AHA Member Spotlight: Antony Polonsky
Antony Polonsky is chief historian at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw, and emeritus professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University. He lives in London, England, and has been a member since 1992.
Alma maters: BA (history and political studies), University of the Witwatersrand, 1960; BA Hons. (modern history), Oxford University, 1963; DPhil (modern history), Oxford University, 1968
Fields of interest: eastern Europe, Jews in eastern Europe
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I grew up in very comfortable conditions in postwar South Africa. Coming from what we saw as a fascist country, when I began to look for a subject for my doctoral dissertation in Oxford in the early 1960s I wished to study the phenomenon of right-radicalism and fascism. I believed (wrongly) that all the interesting topics in the history of German National Socialism had already been investigated and was drawn to analyze what I thought were similar manifestations in Poland. This led to my first book, Politics in Independent Poland (Oxford, 1960).
I subsequently wrote on Stalin’s policies toward Poland during the Second World War and of the establishment and character of the communist system established in Poland after July 1944. I spent much time in Poland and identified strongly with the developing opposition movement—the Committee for the Defense of the Workers and with the Solidarity movement. Like most Poles, I was shocked and surprised by the relative ease with which martial law was established. A number of my friends believed that one of the reasons for the defeat of the first Solidarity had been its failure to make a proper reckoning with chauvinistic and anti-Semitic currents in Polish life. They encouraged me to seek contacts within the Jewish world to alleviate the obvious gap between Poles and Jews insofar as these are separate and discrete groups, which is clearly not always the case.
They were right to point to the bitter feeling harbored on both sides of this divide. I participated in the series of academic conferences in the 1980s which attempted to bridge this divide and also became chief editor of the yearbook Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, which attempted to encourage this research on an inter-disciplinary basis and from a wide variety of viewpoints. In the last 35 years particularly since the end of communism in 1989–91 an enormous amount of research has been undertaken on all aspects of the Polish past. Historical study seems to oscillate between detailed investigation and attempts at providing a synthesis of existing knowledge. I became convinced that what was necessary was a synthesis of the new research undertaken by a single author. Rashly, I decided to undertake this task myself in the form of my three volume The Jews in Poland and Russia.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? Working in the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews enables me to make available to a wide audience scholarly findings which in the form of a monograph only reach a small number of readers. I hope it can retain its independence in the present populist political climate.
What projects are you currently working on? I am, at present, working on my autobiography, Four Lives: An Intellectual Journey from Johannesburg to Warsaw.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? I was very struck by the conflicts with the Polish Workers’ Party in the period 1943–45, which I wrote about in my book The Beginnings of Communist Rule in Poland.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? All interested in the present situation in Poland should see the film Kler, which highlights abuses in the Catholic Church in that country.
What do you value most about the history discipline? The dispassionate examination of the difficult problems of the past is an essential element in the creation of a tolerant and civil society. It is now under threat and needs to be strongly defended.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? I very much value the American Historical Review, the contact with other historians and the links it has established between teachers of our craft at in the school and in universities.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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