re all in the planning process, and they’re taking a lot of time.

As you look forward to retirement, what are you going to miss most about this place?

My colleagues, my friends, my community: my people family, I call them. I’ve been honoured to have great students, I’ve learned a lot from them. They’ve been keen, eager; I tell people that I would send my kids here in a heartbeat because the faculty works exceptionally hard and cares deeply about their students. Many students leave as scholars and researchers. Many of the students have been inspirational. I’m not sure I’m going to miss teaching though.

You’ll miss the students, but you’re not going to miss teaching? What’s the line between the two?

I won’t miss the grading, lecturing two or three times a week, the preparation: the hard work that makes a class good; it’s a lot of work. I often taught on Mondays, which meant my weekends are full of preparation work; it didn’t matter how many times I’d taught the class.

But working with students is different. Supervising honour and graduate students, while often challenging, is very rewarding. And in classrooms, when you get a really good discussion going on topics that are complex or nuanced, or where there is an “aha!” moment in the lecture, or when they get excited about an assignment they initially dreaded, or where they develop a love for the subject matter they previous had no interest in – therein lies the joy of teaching.

And I’ll miss the beauty of Wolfville.

Research Spotlight is an initiative of the Research & Graduate Studies office. If you would like to suggest someone to be featured in this series, or if you would like to be featured yourself, please contact Omar Bhimji, Research & Innovation Coordinator:

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