Professor Paweł Śpiewak: Do not close the experience in a time capsule

Written by: Prof. Paweł Śpiewak
Translated by: Przemysław Batorski
The collections of the Jewish Historical Institute should be exhibited, so that anyone who visits us may say: there are treasures. We moved the Institute from the era of typewriting to the Internet era. We open up with exhibitions, lectures, film and theater screenings, trying to attract especially the residents of Warsaw. This is the way to the future. Olga Drenda talks to the director of the Jewish Historical Institute, professor Paweł Śpiewak.
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Professor Paweł Śpiewak / photo by Marta Kuśmierz


Olga Drenda: Maybe let's start from the beginning, i.e. from 2011.

Professor Paweł Śpiewak: I became the director of the Jewish Historical Institute almost by accident. Previously I had not considered such a possibility. I had no managerial ambitions. I knew something about the JHI, had a good understanding of the existing Jewish community, learned about Jewish traditions, wrote commentaries on the Torah for "Tygodnik Powszechny", but did not desire that I can take up a managerial career and work for the so-called Jewish street.  

It was not and is not an easy street. I had not considered such a way of life. I imagined that for the rest of my life I would be a rebellious academician – writing essays, articles and books, like the proverbial shoemaker, working for someone who knocks and rings to order an article for a more or less popular weekly. My anvil, my computer, was full of such contracts.

I had – as the saying goes – various adventures in my career (I have been a member of Polish Parliament for two years, an exciting waste of life) and the fact a new opportunity may appear was not unimaginable for me. The idea of directorship intrigued and surprised me. There was something adventurous, new and risky about it.

I was introduced by Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski to an institution that looked dilapidated from the outside. I made the reconstruction of the space a priority. What is most beautiful, i.e. the architecture typical of the 1930s, resembling the interior of the Emigration Museum in Gdynia or the YIVO building in Vilnius, was then obscured. The building of the current Jewish Historical Institute, as one of the few community ghetto buildings, survived the war. He remained a strong sign of presence and memory of the Central Judaic Library (there was no trace of it) and of the Judaic Institute. During the war it performed important functions. It was here that Emanuel Ringelblum – the patron of the Institute since 2009 – and a large group of his associates came to work every day.

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One of the information boards on the facade of the Jewish Historical Institute / photo: Marta Kuśmierz


The building has something extraordinary about it: traces of fire on the floor. As in the picture from Hiroshima. The nation died, only a trace of the fire remained. When the Great Synagogue was blown up in May 1943, a fire penetrated the building and burnt the ceilings and stone. The temperature must have been enormous.

I feel that this is an extremely important sign that I think of in biblical terms. In one of the midrashim we read that God wrote the Tablets of Moses with white and black fire; I treat this trace as a sign of what is most important in our Jewish history. Our covenant table and our fate are written in fire. Not to be erased. Unforgettable.


What was the cause of this state of affairs, simply entropy?

My predecessors operated under difficult conditions. The salaries were outrageous, lower by half compared to the lowest salary in the Polish Academy of Sciences. A significant part of the expenses was covered by the support of the always gracious Taube Foundation, without which the Institute would not be able to function at all. Those were years of economic turmoil. The change came together with the transition of the JHI to the authority of the Ministry of Culture. Thankfully the late Minister Tomasz Merta, a wonderful man, managed to do it. Dr. Eleonora Bergman was reorganizing the Institute for three years. I had the impression that I was entering a forgotten institution hidden behind a skyscraper, covered with autumn leaves for years. The otherwise beautiful building stood, but was no longer visible in a social sense.

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Jewish Historical Institute and the Blue Skyscraper / photo by Marta Kuśmierz

Nobody visited this place, unless they were doing research. There were very few exhibitions, one in ten years, and they did not arouse any particular interest. Unfortunately, the JHI was treated as a marginal academic and archival institution. The greatest treasure, the archives, including the largest of them, the Ringelblum Archive (ARG), were being edited. If anyone made them public, it was certainly not the JHI and its employees. It was in the JHI that the documents from Jedwabne were kept, as well as the diary of a ghetto policeman from Otwock – Calel Perechodnik. Fortunately, some of this legacy was published by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research. The institution was technologically at the level of a typewriter, computers were more of an ornament. The website was extremely modest. In my opinion, the Jewish Historical Institute was heading towards marginalization. I can say that when I entered the JHI, I did not even realize how difficult a task awaited me. My social and sociological knowledge has also changed a lot.

