EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2018/19
November Hopes. Jews and the Independence of Poland in 1918
Two-day international conference organized by Museum of the History of Polish Jews in cooperation with the Institute of History at the University of Warsaw, 29-30 November 2018, sponsored by the European Association for Jewish Studies (EAJS) Conference Grant Programme in European Jewish Studies.
Organisers: Museum of the History of Polish Jews in cooperation with the Institute of History, University of Warsaw.
Author of the report: Michał Trębacz, Ph.D (Head of Research Department, Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews)
The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Poland reappearing on the map of Europe, therefore much interest in the independence related issues has been sparked both in Poland and abroad. Holding a discussion among an international group of eminent scholars presenting the outcome of new research on the attitudes of Jews towards Polish independence and the shape of the newly reconstructed state challenged the stereotypes pertaining to Poland’s founding myth. The unequivocal Jewish standpoint with regard to the country being rebuilt and what it had to offer has been verified. A vital question posed by the keynote speaker “Independence—but for whom?” shifted the perspective to one of the most significant minorities residing in the newly established Second Republic of Poland.
Event programme (Sections and Papers)
The conference began with a curatorial guided tour of a section of the core exhibition and the temporary exhibition titled In King Matt’s Poland, organized for the general public on 25 November (four days prior to the first conference panel). The tour’s goal was to introduce the subject matter to the public and thus to encourage people to participate in the conference sessions and discussions.
The academic part was launched with a roundtable discussion chaired by Maciej Zakrocki, a journalist specializing in history, with the participation of historians from various countries: Christhardt Henschel, Stephan Stach, Darius Staliunas and Andrei Zamoiski. The scholars exchanged ideas on the Jewish question in the newly rebuilt Polish Republic from the point of view of the neighboring states.
The first panel was devoted to Jewish hopes flared up by Poland regaining independence. The discussion, chaired by Dr Kamil Kijek and commented on by Prof. David Engel, focused on the three main trends: Prof. Natalia Aleksiun talked about Galician Jews and their expectations of free Poland; Prof. Joshua Zimmerman discussed the unfulfilled hopes with regard to the internment of Jewish volunteer officers during the Polish-Bolshevik War in 1920; finally, Dr Marcos Silber presented the outcome of his research on the issue of equal rights as viewed by a plethora of Jewish political organizations.
The second panel, chaired by Prof. Jerzy Kochanowski and commented on by Prof. Antony Polonsky, comprised three papers on the subject of Jewish fears fueled by the reconstruction of the Polish state. Prof. Piotr J. Wróbel talked about the Polish-German-Jewish triangle as a generator of such fears; Prof. Theodore R. Weeks discussed those fears on the example of Wilno and Central Lithuania with special attention drawn to local nationalisms. Dr Michał Trębacz presented the case of Łódź and fears instilled in the Łódź Jewry by the First World War and the establishment of a new independent Polish state.
Public lecture delivered by Prof. David Engel was addressed to the conference participants and the general public concluded the first day. It revolved around the conference’s key question of how beneficial was Polish independence for Jews in 1918.
The third panel, chaired by Prof. Dariusz Stola and commented on by Dr Jochen Böhler, focused on the discussions on the reality of Jewish life in the Polish territory prior to 1918 and in the newly established Second Republic. Prof. Konrad Zieliński sketched a broad panorama of the social and political conditions of Jews residing in this territory in 1918. Prof. Robert Blobaum raised the issue of the policy of limitation and restrictions that affected Polish Jews after 1918, and Prof. Eugenia Prokop-Janiec discussed the subject of Jewish cultural institutions in the first years of the Second Republic of Poland.
The panels were followed by the second roundtable discussion chaired by Prof. Antony Polonsky and dedicated to the attitudes of Jews towards Polish independence, as stated in the conference title. The discussion, held on the 100th anniversary of the events, was attended by Prof. David Engel, Dr Jochen Böhler, Prof. Piotr Wróbel and Prof. Jolanta Żyndul.
The conference concluded with a curatorial guided tour of a section of the core exhibition and the temporary exhibition In King Matt’s Poland, with particular attention drawn to the exhibition techniques and methods of conveying information. Dr Tamara Sztyma, curator of the temporary exhibition, guided the tour.
The conference proceedings were recorded and translated simultaneously to Polish and English.
During the conference, the history scholars presented and discussed the fruit of their new research pertaining to Jewish attitudes towards Polish independence and its shape. Due to the presence of general public and the recordings that are already available, the conclusions reached in the course of discussions combated the existing stereotypes and the Second Republic’s founding myth. The historical diagnoses—which, we do hope, will enter public discourse—demonstrated that the social and political reality at the time was extremely complex. The conference and the media tools used in presentations surely contributed to deepening academic knowledge and also, through implementation of the media, reached the widest possible audience. Combating set formulas and pointing to the complex and often ambiguous mechanisms of developing relations between Jews and Poles in the newly independent Poland—much more so than the widely accepted apologetic notions of the history of the early Second Republic—is not merely an element of building a society based on knowledge, but also a factor contributing to better understanding the dangers posed by extreme and xenophobic attitudes.
Some of the papers delivered during the conference will be published in a special issue of the journal East European Jewish Affairs edited by Dr Michał Trębacz. The contract concerning the publication has already been signed.
The conference was promoted in various ways through the media such as online portals, the press, the TV and radio. Information on the lecture by Prof. David Engel and on the thematic guided tours of the POLIN Museum exhibitions was included in the bi-monthly Museum program leaflet:
Minister Jarosław Sellin, the Government Plenipotentiary for the Commemoration of the Centenary of Poland Regaining Independence, granted us permission to use the graphic identification of the “Niepodległa” Program. The conference along with the special lecture were included in the calendar of events commemorating the anniversary of Polish independence available on the nationwide portal dedicated to the centenary celebrations:
All in all, the conference was mentioned in fifty-two press releases as well as radio and TV programs. You can follow the most important ones by clicking on the links below:
The conference proceedings were recorded in full and made available to wide audiences. You can watch the video footage from all the conference panels on the POLIN Museum webpage: