UChicago historian Tara Zahra named 2014 MacArthur Fellow

Tara Zahra, a historian of Central and Eastern Europe, has received a prestigious 2014 MacArthur Fellowship.

Zahra, professor in history and the College, is among 21 recipients of the honor this year. The fellowships aim to “encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations,” according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

In making the announcement, the MacArthur Foundation praised Zahra for “challenging the way we view the development of the concepts of nation, family and ethnicity and painting a more integrative picture of 20th-century European history. With conceptual and empirical rigor, Zahra’s writings combine broad sociohistorical analysis with extensive archival work across a wide range of locales.”

Zahra said getting the news about the fellowship was “the biggest surprise of my life. I thought it was a telemarketer calling. It still doesn’t seem real.” She added, “It felt like being struck by lightning, but a particularly good kind of lightning.”

The award comes with a “no-strings-attached” stipend of $625,000, paid out over a five-year period. “I do hope the fellowship will give me the courage to take more intellectual risks and the freedom to spend more time on research and writing. I also want to think about more ways to engage with contemporary political issues in my research and writing, like migration, nationalism, feminism and family politics,” said Zahra.

A former ballet dancer, Zahra also hopes to use the fellowship to unite her passions for history and dance. “I would like to elevate the status of dance as an academic discipline at UChicago,” she said.

Exploring the evolution of national identity

Zahra is currently finishing a book on emigration from East Central Europe to Western Europe and the United States from 1889 to present, and also is starting a new project on World War I and its aftermath in the Austrian Empire.

Much of Zahra’s work focuses on children in Eastern and Central Europe in the 20th-century. In Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1948, she explores how Czech and German nationalists worked to claim children as part of the national collective, rather than the family unit.

The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II, Zahra’s second book, shows how efforts to rebuild families and find homes for displaced children became synonymous with the reconstruction of Europe itself.

Since joining the UChicago faculty in 2007, Zahra has taught undergraduate courses on twentieth century Europe, German Nazism and the Western Civilization Core course. With her colleague Leora Auslander, Zahra is leading a Neubauer Collegium project exploring migration and material culture in the modern world. That project will culminate with a major conference in May 2015.

Zahra is a graduate of Swarthmore College. She received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 2005 and spent two years as a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows before coming to UChicago.

This year’s MacArthur Fellows also include cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who was a Mellon Fellow at the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry in 2012. During her Mellon Fellowship, Bechdel co-taught a course on comics and autobiography with Hillary Chute, associate professor in English and the College, and helped to organize “Comics: Philosophy and Practice,” a three-day conference that brought 17 world-renowned cartoonists to UChicago.