I like to come back to one quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince: a prince who takes control of a state in a state of decay is in a favorable position, because any move he makes to restore order will be a move forward, will change something. It is easier to build something when institutions are non-functional and poorly staffed. The first goals are then quite easy to achieve. The second thing is that, I admit, I haven't had much to do with the Institute before. My ex-father-in-law was once the director, in the most difficult period, 1969-1970. He resigned after some minor conflict with Professor Marian Fuks. Suddenly, I got here with the feeling that I had no experience in managing institutions, and I had no feeling that I had any managerial talent.


What was it like putting together the JHI?

To some extent, this process started bottom-up. If today I know what the mission of the Jewish Historical Institute is, it is not because I came there with a clear plan. The Institute has very rich archival, library and museum collections. Many distinguished and reliable people worked there. We were obliged by the Institute's past and many years of achievements. The memory of the murdered nation is obliging. This is the most important thing.

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The full critical edition of the Ringelblum Archive / photo by Grzegorz Kwolek

One thing became clear to me – that apart from moving the bookstore from the middle of the hall, throwing away unnecessary wardrobes from the building's lobby and tidying up the space – it was a requirement that the Institute should be technologically modernized, moving from the era of typescript to the Internet era. The JHI needed a leap forward. It was not only about the website, but also – which was criticized by some JHI employees – about the digitization of materials. They had to be made available, as well as books, magazines, documents written on paper, often of the poorest kind, had to be saved. Now we have a fantastic scanning center, we have rebuilt the website once again, and many new people with great competence and amazing commitment appeared at work.

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The first two volumes of the English translation of the ARG.
The third volume was published in 2020 and more are being prepared.

The first task was to strengthen the Institute from the administrative and accounting side. We managed to organize our relations with the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute. We now have a good and lasting agreement defining the property relations and the principles of mutual cooperation.

Not only has the basic budget of the JHI increased, but also serious specific donations, support from various foundations (Taube Foundation, which contributes greatly to the development of our institution, the Rotschild Foundation, the Koret Foundation and others, are also helpful; recently the Norwegian and EEA Grants play an important role) and numerous other grants. They now account for at least a third of our overall budget. We have a lot of money for our research, publishing, exhibition, digitization etc. I believe that this is our great achievement, which can be continued in the coming years. An important element of our role in the Jewish community is cooperation with the Taube Center and the Hillel Polska Foundation.

A publishing department was also needed. A long time ago, there has been one book published in seven years, and I thought there should be almost twenty books a year. In my nine years, we have published nearly a hundred books, not counting the ARG series. A significant place is held by “Kwartalnik Historii Żydów” [Jewish History Quarterly] edited by dr hab. Jan Doktór – we managed to increase its volume by one third (here the help of the Association was essential and significant). Our publishing house and a beautiful bookshop are the showpieces of the Institute. Of course, the publishing house requires not only editors, graphic designers, printing houses, but also considerable funds. Here we are aided by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and other institutions.   

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The interior of the JHI Bookstore with the Institute's publications / photo by Marta Kuśmierz

Each researcher has the opportunity to publish their texts. Quite an interesting collection has assembled in this way. A separate place is taken by the publication of subsequent volumes of the Ringelblum Archive (there are 38 of them), plus translations of these volumes into English. It is a huge achievement of prof. Tadeusz Epsztein, dr. Eleonora Bergman and dr hab. Katarzyna Person. The institution itself, whose employees enjoy a serious scientific status, benefits from this.

