Less than two months into his first real job, at a Needham ad agency, Michael Broberg was a bit nervous about asking for a week off — even if it was to accept a writing award in Moscow from the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center.
But, he says, “my company was very understanding.” So on January 24, Broberg (COM’05) headed to New York’s JFK Airport with a friend, and eight hours later, landed at Moscow’s Shremetyevo Airport, exhausted, disoriented — and exhilarated at the prospect of exploring such a beautiful and historic city and of being honored for a college research project.
Broberg’s Russian adventure began last fall, when he enrolled in the Holocaust and Music course taught by Ludmilla Leibman, an assistant professor at the College of Fine Arts. Leibman’s course introduced Broberg to music, created during and after the Holocaust, commemorating the period’s historical moments, social issues, and personal experiences.
Among other things, he learned about operas and cabarets staged by Jews interred in concentration camps, including the opera Brundibar, which was written in 1938 to buoy the spirits of children living under Nazi rule. The class even staged a production of the opera, which was performed more than 50 times in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. Those performances, Leibman says, were exploited by the Nazis to present Theresienstadt as a model camp to the Red Cross.
Broberg, who majored in mass communications and minored in music, was fascinated by the role of cabaret music as a form of Jewish spiritual resistance in the concentration camps. In “Cabaret and Jewish Resistance,” a research paper written for the course, he points out that before the war, Jewish cabarets provided a useful forum for dissent. But like Brundibar, cabarets ended up putting on a façade of Nazi leniency for international inspectors.
When Leibman, a native of Russia, discovered that the Russian center was soliciting scholarly works in a competition on the subject of music and the Holocaust, she entered Broberg’s research paper. Teacher and student were ecstatic when they learned that Broberg had won. But Broberg was worried.
“I graduated with zero debt, but with hardly any money saved,” he says. “I had $200 to my name.”
With a $687 flight ticket, $150 in visa processing, and more than $350 in estimated room and board expenses, Broberg was looking up at what seemed a mountain of debt and wondering how he could manage. Enter Leibman, once again, who immediately began raising money for his trip. She collected $500 from the College of Communication, $150 from the College of Fine Arts, $50 from Hillel House, and $250 from the Youth Federation of Moscow. She even gave Broberg her father’s Russian fur hat.
“He was going in the dead of the Russian winter,” she says. “And it was the coldest winter on record.”
Luckily, Broberg landed in Moscow at the beginning of a relatively warm spell, and he and his friend didn’t find the cold nearly as paralyzing as they found the Russian language. “We spent half an hour at a market trying to buy a bottle of uncarbonated water,” he says. They were also intimidated by the stern faces of the Russian police, who stopped them several times to check their passports.
But mainly, Broberg says, he was overwhelmed with the applause he received at the awards ceremony, where he was presented with a certificate and a wall clock. “Among the honored were Russian soldiers who liberated the concentration camps,” he says. The event was broadcast live on four Russian television channels and reported in five of the country’s newspapers.