Institute for Polish–Jewish Studies

Annual Report for the year 2009–2010


Jonathan Webber


The Institute for Polish–Jewish Studies, an associated institute of the Centre, this year published volume 22 of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry. This volume, edited by Adam Teller, Magda Teter, and Antony Polonsky, was devoted to the theme of social and cultural boundaries in pre-modern Poland. Boundaries––physical, political, social, religious, and cultural––were a key feature of life in medieval and early modern Poland, and this volume focuses on the ways in which these boundaries were respected, crossed, or otherwise negotiated. It throws new light on contacts between Jews and Poles, including the vexed question of conversion and the tensions it aroused. The eleven papers presented here also discuss relations between the various elements of Jewish society––the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, and the religious and the lay elites––and taken together help redefine the Jewish history of pre-modern Poland. The 500-page volume also includes ten papers on other subjects in Polish–Jewish studies as well as an obituary of the late Prof. John Klier.

In December a one-day international conference convened by Prof. Antony Polonsky and Prof. Jonathan Webber was held to launch the volume, disseminate its chief findings, and to open up discussion on the general theme of ‘Jews in Polish Society: Insiders, Outsiders’. The conference, which was co-sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute and the Polish Embassy, together with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Warsaw, was held at the Polish Embassy where it was formally opened by the ambassador, H.E. Barbara Tuge-Erecińska. The speakers at the conference, who came from Israel, Poland, the UK, and the USA, described and analysed the idea that Jews have been, and still are, both insiders and outsiders in Poland. For example, one presentation (given by Prof. Adam Teller, of the University of Haifa), focused on the question ‘what made Polish Jews Polish?’ Other papers included one by Karen Auerbach, of the University of Southampton, who spoke on insiders/outsiders in contemporary Polish Jewish literature. Time was also given to personal reflections, including a presentation by Ben Helfgott, chairman of the Institute, describing his experience of Polish–Jewish relations, and by Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Jewish Community Centre in Kraków, on the present-day challenges of rebuilding a Jewish community in Poland, in the shadow of Auschwitz. The conference concluded with the screening of the Polish–German film ‘Po-Lin’, a beautifully crafted documentary made in 2008 and based on archive footage of prewar home movies made by American Jews of Polish origin revisiting their homeland. The Institute holds its Polin launch conference every year at the Polish Embassy; it is always full to capacity and attracts lively discussion––this year was no exception.

Assisted administratively by the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, the Institute was heavily involved this year in helping the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw put together a significant Jewish programme as part of its ‘Polska Year’ season of cultural events in the UK (2009–10). In addition to the Polin conference, a considerable number of other events of Polish Jewish interest, funded by the Mickiewicz Institute and other sponsors, thus took place across the country during the year––including exhibitions, concerts, film screenings, stage performances, and activities marking Holocaust Memorial Day, as well as a strong contingent of speakers fielded at Limmud and Jewish Book Week. One of the exhibitions that as part of this programme went on tour to four locations in the UK was ‘Traces of Memory’, a selection of the photographs on permanent display in the Galicia Jewish Museum; the Institute for Polish–Jewish Studies organized a special viewing of the exhibition at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in July 2009. To mark the end of the season the Institute co-organized a two-day symposium in May 2010 at the Jewish Museum, London, on the subject ‘Poland: A Jewish Matter’, as seen in present-day perspective. Seventeen speakers, mainly from Poland, presented papers on a wide range of contemporary topics, including Jewish life and culture in Poland today, difficult questions for Polish–Jewish relations, the problems and challenges of preserving the Polish Jewish heritage, Jewish visitors to Poland today, and a session devoted to the question of what Poles know about Jews?