Once there was no exhibition department either, so we didn't have a way of showing our huge and little known art collection that was basically unedited when I came in. In a few months, a museum and exhibition department was established and I created a long-term exhibition program. Many of the exhibitions are worth remembering, they were accompanied by really good catalogs. I am thinking of exhibitions devoted to Polish rabbis, Julia Pirotte's photography, anti-Semitic caricatures, Polish art towards the Shoah, and an exhibition “Hate Speech – I exclude exclusion”. Of course, the most important for us are the two permanent exhibitions. One is dedicated to the Oneg Shabbat group and the other is called the House of Prayer. Apart from us, no one could deal with the memory of the Jewish artists who died during the war. It was a long road to go and it is not over yet. We have much to show and to share. The museum department plays a significant role in promoting the Institute and fulfilling its cultural role.

The education department conducts many classes for students, researchers, Polish and foreign students. Academies for teachers are very important to us. We used to conduct one such session every year. Now there are two each year. Many lesson scenarios have been prepared and published on the Delet portal.

The Archives Department is our backbone. They look after millions of pages of documents (digitization is ongoing). There are new documents coming to us all the time. We respond to numerous official inquiries.

Our library works very well. We buy all important books on the history of Jews, according to a list we prepare together. We devote considerable resources to this goal. The catalog has been renewed. The library’s inventory has been completed. The book collections were put in order, including the manuscripts and the antique books department. We gained access to many research portals, including JSTOR. We are working on a new bibliography of the "Biuletyn" [Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute] and "Quarterly" of the Jewish Historical Institute.

We hired many young researchers. The research team now consists of 18 people. Several of them have recently completed habilitations and doctorates. I have the impression that a lot has happened during the last nine years, many publications have been written, others are planned and started. I should mention a few collective projects. We have published a series of books devoted to the Central Committee of Polish Jews. I hope that more will be published. A large part of the team worked on the full edition of the Ringelblum Archive. Currently, the scientists of the JHI are involved in the preparation of the Encyclopedia of the Warsaw Ghetto, several are working on volumes devoted to Polish-Jewish relations, and the team has participated in digitization work. The Jewish urban life research group has prepared a volume devoted to the history of Warsaw Jews. A book about Tłomackie Street is being written. 

We organized many research sessions, for example, about Emanuel Ringelblum, Yiddish culture and language, post-war emigration. We have been organizing research seminars every Tuesday for years. Many of us take advantage of international scholarships and participate in world conferences. Several working groups have been established. More people than in previous decades research the Shoah. We go back to our roots and our vocation. For the first time in the history of the Jewish Historical Institute, so many people work on the religiosity of Polish Jews, which results, among other things, in very important publications.

The genealogy department has been strengthened over the years. Currently, the team of consists of five outstanding specialists, invited to all international conferences on genealogy. Over the years, we have been visited by thousands of people from all over the world and everyone obtained knowledge of the highest quality. We work with all the world's major research institutions and museums dealing with Jewish history, starting with the Yad Vashem Institute and the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We have signed many bilateral agreements, recently, with the NS Dokuzentrum in Munich, where we want to open an exhibition on the Oneg Shabbat group in two years.  

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Genealogy Department at work / photo: Marta Kuśmierz

There is also the conservation team – theirs is a huge, systematic work, particularly important concerning the Ringelblum Archive.

Step by step, we managed to obtain the appropriate funds. New websites were created, including the website of the Central Judaic Library (CBJ), Delet, and a website dedicated to the Oneg Shabbat group. Our main website plays a great role. It is visited over a million times a year. It is very interesting, matter-of-fact and well-composed. A few days ago it was transformed, adjusting to new legal requirements and the latest technologies. A lot of people work on the website publishing their articles. We inform about important events. We are studying the history of Polish Jews more and more deeply.  

Thanks to digitization, we have created a huge collection of Jewish and Judaic data and documents, one of the largest in the world. The list of achievements is long and worthy of a separate report.


What does digitization look like behind the scenes?

We scan partially as needed, for example: someone writes a book, comes to us, knows that they have found interesting, unknown materials. We scan the magazines so that someone can find out what was in the newsletter published by the Jewish Historical Institute or in newspapers from the war and before the war. We scanned all the old prints, 17th and 18th century, in case they might be damaged. It is an extraordinary collection of books, published mainly in Amsterdam and smuggled into Poland. This happened not because of the inquisition or church repression restricting Jewish printing, but because the Jewish oligarchs did not want to allow the circulation of books they considered dangerous, heretical. There were two exhibitions devoted to these works. Great, powerful catalogs prepared by Dr. Magdalena Bendowska and Dr hab. Jan Doktór. Research on these books is still ongoing. The manuscripts collected at the JHI were put in order for the first time.


