“Centuries full of glory”. Report from the 2021 Jan Karski and Pola Nireńska Award Gala

Written by: Przemysław Batorski
On 9th December 2021 at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute a gala was held to give the Jan Karski and Pola Nireńska Award. The laureate is dr hab. Jan Doktór, a historian, translator, publisher, an outstanding expert on Jewish spirituality, long-time employee of the Jewish Historical Institute, author of works such as “Beginnings of Polish Hasidism”, and former activist of the underground “Solidarity”. Read the report from the event.
Nagroda im. Jana Karskiego i Poli Nireńskiej 2021, fot. Grzegorz Kwolek (ŻIH) (4).jpg

Photo by Grzegorz Kwolek (JHI)


Dr hab. Jan Doktór received the award “in recognition of his exceptional achievements in the field of Jewish spirituality, as an outstanding expert on Jakub Frank and as an author of works concerning the history of Hasidism in Poland and Christian missions among Polish Jews”. Those present at the event included the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage Jarosław Sellin, Tal Ben Ari Yaalon, chargé d’affaires of the Israeli Embassy, previous laureates – Prof. Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov, Dr. Eleonora Bergman, Prof. Daniel Grinberg, Dr. Jerzy Malinowski – as well as the directors of partner institutions, co-workers, and friends of JHI. The recording from the gala can be watched on Facebook.

“It is easy to criticize others and make them feel rejected. Anyone can do it. Uplifting them and giving them a good feeling – that takes a special gift and skill. Another quote: It’s better to be a fool who believes in everything rather than a sceptic who believes in nothing, even in the truth. A third quote: You are wherever your thoughts are. These are the words of Nachman of Breslov, great-grandchild of Baal Shem Tov, who was born in 1772, meaning he was a contemporary of the First Partition of Poland. His proverbs and sermons present the idea of Hasidism, i.e. deep Jewish spirituality, which Professor Jan Doktór has been dealing with for decades,” said Monika Krawczyk, director of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute.

Photos by Grzegorz Kwolek (JHI)


“If we don’t try to get to know Jewish religion, theology, and philosophy, it’s difficult for us to understand why Jews throughout history behaved in one way or another. Here are hidden keys to understanding Jewish history,” added Monika Krawczyk.

“I’m glad that the Jan Karski Award is being delivered today to the hands of Professor Jan Doktór. Even more so that I’m an avid reader of his works, which are an important feature of my private library in the part I named ‘Judaica,’” said Jarosław Sellin. “I trust that for the next generations of academics, as well as those who make up the current team of researchers at JHI, the laureate will be a model of the attitude of a researcher who distinguishes truth from falsehood.”

“ The history of Jewish life in Poland, Jewish contributions to Polish culture and Polish contributions to Jewish culture are fraught with stereotypes, politics, misunderstanding, and ignorance by the general public,” said Jonathan Brent, Executive Director of the YIVO Institute, joining via the internet from New York. – “The work that Dr. hab. Jan Doktór has dedicated his life to serves to transform this image.”

“Jan Doktór has an impressive scientific output. He deals with broad understanding with Jewish spirituality, messianism, Jewish mysticism, Christian missions among Polish Jews, Polish Hasidism, Frankism, Jewish conversions and reconversions, as well as the beginnings of Kabbalah. He takes up difficult topics, often overlooked,” Dr. Magdalena Bendowska, curator of the JHI's special collections, said in laudation. “In his works, he argues with generally accepted opinions, adopts a different point of view and comes to new, original conclusions. He has the ability to ask questions, and also reaches for new, unknown sources. It is also worth emphasising the literary value of his texts, written in their own, original style. The objectivity of the argument does not obscure the accessibility of the narrative, which results in colourful stories about the fate of the ideas and the people who profess them.”

“It is impossible to list all his publications (the JHI library catalogue lists several dozen items, almost a hundred),” added Magdalena Bendowska, “but I must mention at least one of the first books: Księga słów pańskich: ezoteryczne wykłady Jakuba Franka [The Book of the Lord’s Words: Esoteric Lectures by Jakub Frank] – a work, without which, as the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk confessed, her famous Księgi Jakubowe [Books of Jakub], would not have been created.”

“It must be clearly stated that nothing can be said for sure about the spiritual life of Jews in Poland in the first half of the first millennium of the history of the Polish state,” said Jan Doktór in a short lecture entitled Jewish spirituality in the First Polish Republic. – “That is mainly due to lack of sources. The first five centuries of the Polish state and the history of Polish Jews were pre-literate, and the Jewish community lived in the world of oral tradition. Therefore, this is how it should be presented and researched. In Europe, in practice only parchment was available, but its price meant that it was only used by the state and church authorities. The Jews were additionally restrained by their doubts about whether it was kosher.”

“The simultaneous transition from oral to written culture and printing resulted in a civilisation transformation comparable to the one we are experiencing today,” continued Jan Doktór. “Especially since it was overlapped by political and systemic changes. In 1569, the Union of Lublin was concluded and the Polish and Lithuanian Kingdom was replaced by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – a huge state entity, the largest in Europe, with an amazing system that has no equivalent on the continent. It did not live for long, only surviving two centuries, but these were centuries full of glory, also for the Jewish community, and they permanently captured our imaginations, including the imagination of historians.”

“Jan Doktór was one of the underground ‘Solidarity’ in Warsaw during the martial law,” said Wojciech Brojer, a longtime colleague and friend of Jan Doktór, who introduced the laureate's scientific path and the importance of his translations. – “This connects him, in all proportions, with Jan Karski; although the threats Karski faced were completely different, he was also a man of the underground.”


Shortly, two new books will be printed that Dr hab. Jan Doktór has worked on: a Polish-Hebrew edition of the Testament of Baal Shem Tov, as well as Sefer ha-Bahir – a translation of a tractate of Kabballah, prepared by Dr. hab. Jan Doktór, Dr. Wojciech Brojer, and Dr. Bohdan Kos.




The Jan Karski and Pola Nireńska Award is a distinction funded by the military courier of the Polish Government-in-Exile Jan Karski to honour his wife, Pola Nireńska, a dancer, who was the only one to survive World War II from a Jewish family of over 70. Since 1993, the award has been presented jointly by two key institutions dealing with the history of Polish Jews – the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. The previous laureates of the award include Henryk Grynberg, Hanna Krall, Stanisław Musiał, Piotr Matywiecki and Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota.



See A World Hidden in Books. Old Hebrew Printed Works from the Collection of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw – a book by Jan Doktór and Magdalena Bendowska in our virtual library

Przemysław Batorski   JHI Web Editor