70th anniversary of JHI

Prof. Paweł Śpiewak — Director of the Jewish Historical Institute

On 1 October 2017, we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute. May this round anniversary become an opportunity to summarise the activity of the Institute and to highlight our goals for the future.

It was a remarkable fact in post-war Poland that communist authorities allowed the Jews, organised since Autumn 1944 in the Central Committee of Polish Jews, to research their own wartime past and agreed to establish the only academic institution of a national minority in the entire country. The Central Jewish Historical Commission, later – the Jewish Historical Institute, had published books and articles which remain important until present day. A need to research, describe and give testimony of the Holocaust in particular Jewish groups was enormous among the survivors. The Central Jewish Historical Commission, since its very beginning, has been collecting, arranging and publishing a variety of documents, accounts, diaries, notes from the wartime period, with meticulousness and care. The most important part of the collection is the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. Together with the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, we take care of the Archive.

Jewish researchers, associated in the Central Jewish Historical Commission and Jewish Historical Institute, had been describing the fate of their nation after the war and later, but their voice rarely reached beyond the scarce groups of survivors, occassionally – to other groups and opinions. After the war, every nation affected by Hitler’s terror experienced its mourning alone. Every nation was left enormously wounded by this experience. Aside from that, in Poland – similarly as in entire Europe, including the Nuremberg Trial – the Nazi war crimes were dejudaised. The victims – as it was commonly claimed – were people from the whole Europe, the Russians, the Poles, the Dutch, the French, and also the Jews. There was no name for the exceptional nature of the mass murder of European Jews at that point. The very notion of totalitarianism, introduced into political sciences, pushed the particular character of the anti-Semitic crimes into the background. Non-Jewish witnesses of the Holocaust were familiar with the death of the Jewish nation, but few postwar writers or film directors decided to deal with this subject. Terms such as Shoah or Holocaust weren’t yet known. The links between crimes against Greek, Polish, Ukrainian or French Jews, as a racism-driven murder of similar qualities, weren’t yet made. Only later, the nature of the Holocaust was becoming fully understood. The Jewish Historical Institute had been functioning in a certain isolation for some time, outside the mainstream studies on the German crimes. The audience of the Institute’s works and exhibitions consisted mainly of Jews themselves.

This state of things has changed, both in Poland an internationally, quite recently. Researchers and – to an extent – the general public have acknowledged the exceptional nature of the Holocaust. Commemorating the murdered Jews has become an issue understood not only in the Warsaw intellectual milieu, but in the whole Polish society. It’s a new quality of memory. Many new museums and institutions dedicated to the Jewish culture have been established. Holocaust-themed films attract a large audience. The awareness of the nature of crimes against Jews is rising among Polish society. Themes related to the Jewish memory are often becoming a subject of the work of many academics, artists, writers. In these circumstances, the situation of the Jewish Historical Institute is changing as well. Our activities are aimed at a wider audience. The Institute itself enjoys a friendly approach from the society. At the same time, expectations towards the Institute are rising, which finds its expression in the quality of the JHI’s academic and research work, its media presence (especially online), in activities such as exhibitions and cultural projects.

A shift in approach – also in Poland — towards the Jewish experience, the reflection on memory and the suffering of Jews are an important phenomenon from our point of view. We remain a Jewish institution, whose mandate and tasks are based on the fact that we remain the only currently active public institution established by the Central Jewish Historical Commission. The Jewish Historical Institute has been continuing its work despite changes in organization and in the political system. The Institute was a part of the structure of the Associotion of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland. Later, it became a science and research institution, administered by the Ministry of Culture and Art. Today, it’s an institution of culture, administered by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. It was, and still remains, in cooperation with Polish and international Jewish institutions. It also cooperates with the largest institutions dedicated to research on the Holocaust — the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Yad Vashem. We receive significant support from many foundations, societies and state institutions. It is especially remarkable in a country with a very small Jewish population – but with countless traces of their historical presence. We celebrate the most important Jewish festivals, and in our exhibitions and publications, we present the history and present time of Judaism.

The Jewish Historical Institute doesn’t mean only our collections of archived documents, artworks, library, publications and articles – it means also people associated with our institution. The history of the Institute is closely tied to the history of Jewish emigration. Many significant witnesses of history, researchers, institution employees had left Poland before 1950; they’d also been emigrating for a few years after 1956, and the last exodus happened the years after the anti-Semitic persecutions of March 1968. We want to remember about these people by reminding their names and their contribution to the JHI. The situation began to change in the 1980s and later. Many humanistic sciences graduates, who have dedicated themselves to studies on Jewish history and culture, have joined the Institute. They arrived somehow „from the outside”, but their dedication and „Institute-oriented patriotism” became an inseparable element of the JHI’s history. The responsibility for the future of the Institute is now being passed onto a younger generation. Many young people have begun their work here recently – it is them who will guarantee the continuity and vitality of our Institute.

By presenting the history of the Jewish Historical Institute, we bring closer the postwar history of Polish Jews. We highlight an important element of the politics of Polish governments towards sciences, towards Polish Jews and the memory of the Holocaust after World War II and after 1989. We tell the story of people who were – and still are – people who feel the responsibility to maintain the presence of Jewish history and culture.

Paweł Śpiewak

From 1 October, on our website we will be publishing articles presenting history, resources and main fields of activity of the Jewish Historical Institute. In 2017, we will also publish „The Institute. 70 years of history of the Jewish Historical Institute in source documents”, edited by Helena Datner and Olga Pieńkowska.

We would also like to invite you to our website, dedicated to the Oneg Szabat Program, launched by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland and the Jewish Historical Institute on 18 September 2017. Its goal is to commemorate and popularise the Ringelblum Archive.

Oneg Szabat Program

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