What percentage of the collections has already been digitized?

I think quite a lot, and as a consequence, we established one of the largest online Judaic libraries in the world. We have also a great Delet website with high quality scans, lesson scenarios. We have three digitization stations, because everything has to be scanned on the spot – the materials cannot be taken outside the Institute. The scanning process itself is seemingly simple, but then these materials still need to be developed, corrected, and placed on our database. It is a time consuming and tedious job..

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Digitization Department / photo by Marta Kuśmierz

The changes took place not only in terms of technology, but also and above all in terms of subject. 

The Jewish Historical Institute, and earlier the historical commissions operating at the Central and provincial Jewish committees (in 1944-1947) are the precursors of world research on what we now call the Holocaust or the Shoah. It was not until the early 1960s that Hilberg's three-volume groundbreaking work The Destruction of the European Jews appeared. It was not until the 1970s that more serious studies and academic courses on the Holocaust appeared around the world. In Isreael, the Eichmann trial contributed to a change of perspective.

The term Holocaust itself was introduced in the 1970s by Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington was established in the late 1990s, and while Yad Vashem existed since the 1950s, from this point of view we were the most important pioneering institution for years. From the end of the war, the Holocaust survivors collected testimonies, diaries, reports, and published many books. The Institute was established in 1944 as a historical commission, which then itself transformed into the Jewish Historical Institute in 1947. The main task was to document the Holocaust.

Today, we are reprinting new editions of many post-war books. We must take care of our memory and recall our own achievements. When March 1968 came and the anti-Semitic campaign began, the issue became even more delicate. For decades, research into what happened during the war remained in the shadows. The focus was only on the Middle Ages and Jewish assemblies [sejmy]. The quality of work also deteriorated, the best researchers emigrated, many jobs were received by officers who had been expelled from the Polish Army for their descent. A very good community of researchers gradually developed at the JHI, and it was not until the late 1980s that young, very competent historians were admitted..


So the existence in spore form was somewhat forced by circumstances. Then the Institute has redirected its activity to the Ringelblum Archive.

It was clear to me from the beginning that we must return to the subject of the Holocaust, to the original mission of our institution. This meant a whole sequence of activities: digitizing our resources, employing experts on the Holocaust, organizing appropriate exhibitions and focusing on the Ringelblum Archive.

The first volumes of the Archive were published in 1990, when Dr. Ruta Sakowska was still working on this project, but as many as 34 volumes were published during my term of office. Here I should thank especially Professor Tadeusz Epsztein, Dr. Eleonora Bergman and Dr. Katarzyna Person. We are the heirs and custodians of this unique collection and we must work on it.

I want to publish the more fascinating fragments of the ARG also as separate books. Now we are translating the archive into English, we want to publish Ringelblum's texts that are in the Archive as separate books, we are working on the Encyclopedia of the Warsaw Ghetto. The entries will cover the simplest of things, such as what the ghetto rickshaw was, and individual people, as well as social and cultural phenomena (such as abortion or prostitution in the ghetto). I also thought that the Archives should be shown through exhibitions so that someone visiting us could say: there are treasures here. Speaking in the language of marketing, it was also about creating a recognizable brand.

On the 70th anniversary of the founding of the JHI, we opened a permanent exhibition entitled „What we’ve been unable to shout out to the world”. These are words taken from the will of a 19-year-old boy who hid the Archive in metal boxes in the basement of the Borochov school in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. Thanks to meticulous work on the script and design of the exhibition, we created a space that is useful for educational work, and above all, it permanently places the JHI within the tradition of researching, thinking about the Holocaust and showing Holocaust documents at exhibitions.


What was the reorientation of the JHI in practice? What were the challenges?

