The Importance of Family Memories

Have any of your family members left you anything special before they passed away? Well, my grandmother, Zoya, left me her journal.

You see—I gave it to her years ago. I had forgotten that I gave it to her. It was before she developed dementia. Before she forgot who my children were, or who she was, or where she was. Before she stopped recognizing us when we came to visit.

When I held this journal after her passing, my hands shook, and I was afraid I would find nothing but empty pages inside. Instead, I found pages and pages of her neat calligraphic handwriting. Stories about her family, stories about her childhood, stories about her love for all of us.

But one story really caught my eye. It was a story about my great-grandfather, Mark Minchin, who had to leave his family in Ukraine behind as a young man and travel to Switzerland to study at a university. The thing was that Mark really wanted to become a physician and, as a Jew, he was not allowed to study in Ukraine or Russia. Only 3-5% of Jews were allowed to enter universities at the time, due to a rule enacted by the Tsar.

I’ve never heard of this historical detail before, so I looked it up. And I couldn’t stop researching (that silly Ph.D. got in the way). I wondered what Mark’s life was like in Switzerland. I found diaries and memoirs written by other students who would’ve studied with Mark at the time. I searched through many of the archives of Swiss universities but never found Mark’s name recorded in the Admissions’ books. All I know is that he stayed until the Russian Revolution and then became a renown physician in the town of Odessa, Ukraine.

WRAPPED IN THE STARS is dedicated to my family. But also to the families of all the students who made the journey to study in Switzerland during the Great War and fight for their education.



How Did I Come Up With This Story, Anyway: Part II

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.

Women medical students. 1910. Philadelphia Archives.