When Emma Kuby, associate professor of history, decided to write her first book about concentration camp survivors who witnessed some of the 20th century’s worst atrocities, she knew that she was choosing a difficult but important topic. In the months since the book was published, she has been gratified to see how powerfully the subject has resonated with readers.
Her book has received glowing reviews and earned three national awards, including one of the history profession’s most prestigious — the George Louis Beer Prize in European international history since 1895 from the American Historical Association.
“This award means a lot to me, especially since several of the historians that I most admire have received it in the past,” Kuby said. “I’m mainly thrilled, though, that people are reading and thinking about the book. I believe that the story it tells about how humans struggle to make sense of suffering and injustice is still deeply relevant today.”
Kuby’s book, Political Survivors: The Resistance, the Cold War, and the Fight against Concentration Camps after 1945 deals with Nazi camp survivors as transnational activists in the immediate postwar decades. By telling the story of survivors’ crusade to expose crimes against humanity in Franco’s Spain, Maoist China, French Algeria, and beyond, it
The first honor bestowed on Political Survivors was the Council for European Studies 2020 book award, for the best first book published on any subject in European Studies in 2018-2019. That was followed by the 2020 David Pinkney Prize from the Society for French Historical Studies, for the most distinguished book in French history published in the US or Canada in 2019. In October, the book received the George Louis Beer Prize from the American Historical Association. Political Survivors joins a long list of previous Beer Prize recipients, recognized annually since 1923 by the American Historical Association, the oldest and largest professional organization of historians working in the United States today.
Not bad for a book that started out as a chapter in Kuby’s dissertation. She’s been interested in it ever since, with her research and writing of the book beginning in earnest when she came to NIU in 2012.
“The majority of historians’ first books are revised dissertations,” she said. “I did something unusual and a bit risky by setting aside the bulk of my dissertation and expanding outward from a single chapter. It was a decision I made during my first semester at NIU.”
“I knew that I “should” be revising the dissertation for publication, but I was preoccupied with the events and characters of a single chapter, which dealt with how French Nazi camp survivors navigated the politics of the Cold War and the Algerian War,” Kuby said. “I felt as if these survivors-turned-activists deserved to be the centerpiece of an entire book. Eventually I chose to trust my instincts as a researcher and a storyteller and to go for it.”
Kuby initially was hoping she would need to do minimal new research to transform her ideas into a full book manuscript.
“I was completely wrong! To tell the story of the European concentration camp survivors at the heart of my book, I ended up working with additional materials in 15 archives across six countries,” she explained. “It was an enormous challenge. Thanks to start-up funding and a Research & Artistry grant from NIU, though, I was able to pull it off.”
As an associate professor, Kuby teaches courses on modern European and French history, intellectual history and the history of French overseas empire, as well as thematic classes related to violence, justice, memory and religious minorities in modern Europe. She didn’t aspire to be a professor at first, but was encouraged by her professors as an undergraduate at Brown University, where she double-majored in history and gender studies. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in European History from Cornell University in 2011.
Juggling teaching and research is never easy, but she found role models and support within her home department. Kuby, a recipient of the 2018 Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award, also found a way to incorporate her students in her own writing process.
“I try to weave my teaching and research together when I can — not only by bringing my subject matter into the classroom, but by actively modeling historical research methods for students. When I teach History’s senior capstone course, I set myself the challenge of writing a research paper along with my students, which I submit to a professional journal on the same day that they turn in their senior thesis papers to me.”
Since finishing Political Survivors, Kuby has been working on an eclectic set of smaller projects that deal with the same post-World War II period — for example, an article on prisoners’ rights in France since 1945 and another on the American Jewish Committee and the Cold War. Her next book project will transport her into a different era – the 1800s.
Tentatively titled Escape Artists: The Tristan-Gauguin Family and the Quest for Bodily Freedom in the Nineteenth-Century French World, the book will tell the century-spanning, globe-hopping story of a single French family that included the famous painter Paul Gauguin and his socialist-feminist grandmother, Flora Tristan.
“I’m interested in using their messy, rich family history and their uneven efforts to grapple with slavery and colonial violence to explore how ideas about bodily freedom changed in the French-speaking world over the course of the nineteenth century,” she said.
Kuby’s approach to writing her second book has been influenced by her experience writing the first one.
“Writing Political Survivors taught me a lot about my own strengths and weaknesses as a historian,” she said. “While I’m interested in very big-picture historical problems, I most enjoy focusing on a small, intimate cast of characters in order to get at them.”
She also will work on an international scale again. The characters in her second book, the Tristans/Gauguins, spent time in a wide range of locales — from Peru to Tahiti, Cape Verde, Panama, London and Paris.
“I expect that once it’s possible again I’ll need to travel quite a bit to complete this work,” Kuby said. “I’m looking forward to it.”