An important thing for me was to depart from the narrow leftist paradigm of thinking and practicing the history of the Jewish nation, in which there was no place for religion, spirituality, mysticism, and Hasidim. It should be obvious that the research of spirituality cannot be neglected. It affects the language of ideas, the rhythm of holidays, shapes a certain Jewish individuality, even if we one is already secularized. It even influences the basics of iconography, the understanding of certain concepts: a Christian angel is a winged baby, a Jewish one stands on one leg. The basic ideas are different. Without the spirituality of culture, it is impossible to describe the fate of a nation or even a separate civilization. We will also not understand the Holocaust, for example the fact that the Germans started their operations on the most important Jewish holidays (Yom Kippur, Tisha B'Av).

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An etrog box used during the Sukkot festival. JHI collection / photo by Marta Kuśmierz

We now have a seminar devoted to Jewish spirituality, publications (the works of Dr hab. Jan Doktór are of course particularly important), and there are translations of Baal Shem Tov and Abulafia. This is not a marginal trend in Poland, but a central one, which does not mean that you have to pray and turn into a religious Jew. Discussing the phenomena surrounding religion is part of the joint research plans. We prepared exhibitions strictly related to religious issues, such as an exhibition showing Polish rabbis, the geography of yeshivas, religious centers, including Hasidic ones, and important religious prints. Thanks to this exhibition you could see a different tradition of Polish Jews with specific religious contacts in Poland and Europe.   


So there has been a transition from a rather hermetic institution to one that creates interesting initiatives for guests who are not experts on Jewish issues. 

Yes, this is also the purpose of  Judaica from our collection in the Bejt Tfila exhibition. It is also a question about the Jewish character of this institution – the Jewish Historical Institute is the only institution of the Jewish world in Poland, which was recreated right after the war, and the only one which survived all the political turmoil. Educational institutions, yeshibots that re-emerged after the war, and most of the synagogues have later disappeared because much of the remaining Polish Jews emigrated. Also, the Stalinists liquidated the Central Jewish Committee, closed many Jewish theaters, magazines and political parties.

I believe that 1956 and not 1968 was the last year when Jews actually lived in Poland. In the post-war years, over 100,000 Jews left, and around 60,000 after the October turn. In 1968, there are mentioned 14,000 immigrants, mostly more or less Polonized Jews. The numbers speak for themselves. Poland expelled the rest of the survivors. I say Poland because the domestic, right-wing anti-Semitism played a major part in this.

We have maintained institutional continuity. We remain the only scientific and research institution of national minorities in Poland. The Jewish identity of JHI employees was its determinant, but the question is what it means today when, firstly, most of the employees do not have Jewish roots, and secondly, many other institutions were established that want to talk about Jewishness. Of course, the length of existence is not a sufficient title to legitimize it. But certainly, if we refer to the pre-war heritage, institutions such as the Main Judaic Library, which was located in our building before the war, were maintained by philanthropists or by the community. Today, the Jewish Historical Institute is supported by the minister of culture and foundations, but foreign, not domestic.


Why is it so? 

This is a problem. The material history of Polish Jews is largely preserved in the JHI, so if the Jewish world in Poland wants to exist, it must benefit from it. Huge collections of Jewish art are scattered around museums, the richest one is in the National Museum. In my opinion, the Jewish community should appreciate the potential of our institution to a greater extent.

So the question is, is our Jewishness just a study of Jewish history? This is what many other institutions do. So is there something sub specie that makes us different? Jewishness was maintained in such a way that the JHI director biographically always had something in common with the Jews, and I hope that will remain as an expression of a certain sensitivity. As with our separateness that is expressed in the fact that we do not work on the Sabbath. The most important Jewish holidays are days off for us. But does this mean that we are supposed to have preferences for people of Jewish descent? Probably not.

Who are we to the outside world? We have quite a lot of support from around the world, for example from the Taube Foundation. This contact, the system of alliances, with Yad Vashem, with the The Ghetto Fighters' House. We are a secular institution with a strong Jewish identity.  


It is probably also a question of the division of tasks between institutions, cooperation, and the positioning of Jewish institutions in Poland.

