Celebrating a grand life in Polish and Jewish study

Conference to consider the impact of Antony Polonsky's scholarship

Photos/Mike Lovett

Professor Antony Polonsky in his office at Brandeis.

 Antony Polonsky didn’t set out to research things Jewish. But it also didn’t just “happen” that he found his way into the study of Polish and East European Jewry, a field in which he has been a dominant figure for decades.

​The road to this eminence, which will be celebrated at a conference on his work on Monday, took him from his Johannesburg birthplace to student years as a Marxist-Leninist sympathizer at the University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford to the ranks of the Solidarity movement in Poland. It was with the defeat of the first Solidarity movement, in 1981, that the new road opened.

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Read an excerpt from Antony Polonsky's “The Jews in Poland and Russia"
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Monday’s conference is on the occasion of publication of Polonsky’s three-volume magnum opus, “The Jews in Poland and Russia.” It is sponsored by the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry and the National Center for Jewish Film. [RSVPs encouraged; program details here.]

As Polonsky recalled during a recent conversation, he went to Poland for the first time in 1965 convinced as he had been during his South African student years that communism was in keeping with iron laws of history; he was shocked to find that “Nothing worked. Djilas [an early and acute critic of communism] was correct. I did a 180-degree turnabout.”

He began researching and writing about Stalinism and the treatment of Poland in the post-World War II period, and “moved on to Solidarity. I wasn’t doing anything Jewish at this point,” he says.

Solidarity was suppressed brutally and martial law imposed in 1981, but the authorities were unable to wipe out the movement or restore absolute control over the country. Solidarity leaders pondered why they had not won.

“Some friends in Solidarity told me a reason they were defeated was the movement hadn’t made a proper reckoning” with antisemitism in Poland’s past or present, he recalls. “They encouraged me to seek contacts within the Jewish world to alleviate the obvious gap between Poles and Jews….”

Polonsky found that Poles and Jews were divided, above all, by their diametrically opposed and incompatible views of a shared past. Poles had uninformed and un-nuanced ideas of Jewish society as “a people apart” before the war and of Jews’ support for the Soviet invasion and occupation of eastern Poland in the early war years. Jews believed most Poles had been indifferent to the fate of Jews under the Nazis – who wiped out 90 percent of Poland’s 3.5 million strong Jewish population – and they were shocked by the persistence of antisemitism and the attempts to stigmatize Jews as communists after the war.

There were elements of truth and of falsity or over-generalization in all of that. The first step toward reconciliation, Polonsky said, had to be a reckoning. That effort became the foundation of his life’s work.

“He has been at center of some of the most important work done on Polish treatment of Jews during World War II,” says Sylvia Fuks Fried, executive director of the Tauber Institute. “He has been able to get the attention of Poles, the Polish government and Polish scholars because his approach was fair and sober and he let the facts speak for themselves.”

For this reason says Jan T. Gross, a professor of history at Princeton who also specializes in modern European history and political movements, Polonsky has become a “significant public intellectual in Poland, someone who is involved in public debates which sometimes flare up with great intensity.”

“He is much more than a specialist in Jewish history,” says Gross, who calls Polonsky’s “Politics of Independent Poland” one of the best books ever written about interwar Polish politics. “His books are important. He is absolutely a major figure in the study of Polish history and Jewish history.” In addition, Gross says, “he is incredibly charming and supportive. There are many younger scholars who are in his debt. He is a master teacher.”

One such person is Joanna Michlic, director of the Project on Families, Children and the Holocaust at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, who studied with Polonsky at the London School of Economics before his move to Brandeis in the early 1990s. He later was an examiner of her Ph.D. thesis at University College, London, in 2000.

“Antony Polonsky is very open,” she says, “very encouraging to his students, supporting them” regardless of whether they share his research interests. “He has great passion not just for Jewish culture and literature but for Polish literature and culture and poetry.  “His impact on Jewish studies in Poland is huge, “ she said. “In some ways one doesn’t know what will happen to Jews and the memory of Jews in Poland, but research on Polish Jews has been established in Poland, and Antony Polonsky played a very important role in that.”

All agreed that Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, a journal created and edited by Polonsky over the past quarter-century, was one of his signal accomplishments, for it bridged the worlds of North American, Polish and Israeli scholars and became an important resource for contributors to new understandings of Polish and east European Jewry.

Polin grew out of a conference Polonsky helped organize at Oxford in 1984 that initiated a period of major breakthroughs in Polish-Jewish relations. Further conferences followed in 1986 at Brandeis and at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and finally in early 1988 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The conferences forged an international cadre of scholars involved the study of the Polish-Jewish past and Polin has provided a continuing forum in which they and succeeding generations of researchers could express their views. Polonsky edited the first six of the annual editions while based in London, and brought the enterprise with him to Brandeis. The 24th volume is scheduled for publication in December.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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