From Doctors to Farmers: Prize-Winning Paper Explores Lives of Jewish Refugees

AU graduate student Andrew Sperling, whose paper on Jewish refugees in the American South won the Mark and Ruth Luckens International Prize in Jewish Thought and Culture.

On March 24, 2022, AU graduate student Andrew Sperling gave a much anticipated talk to a rapt virtual audience at the University of Kentucky. The talk was based upon a paper that Sperling completed in Prof. Kate Haulman’s research seminar the previous year: “‘Living on a Sort of Island’: Jewish Refugee Farmers in the American South.” It follows the unique experiences of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria who came to the United States during the rise of the Nazis in the run-up to World War II. But there was a catch: these particular refugees, who had once made their living as doctors, lawyers, and businessmen in dense European cities, would now be settled in rural communities and taught to farm the land.

Refugee farmers working at Hyde Farmlands in Burkeville, Virginia. Eva Loew Family Papers (RG-185), Virginia Holocaust Museum, Richmond, Virginia.

Drawing upon a wide range of diaries, memoirs, and other correspondence, Sperling analyzed their struggle to adapt to these new circumstances and their determination to succeed in an unfamiliar occupation. “So much of the scholarly literature on Jewish refugees has focused on government policy,” Sperling said. “But we know less about the actual lived experiences of these refugees once they get into the country. I wanted to find personal testimonies and highlight the human drama behind government policy.” In recognition of his groundbreaking work, the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Kentucky honored Sperling by awarding his paper its annual Mark and Ruth Luckens International Prize in Jewish Thought and Culture. The award, given to “the best unpublished original essay” written by a graduate student or recent Ph.D., comes with a $500 prize and opportunity to give a keynote talk on his research.

Helen, Walter, Manfred, and David Loeb at Van Eeden, in Burgaw, North Carolina. Manfred and Ann Loeb Collection (P0029), University of North Carolina Wilson Library, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Sperling is now starting to undertake research for his dissertation under the tutelage of Prof. Pamela Nadell, who serves as his advisor. “I really wanted to work with Prof. Nadell,” Sperling said. “She is one of the best scholars in American Jewish history, and the program felt like a good fit for me.” Living in Washington, D.C. is also invaluable, with easy access to institutions such as the Holocaust Museum. For his dissertation, Sperling is researching American Jewish responses to anti-Semitism espoused by extremist groups such as the KKK and American Nazi Party during the middle decades of the twentieth century. “So much has been written about antisemitism,” he says, “but there is much less research about the extremist angle. I want to assess Jewish perceptions of these groups.” Once he completes his Ph.D. at AU, Sperling hopes to pursue a career in academia.

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