The geography of Jewish places in Poland has certainly changed during my term of office. We have to constantly re-position ourselves. The emergence of the POLIN Museum and local initiatives has a good effect, because Jewish issues are more present in the public discourse. We also become caught up in serious historical debates. Anti-Semitic slogans will always appear, but I believe that this is a marginal phenomenon, because the Jewish community after 1989 is more than fragile. People brought up as Catholics discover their Jewish ancestors, many people convert. Jewish culture is returning thanks to many researchers, scientists and filmmakers who are interested in it in Poland. We are all entitled to this heritage.

Initially, POLIN was supposed to be an extension of the JHI and use our resources. It turned out different. I would not like us to be a "Jewish Academy of Sciences", although we often get inquiries as to whether we would not take care of the collections that are deteriorating somewhere. We would like to help, but we have a duty to work on our own archives first.

Fortunately, in Poland, not only in Warsaw, but also in the so-called smaller cities, there are people interested in Jewish commemoration. In Będzin, Biłgoraj, Płock, Włodawa, living associations of Jewish memory are being established. I would like the JHI to support these initiatives. POLIN is still a flagship state institution with incredible PR, hundreds of thousands of guests. In this respect, we are incomparable to them. Our strength lies in the collections, fantastic museum facilities and a large and well-educated academic staff. The "cap" that connects our institutions is the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland, which financially supports the Museum to this day. It is a powerful philanthropic institution that represents Jewish memory well. We have good cooperation with them.

Another element that was important to me on the program was the Yiddish culture. It cannot be, like at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, that we enter a barrack – an exhibition dedicated to Jewish victims of the Holocaust – where everything is written in Hebrew, even poems originally written in Yiddish. The Jews from our part of the world murdered there did not die speaking Hebrew, but Yiddish. The preserved documents are also in Yiddish. Everything can be adjusted to the tourist, political, ideological needs, but the truth must be present.

Yiddish was a literary and journalistic language for a short time, and it was only ennobled for a short time. This phenomenon requires further research, courses and publications. We will soon be publishing a book about the Yiddish writers and journalists club, which was located at Tłomackie Street, where the JHI stands today. We translate many works from this language for both our publishing house and the website. Yiddish language courses have been run for many years. The Jewish Historical Institute should stay faithful to this language and culture of Polish and Central European Jews. I fully admire for what the Yiddish centers in Poland are doing: Wrocław and Kraków. Cooperation with them will only serve us.

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The exhibition "Bejt Tfila – the House of Prayer" dedicated to the synagogue / photo: Marta Kuśmierz

The next point worthy of intensive research is the problem of anti-Semitism. I was anxious to research the troublesome Polish-Jewish heritage. We had a seminar on this subject for three years (led by Dr hab. Grzegorz Krzywiec), there was also a moving, very well-documented exhibition of articles and drawings, pre-war iconography of hatred of Jews. It was so drastic that I decided not to release it as an album because I wouldn't want the drawings to be repeated. I can already imagine how nationalist portals make memes out of it.

We also did the exhibition “Hate speech. I exclude exclusion." All this gave the impression that the JHI was not an institution that only makes historical inventories, but also lives here and now. Now this mission is taken over by the website where we have our educational section and if someone wants to read about the term "Żydokomuna" [Judeo-Communism] or understand what the death camps were, they will find comprehensive articles there. We provide intellectual tools to help interested parties expand their knowledge and introduce readers to many current issues related to Polish-Jewish history in a popular way. 


How should history be researched today so as not to be confined to a tight framework?

The past should not be treated as a burden for collective identities, nor should it be treated only as a curiosity, a series of photos from pre-war Gdańsk or post-nobility disguise. Years ago, I put forward a proposal to create a Museum of the History of Poles – not Poland. To tell our story through family stories, family mementos. I believed that in this way it was possible to show how diverse and rich the history of Poles is and that it cannot be reduced to history written to create the "truth" of textbooks.

There is a history of Silesians, Vilnius citizens, peasants from Lublin area, intelligentsia from Greater Poland, and when we show it, we will see how many different biographies and traditions there are. We will throw off our caftan of scientific historians, and we will open to real experience and real biographies. 


Does the Institute take a political position?

