The idea for the contests was born in the Jewish Historical Institute in 1990. We decided that it was necessary at the time. After the political transformation, works in the field of humanities which broke various taboos cultivated in the preceding era started to be written. One of such terrae incognitae was the history of the Jews in Poland. We knew that in various research facilities, young researchers were taking up this subject. However, we did not know where and what kind of works were being written. We wanted the JHI to become a place where these works could be stored, serving others. And so it happened, outr Archive has assembled an extensive collection of contest works. Today, we can proudly say that our Institute has become the only-in-Poland information centre about the areas of undertaken research on the Jewish subject matter.
The first contest (in 1991) encompassed only master’s theses, as at the time there were not enough doctoral ones on the subject of our interest. All subsequent editions of the contest (the second one in 1993, the third in 1996, the fourth in 2009 and fifth in 2011) included both master’s and doctoral theses. Every year more and more entries were submitted, always a few dozens.
We wanted the JHI’s contest to have an influence on thecontent standards of research on the history and culture of the Jews. It has also been achieved. A lot of our contestants continued research on the Jewish subject matter, successfully pursuing academic careers. Prof Grzegorz Berndt can be an example here. In the first edition of the contest (1991) he was awarded a honourable mention for a master’s thesis and in the third one for a doctoral one. Currently, he is continuing his research as a professor at the University of Gdańsk, being also head of the branch of the Institute of National Remembrance in Gdańsk. The prize was given to: Bożena Szaynok, who currently is a professor at the University of Wrocław, Eugenia Prokop-Janiec and Michał Galas — currently professors of UJ and Prof Wacław Wierzbieniec, currently the rector of the University of Rzeszów. Jolanta Żyndul, who was awarded for a master’s thesis, is currently head of the Mordechai Anielewicz Center for the Study and Teaching of the History and Culture of Jews in Poland at the University of Warsaw. One of the winners of the Third Edition, Barbara Engelking, founded Polish Center for Holocaust Research. Other contestant, Edward Kopówka, is currently the director of the Treblinka Extermination Camp Museum in Treblinka, and Sławomir Żurek created Polish-Jewish Literature Studies at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. He also conferred the authors of two works, which got through to the final of the fourth edition of the contest.
The interests generated by contest works have been pursued by PhD Małgorzata Melchior (IFiS PAN), PhD Dorota Krawczyńska (Polish Studies at UW) and Krzysztof Lewalski, author of outstanding works on the attitude of various Christian churches in Poland towards the Jews. They all contributed to the fact that the Jewish subject matter stopped being something unique among research institutions of many cities and it generally became more common. They also contributed to developing higher content standards in this field.
While summarizing first editions of the contest, we paid attention to the problem of the language barrier, which meant that the works used only sources in Polish, adapting the subject matter to them or narrowing the examination of the subject. Now, it is much better. A lot of works use sources in Yiddish, and more and more often — also sources and studies in Hebrew. A new problem which emerged during the fourth edition of the contest was the fact that pseudo-scientific works of authors of anti-Semitic beliefs had spread to circulation of academic works. As a rule, they are not technically correct and are full of factual errors and conscious distortions, or they are tendentious, written to match the thesis. Not always did the young students and their thesis supervisors have enough knowledge to shun such works. We can happily say that this problem did not occur during the Fifth Edition of the Contest, which we have just ended.
We are trying to remain in touch with the winners, thanks to which we know that some of them, though they do not do research work, are trying to promote tolerance among their circles. They are teachers or cultural activist; we meet them on occasions of various initiatives undertaken to fight anti-Semitism and spread knowledge of the Jewish history and culture. These actions are of great value and their social effects are priceless. We can proudly say that we have played a part in them.
Dr Alina Cała
The President of the Jury of the fifth edition of the Majer Bałaban Contest
About the patron
Born in Lviv in 1877, Bałaban was the first to use modern scientific methods to research the history of Polish Jewry, contributing to a great progress in historiography of the Polish Jews. He believed, which was reflected in his books and articles, that the Polish Jews were one of the most important and creative communities in the history of Jewry in the whole world. His works on the Jews from Lviv, Cracow and Lublin still today are important compendiums on this subject matter. He emphasised the significance of research on the Polish-Jewish history as both an integral part of the world history of the Jews and key component of the history of Poland.
During the First World War, he served as a military rabbi in Lublin. During the interwar period he taught, directed the Rabbinical School in Warsaw, was a professor at the University of Warsaw and the Institute for Judaic Studies, whose tradition is maintained today by, located in its former edifice, the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute. Even during the Nazi occupation, imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, Bałaban did not stop doing research work. He died at the turn of 1942/43.