Congratulations to Tom Sampson, current M.Phil student and winner of both the German History Society prize and Cambridge Historical Society prize for his 2018 undergraduate dissertation
Congratulations to Tom Sampson, current M.Phil student and winner of both the German History Society prize and Cambridge Historical Society prize for his undergraduate dissertation.
Can you introduce yourself?
I’m Tom, a Modern European History M.Phil student at Christ’s College. I’d describe myself as someone who is interested in, but not defined by, my academic subject. There’s a lot going on to spark your interest outside of your area of study and I really enjoy having these new and interesting experiences.
What was the subject of your dissertation?
The title was “Anglo-Jewish Humanitarianism and the Jewish Relief Unit, 1943-1950.” The Jewish Relief Unit was a group of about 100 volunteers who trained in the UK as the Second World War was coming to an end. After the war was over, they were posted to countries like Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece to care for Jewish refugees displaced by the war. They helped them with basic needs initially in refugee camps, but subsequently became involved in helping them make plans for what they would do next in their lives, whether that was moving to another country or looking for work. My dissertation tried to give a sense of the people involved in this initiative – so often, you look at things from an organisational point of view and think about what the organisation achieved. I looked at personnel files, letters, and the stories of the individuals involved to try and get a glimpse into their personal experiences.
What’s the story behind your research? Why did you want to write on this topic?
I think it was for the same reason as most people choose their dissertation topic – because it was a topic I was interested in. By chance, whilst visiting an archive for another piece of research, I came across an exhibition on the Jewish Relief Unit. It really sparked my interest and I thought it was an opportunity to look at an area that hasn’t really been covered in depth before. Lots of research focuses on the war itself, or on the organisations that carried out work, but this seemed like a chance to bring a more personal human angle to light. This was my first experience of primary research, and I really enjoyed reading individual accounts first hand, rather than reading the information in a text book.
What’s next for you?
I’m studying for an M.Phil in Modern European History at the moment and have focused on a similar area of research, but this time looking solely at German Jewish humanitarian efforts. I’ve just handed in my dissertation to complete my studies, and am looking forward to getting a different perspective over the coming year by teaching in China for 10 months.
How does it feel to have won the prizes?
It’s nice to get recognition of my efforts. Also to know that other people found the topic interesting and share my view that there’s more work to be done in that area.
Any advice to others thinking about studying history at Christ’s or Cambridge?
I would say that they shouldn’t worry if they don’t already have a specific area of interest – for example, if they don’t have an idea of what they would write their 3rd year dissertation on. I didn’t when I first came up, but the great thing about the Cambridge history course is that it covers so much variety before the 3rd year that you are bound to find your area of interest.
What interests you most about history as an academic discipline?
It’s really the insights you get into the lives of individual people. You can see how people spoke to one another; read in their letters that they were complaining about transport, food and other day-to-day things. It’s the opportunity to have a window into the daily realities which I find most interesting.