"I decided to be silent": Researching Theater and Trauma in Wartime and Postwar Soviet Ukraine through Dina Pronicheva

facebook icon twitter icon email icon telegram icon link icon whatsapp icon

Dr. Mayhill Fowler

22.6.2023, 18:30

Conference Room of the Center for Urban History

We invite you to the lecture "I decided to be silent": Researching Theater and Trauma in Wartime and Postwar Soviet Ukraine through Dina Pronicheva" by Dr Mayhill Fowler. The lecture will take place as part of a program series, "Source as a Choice."

Dina Pronicheva is well-known as a survivor of Babyn Yar, whose testimony has served scholars and courts for describing Nazi atrocities. Rarely discussed, however, is her work in theater. She was an actress who trained in Kyiv and worked in puppet theater (The State Puppet Theater under the Kyiv Palace of Pioneers and Schoolchildren in the name of Panas Liubchenko / Державним театром ляльок при Київському палаці піонерів і школярів імені Панаса Любченка) before the war. After Babyn Iar, it was her contacts from her professional career and her skills as an actress that helped her survive for over two years until liberation. While working in Ukrainian theater based in Bila Tserkva, she managed to help a local Jewish community, and yet soon after witnessed their destruction; she performed in German as a conferencier under duress, yet managed to survive; she was denounced by some colleagues, yet helped by others, and she met the man who would become her second husband. After the war, she re-joined the puppet theater in Kyiv (from 1945: Central Republican Puppet Theater / Центральний республіканський театр ляльок). Throughout this period she displayed agency, choosing when to speak and when to remain silent, including in a devastating moment in Babyn Iar, when a German stepped on her body to check if she was dead. Her choice to remain silent, in this impossible moment, saved her life.

This talk focuses on Pronicheva not just as a survivor of Babyn Yar, but also as a woman in theater. It places her in the rich history of puppet theater in Soviet Ukraine, and shows how Ukrainian theater history adds new dimensions to understanding her experience of war. But bringing Holocaust history to Ukrainian theater history also highlights the effects of trauma on the postwar Soviet Ukrainian theatrical landscape and, therefore, the specificity of theater in Ukraine, so shaped by wartime occupation and violence. Finally, Dina Pronicheva’s testimony shows us the embodied nature of theater. Building on literature in performance studies, this talk explores how the body carries its own stories and questions how theater artists who had survived the war might have imparted this embodied knowledge to their audiences. As historians, dependent on the written word, we may never be able to answer that question. Yet perhaps daring to ask unanswerable questions can open up new avenues of exploration, and suggest new understandings of how the experience of war shapes the wartime and postwar theatrical landscape.

Language: English with simultaneous translation into Ukrainian

post picture

Dr. Mayhill Fowler

Dr. Mayhill C. Fowler is an associate professor in the Department of History at Stetson University. She has held fellowships at Harvard University and the University of Toronto, and was a Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine 2019-2020. She has published widely on culture in Ukraine, including her book Beau Monde on Empires’s Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine (Toronto, 2017), which will appear in Ukrainian translation with Rodovid in 2023. She is currently finishing a book on theater women in Ukraine across the long 20th century, and re-thinking a project on Soviet military theater and how societies tell war stories. She is an affiliated researcher with the Center for Urban History and teaches online in the Program in Theater Studies at Ivan Franko National University. She is also a former actress.

The event is part of the public program on documenting the experience of violence and warfare "Source as a Choice," organized by the Center for Urban History in cooperation with EHRI.

  • img

  • img


Cover Image: Dina Pronicheva with her friend Fania at work in the Puppet Theater, 1950s, Ukraine, Kyiv // From the personal archive of Volodymyr Pronichev // Babyn Yar Library

Gallery: Olya Klymuk