We maintain complete autonomy. We decide ourselves what research programs we undertake and what exhibitions we organize. We are not guided by political sympathies when establishing cooperation. We can invite guests and lecturers to our events according to our beliefs. We publish books that we deem necessary, but not according to a political order or current fashion. There is no place for distorting history and telling untruths for any current political needs.

I hope that the future JHI will retain its autonomy, not retreat into academism and not reduce itself again to the archives. After all, the Jewish Historical Institute performs not only an archival and research function, but is also an important social and educational institution. The Academy for Teachers is already a serious institution with a long biography. Walks around Warsaw in the footsteps of Jews have been included in our program. It seems that many other institutions are taking inspiration from our ideas.

We must be a socially rooted institution. I really care about it. The Jewish Historical Institute (like POLIN) must be open to the largest and most serious circles, people from all over the country. (For example, the Hirszowicz Award is an opportunity to make us open to other environments). It has to enter the fabric of the city with his initiatives. That is why we organize a March of Remembrance every year (the first took place in 2012) dedicated to the memory of hundreds of thousands of people led out of the ghetto and murdered in Treblinka in summer 1942. Let us remember not only the heroes and fighters, but also the millions of Jews led to slaughter. They died just with the same dignity and terror as the insurgents in the ghetto.  

Every year, on August 2 for seven years, we have been organizing commemorative ceremonies in Treblinka, to honor the memory of both the inhabitants of Warsaw murdered there and all Polish Jews killed by the Germans there. Every year we remember the “Krysia” bunker, where Ringelblum hid with his wife and child until tragic death. We go out to Warsaw with outdoor exhibitions. The exhibition about the synagogue and the square in Tłomackie was amazing. The exhibition resembling Nalewki Street turned out to be very strong (and it was accompanied by a great publication dedicated to the no longer existing street). For the first time in its history, the JHI opened up so much with exhibitions, lectures, film and theatrical screenings, and went out to the people of Warsaw. This is the way to the future. The Institute is also more clearly present in social media.   


How much did the JHI grow during your term of office, in numbers?

The budget has increased significantly, there has been serious support from foreign foundations, without which we would not have been able to undertake so many research and educational initiatives. We implement many research and technology grants. Employment in the JHI has increased significantly, from 61 people in 2011 to 70 in 2020. There are also people employed on individual projects. The staff is young, 30-year-olds dominate. The continuity of generations is maintained. When I came to the JHI, almost everyone was my age or older. The record-holders in terms of years served were centenarians. An institute with such an average age had no future. Today, young people dominate in all departments. My deputies are young. Without them, the Institute would not be what it is. I received special help and support from Jolanta Hercog. Her merits are great and invaluable. The JHI is now also more feminized. 


In what way?

In fact, there are young women in every department, and they are very motivated, deeply committed and overwhelmed with their mission. If there are young people who link the future with the Institute, they will not give it up so easily. But – what I learned it at the JHI and in many other places – only a strong leader can create an institutional order that will survive its leadership. The leader organizes work, sets the rules of operation. There is no doubt for me that the director bears the burden of leading, gives energy, and also takes on a great psychological burden. 

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At the temporary exhibition "Symcha Trachter 1894-1942. Light and Color"

And what has not worked, what was not accomplished?

I have the impression that we managed to achieve a lot and, most pleasantly, the stronger the institution, the more recognition we gain, our presence is more appreciated, more new ideas arise and new expectations are born. I am talking about events ranging from continuous research programs to exhibition cycles. I am glad that we still have enough plans, curiosity and crucially: energy.

There is a lot to be done in the Art Department. I would like the JHI to present the works of Jewish artists who died during the war or survived the Holocaust with subsequent exhibitions. We made an exhibition dedicated to Symcha Trachter, a painter from Lublin. He may not have been a great artist, but when I saw his painting in the Museum of Literature in Lublin, I couldn't go away. I dream of an exhibition devoted to Roman Kramsztyk. He died in the Warsaw ghetto. A great painter. I learned that when there are good ideas and a well-coordinated team of colleagues, you can do a lot. The obstacle is usually not lack of money or political support, but one’s own weakness or indeterminacy. 

