I was looking for a great story of a woman to go with a ring that would be found in an antique shop. The story came to me quickly but in a sad way. My grandmother, Zoya, passed away and left me a diary filled with pages of family history. One of the pages discussed early life of my great-grandfather, Mark. She described that, as he resided within the Jewish settlement of Ukraine, he was denied entry to Ukrainian universities and had to travel to Switzerland in order to study in medical school. He spent years studying in Switzerland and then returned during the Russian Revolution.
I’ve never heard this particular family story before, so I began to do some research. I found that, in the late 19th century/early 20th century, many Russian/Ukrainian students sought education in Switzerland as women and Jews were denied entry to Russian and Ukrainian universities. However, Swiss and some German universities were very progressive and allowed women and foreigners. This resulted in hundreds of Jewish students receiving medical and science degrees abroad prior to returning home during the Revolution.
Swiss universities were not just educating the Russian and Ukrainian students. Starting in 1870s, they were also educating large numbers of Swiss and European women in science, law, and medicine and granting assistant and associate professorships to them, while, elsewhere in the world, it was still not possible for women to achieve such status.
I contacted many historians to request historical information regarding the Swiss universities, but was told there is none available. It’s a little-known subject outside of Switzerland. Swiss don’t like to brag about it. I was left to search archives and read autobiographies written by students who studied in Bern, Geneva, and Zurich at the beginning of the 20th century. I found this quite fascinating and very much enjoyed imagining what life would have been like for these students.