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Paulina Leder ’23 Named Undergrad Researcher of the Year

May 22, 2023 History | School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures

Paulina Leder

The triple major explored filmmaker’s striving for artistic freedom in East Germany.

By Liz Tracy 

Senior Paulina Leder, soon to graduate with a dual degree in history and German with a triple major in French, was named one of the University of Maryland’s Undergraduate Researchers of the Year for 2023. 

Nominated by Professor for the History of the Modern Middle East Peter Wien and Associate Professor of History Piotr Kosicki for her exceptional work in undergraduate research, Leder is among seven undergraduates selected by the Office of Undergraduate Studies to receive the annual award. While studying in Berlin, she researched the experiences of filmmaker Konrad Wolf, who strove for artistic expression while also representing the oppressive East German government during the Cold War.  

Leder was first inspired to major in History after taking Senior Lecturer of History Anne Rush’s course “Lawlessness: From Pirates to Body-snatchers, Exploring the Legitimacy of Illicit Activity” during her first semester at the University of Maryland. Around the same time, she joined the French cluster of the Language House, and later also decided to major in German, a natural outgrowth of being raised in a dual-language household. To encourage Leder and her brother to speak his native language at home, she says, “My dad used to lie to us and say he didn’t speak any English, so we had to speak to him in German.” 

In her time at Maryland, Leder danced with the Avirah Israeli Dance Company and Ballroom at Maryland, and honed her writing, independent research and leadership skills as the editor-in-chief at Janus, the undergraduate journal for history and the humanities. 

It was through the History Honors program that Leder found her preferred approach to the subject—looking at the past by examining the life of an individual. Leder learned how to take this approach when she read The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller by Carlo Ginzburg, assigned by Professor of History Robyn Muncy. “I thought, well, this is how you can do it. This is how you can talk about an individual and talk about how they were unique for their time, how they were influenced and shaped by, and also how they shaped the environment, country or government that was around them.”

Before participating in the Maryland-in-Nice Study Abroad program, she planned her own semester abroad in Berlin as part of a University of Maryland exchange program from March to August 2022. Once she was in Berlin, she says, “I realized I had all of these archives and… I had this opportunity to use these archives with my topic.” 

She first learned of Konrad Wolf when she was in high school. Her father, who knew she was already interested in first-hand historical perspectives, gifted her Konrad Wolf’s war diaries. Wolf’s brother was the well-known and well-studied spy chief of East Germany, Markus Wolf. “I was fascinated by the fact that these two brothers had gone two very different roads after WWII.”  

When she contacted Kosicki to discuss her topic, “Between Compromise and Utopia: Konrad Wolf, an Artistic Life Unfulfilled, 1949-1990,” he was immediately receptive, offering to be her thesis advisor. “It gave me the feeling he believed that I could do this and that it would turn out well,” Leder recalls. 

It was Leder’s first time navigating archival research, made more challenging because she was in an unfamiliar country. But Kosicki says, “She made really smart, effective and diligent use of resources that were available to her.” 

Among other archives, Leder was able to examine the personal papers Wolf contributed to the Academy of Arts (Akademie der Künste), where he was president from 1965 until his death in 1982. “I got all these letters that he wrote to his family and holding the actual letters was so amazing. Thank God, I was able to read his handwriting,” she laughs. “Sometimes when you talk about an individual, you forget that they had a life… He was talking about his girlfriend. He was having relationship problems. You see he was a human.” 

She learned about his hopes, dreams and what he wanted to achieve from his work in pursuing artistic freedom—a desire to show what was actually happening in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) while still representing the state. Wolf died before the fall of the GDR and the Soviet Union. Leder asked herself, “What was the point of all of his struggles with his beliefs if two of the institutions that he had been working to support and better just collapsed and don’t even exist anymore?” One thing she realized from her research was, “It’s important to recognize that there isn’t always a victory at the end of every story.” 

For Leder, the end of her undergraduate story does end in success. After graduation, Leder will head back to France for a TAPIF teaching assistantship. As for her contributions to historical studies, Kosicki says that her thesis “is exactly the kind of work I want to see rewarded at the university level. She’s such a deserving recipient of this award.”