I would also like to create a community in the quadrangle of Warsaw, Bucharest, Vilnius and Kiev. Most of the deaths in the Holocaust took place here. If we think about it in terms of the Second Polish Republic, a large part of this area was Polish territory, so Polish citizens died. Sometimes I get the impression, when I read the great synthetical works of Friedländer or Kershaw, they actually have little interest in the Jews themselves. They document decision-making, the logistics of death, referring to German documents, but in principle they do not take into account the fact that Jews died, how they experienced their suffering.  

That is why I am interested in the perspective of Jews, victims of the Holocaust, those who survived, but still were annihilated. I am interested in the languages ​​of the region from which Paul Celan, Imre Kertész or Artur Sandauer, Adolf Rudnicki came from, the language of people who spoke about the suffering of their nation. The Ringelblum Archive gives us an insight into what was happening in Warsaw, but also other underground archives were created in Vilnius, Białystok and Kaunas. For 2021, we planned an exhibition, almost fully prepared in terms of documentation, devoted to the murder of Lithuanian Jews. Most of them were shot in Ponary near Vilnius. There are documents, testimonies of several survivors of the massacres. Similar places are in Lviv and Rivne. We find many war reports in various local archives, and this area of research is also a direction for the future. Therefore, building a research alliance is a priority for me.  

The greatest treasure, which remains little studied by the researchers of the Jewish Historical Institute, are the accounts made right after the war. There are about 7,500 of them. They are written right after the war. These people had no false memories, no languages ​​of the sort which we possess after all these years. I have the impression that today, when I read some diary publications, the authors fell into a trap.

The development of this archival collection is fundamental to me. These are amazing materials, often written by hand, in Polish and Yiddish. Not by writers, by different people, so the strength of their text is not the result of smoothing out a sentence. They are most immersed in direct experience.

I have a seminar and a research project in my mind that I have called the sociology of the ghetto or ghettos. Still few have written about it. In fact, I found two sociological articles written about the Kaunas ghetto just after the war. Some phenomena were described by Ruta Sakowska, a great researcher. We started talking about it among the employees of the Jewish Historical Institute. It is a promising project. A snippet of what is possible in this subject is the exhibition "Where art thou?" on the 80th anniversary of the closing of the walls of the Warsaw ghetto.

With this exhibition, we go beyond the language of historians. We talk about war almost exclusively in their scientific language. I think that a lot can be said about the experience of the Holocaust by referring to anthropological, philosophical and sociological research. I do not want to close the experience in a time capsule which is more and more distant from us, and thus simplified by subsequent researchers. This is not past tense. It is the current or updated time in which we can perceive the most terrible and extraordinary human experience. It comes back through testimonies, and one fears it will once come back in reality.

In the ghetto we got to know what radical evil was. We saw how people reacted to it. We learn what fear, hunger, indifference, acedia, humiliation, despair are. We saw naked human nature in its extreme sufferings. Due to the fact that the Jewish Historical Institute takes care of the testimonies from the Ringelblum Archive, it keeps post-war memories and has direct access to these experiences and their language. Our primary task is to undertake studies on this issue. We can and must introduce and show them in various ways: through art, photography, theater events. In this way, we introduce them to the wider circulation of culture.

Now, many people work at the JHI. It is definitely not a modest, private institution. People of different habits, views, gender and age meet. Overall, we managed to create – I think – a fairly harmonious team. It cannot be said that any department is distinguished or some neglected. Everyone supports the common good by working for the Institute, not only for themselves. Identifying strongly with our joint work. I appreciate it exceptionally.    

I like this place. I like our building itself. This place has become my life for several long years. To familiarize, I brought my old family table, made of oak. This job changed me a lot. It was not without conflicts, I made mistakes, there were – and this is normal – accusations against my work.

I believe that the Institute managed to fulfill my and our common plans. I am giving my successors an efficient institution with a great team of employees. The JHI exists well. It underwent – baruch HaShem – a profound metamorphosis. It became an important institution of culture, education and historical memory. It remained a valuable research and archival center. It has become an institution open to Warsaw, to the world. I hope it will last well and shine well.

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Jewish Historical Institute / photo: Marta Kuśmierz
Prof. Paweł Śpiewak   sociologist, JHI director, 2011-2020