What does it mean to be an activist? Is an activist someone who takes to the streets, linking arms with allies to collectively call for what is right? Do they ingrain themselves within a community in order to understand the problems that plague them and search for equitable solutions? Do they educate friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances about important causes? The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines activism as “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about social or political change”—but what does “vigorous campaigning” look like?
International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8th, is a product of the vigorous campaigning of working-class women in the early 20th century. The Socialist Party of America called for the first National Women’s Day in 1909 in honour of widespread demonstrations and organizing around working women’s rights and welfare. Clara Zetkin vigorously campaigned for an International Women’s Day at the 1910 International Conference of Working Women, leading to its first celebration in Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and Austria in 1911. On February 23, 1917 (March 8 in the New Style dating system), a Women’s Day demonstration in Russia against food shortages and rights abuses under the autocratic Romanov dynasty grew to such great heights it led to the Tsar’s abdication from the throne a week later. March 8 was formalized as International Women’s Day by the USSR in 1922 and celebrated as a holiday in communist countries around the world for decades; the United Nations formally recognized the day in 1975 (Haynes, “The Radical Reason Why March 8 is International Women’s Day,” TIME, 2019).
Dr. Dina Golovanevskaya, whose records are newly available on the VHEC’s collections website, was likely one of the millions of women honoured during annual Women’s Day celebrations in the Soviet Union. Born in 1919 in Odessa, Ukraine during the height of the Russian Civil War, Dr. Golovan (as she often referred to herself) was a staunch patriot, decorated military veteran and distinguished medical professional.
As many archivists do, I came to meet Dr. Golovan not face-to-face but through the records and objects she left behind. She was one of the first individuals to donate personal records to the VHEC back when it was the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society in the early 1990s. She donated copies of photographs, a couple letters from friends and a few Russian-language publications from visits to Holocaust memorial sites. Last year, as part of a Library and Archives Canada Documentary Heritage Communities Program (DHCP) grant to digitize our legacy holdings and make them accessible in our collections catalogue, I reached out to Dr. Golovan’s daughter Erika Galinskaya to see if we could swap out some of the copies for originals.
We received much, much more: military records, speeches, articles, identification documents, certificates, correspondence, medical paraphernalia, the original photos and then some. From these records and conversations with Erika, we can tell a story of a woman who served in the front lines of some of the fiercest battles against fascism, dedicated her life to the medical profession and committed to community service and advocacy until the end.
Dr. Golovan served in the Red Army as a captain of medical service alongside other Jewish medical professionals from the Battle of Stalingrad to the fall of Berlin in 1945. After the war she advanced in the medical field; she worked as the Head of Laboratories at a hospital in Odessa for fifteen years, all while raising her daughter Erika as a single mother (her husband Jakob passed away in 1949 from complications from wounds received during the war).While Dr. Golovan’s love for her country was great, antisemitic bureaucracy prevented Erika from getting a merited job as a musician. The mother and daughter immigrated and settled in Vancouver in 1976, where Dr. Golovan committed to community work and quickly became a pillar in Jewish and Russian volunteer organizations. She was an active member and elected officer of the Shalom Branch #178 of the Royal Canadian Legion and the Workers for Zion. She frequently sent letters, published articles and gave speeches on topics she felt were important, from the defunding of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to the beauty of her native Odessa. While many of her medical certifications were not recognized by Canadian institutions, she never failed to address herself as “Doctor,” even inscribing the title in pen on articles where she was featured. She was a staunch advocate against antisemitism and Holocaust denial; she published multiple articles in the Jewish Western Bulletin and frequently corresponded with editors and politicians about egregious cases. Just weeks before she passed away in 1997, Dr. Golovan sent a letter to the Bulletin and the North Shore News condemning the latter for publishing articles by Doug Collins, a noted Holocaust denier; a version of the letter was published in the Bulletin.
I’m unsure if Dr. Dina Golovanevskaya identified as an activist. Based on her records, however, it is quite apparent that she was a campaigner of vigorous extent. Learning from Dr. Golovan’s life and the history of International Women’s Day, I am moved to honour this day by going beyond the simple celebration of a particular gender identity. Rather, we must recognize the continued oppression of the world’s most marginalized classes and celebrate those who identify as women around the world who tirelessly advocate for a just and better world for all.