The Jewish Historical Institute is one of the few institutions in Warsaw that can be proud of its genius loci, its „spirit of place,” because it is fortunate to be located in a building with its own historical traditions.
Before the war, the building was the headquarters of the Main Judaic Library and of the Institute for Judaic Studies. The latter, opened on February 9th, 1928, became the first Jewish research and educational center in Europe which, alongside theological studies, also took into account secular studies. In that modern institution, rabbis, preachers, teachers of the „Mosaic” religion for both public and private schools, but also employees of Jewish communities and Jewish public organizations were educated.
The building of the Main Judaic Library was built adjacent to the Great Synagogue at Tłomackie Street. The designer of the Library building, erected in the years 1928–1936, was Edward Zacharias Eber. In a harmonious way, the building corresponded with the Great Synagogue, and the resulting architectural complex was a true gem of the capital landscape. The designer of the synagogue, built in the years 1876–1878, was Leander Marconi.
During the war, our building was one of the centers of Jewish social life in the Warsaw ghetto. The collections of the Library back then numbered 30,000 volumes. In December 1939, the collections were removed by the Germans. The majority of the books was lost forever. After the creation of the Warsaw ghetto, the library building lay within the ghetto borders. Here the Jewish Social Self-Help, the only Jewish organization that had permission to function from the German occupying authorities, had its headquarters.
From November 16th, 1940 until March 1942, the Library buildng was within the ghetto borders. Here the literary evenings, theater performances, meetings for children and symphony concerts took place. In addition, there took placeconspiratorial meetings of the Oneg Shabbat (Hebr: Joy of Sabbath) which, under the direction of Emanuel Ringelblum was gathering comprehensive documentation of life and the extermination of the Jews in Poland during World War II.
On May 16th, 1943, as a sign of the suppression of any resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, the SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Polizei Jürgen Stroop orderedthe dynamiting of the Great Synagogue and torching of the Library building. By doing this, he symbolically achieved “the final solution of the Jewish question” in Warsaw. Traces of the fire are visible on the floor of the main hall of the Institute until this day.
Warsaw’s new government allocated the burned-out building to the Central Committee of the Jews in Poland which, afterthorough restoration funded by the Joint (an American Jewish aid organization), housed here their Central Jewish Historical Commission.
In 1944 in Lublin, the Central Committee of the Polish Jews (the most important post-war Jewish organization) established the Central Jewish Historical Commission, whose main goals were to collect accounts of Holocaust survivors and to make available proof material useful in prosecuting German war criminals. In 1946, the Commission had collected already over 8,000 cases of archives, several dozen diaries, memoirs and works of literature, about 2,000 personal accounts, a few thousand books found in ghetto ruins, over 3,000 photographs, 250 paintings, sculptures and synagogalia. The most significant part of these resources was the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto – the Ringelblum Archive.
On 1 October 1947, the CCPJ decided to transform the Commission into the Jewish Historical Institute, located at 5 Tłomackie street, in the rebuilt edifice of the pre-war Institute for Judaistic Sciences and the Main Judaistic Library.
The JHI, which was a subsidiary of the Central Committee of the Polish Jews, continued the Commission’s work. It was also the successor of its collection, as well as of the Jewish Society for the Advancement of Arts. It also committed itself to create the Central Archive of the Polish Jewry in order to provide documents for researchers; established the JHI Library, which continued the work of the Central Jewish Library; began works on opening a museum and search for remaining parts of the Ringelblum Archive; began publishing a historical quarterly in Yiddish language, „Bleter far Geszichte”.
On 29 October 1950, the Polish United Workers’ Party issued a decision to close down the CCPJ. A few days later, on 8 November, at the General Meeting of the founding members, JHI employees established the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute, which was registered in 1951 and became an independent legal entity. The Association had used, throughout its history, two names — Association of the Jewish Historical Institute and Jewish Historical Institute. Its main aims and activities resulted from and continued the work of the previous JHI – complex studies on the history of Jews, research and academic activity, and popularizing its results.
Through the following 42 years, the Association, along with the Institute functioning within its structure, ceaselessly continued to fulfil its mission despite political and financial difficulties.
On 18 May 1993, at the General Meeting, members of the Association of the JHI decided to distinct the Institute and authorized the Board to make the Association’s resources available, free of charge – especially the Tłomackie 3/5 building, as well as archives, documents, library resources and artworks – to a future research institute. The Association requested the Minister of Culture and Arts to establish said institute.
On 18 April 1994, on the basis of Decree no. 13, the Minister of Culture and Arts established the Jewish Historical Institute – an Institute for Science and Research. The activity of the JHI – ISR, located in the former Main Judaistic Library, was based mainly on resources made available by the Association. In December 2008, the Minister of Culture and National Heritage decided to close down the JHI – ISR, which was followed by founding the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute on 1 January 2009.
Today, the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute is the longest-functioning Jewish scientific institution in Poland. As a state institution of culture, builds a scientific and academic base for the development of knowledge about history and culture of Jews, especially the history and culture of Polish Jews; it popularizes research results, provides access to surviving material testimony, and ensures complex care for resources granted by the Association.
The building of the former Library is a sign of the multidimensional spiritual and intellectual life of Jews before the war and of spiritual resistance during the war, and it is a witness to the death of a community and to attempts to revive it since 1945. Today it serves to preserve, recreate and promote the heritage of Polish Jews and their memory.