The Museum of the History of Polish Jews will open in Warsaw on Oct. 28. Brandeis professor Antony Polonsky, the Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies (HIST/NEJS), was appointed as chief historian of the new museum.
Polonsky was born in South Africa to Jewish parents from Lithuania and Belarus. He grew up in Johannesburg and attended the University of the Witwatersrand. He went to England on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1961 and read modern history at Oxford University. Until 1992, when he came to Brandeis as a visiting professor, Polonsky taught international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In 1999, he was honored with the position of Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies. This appointment is held jointly at Brandeis and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Polonsky’s expertise in East European Jewish history and Holocaust studies then led him to the position at the museum.
The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, the City of Warsaw and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage officially founded the Museum of Polish Jews in 2005, but permanent exhibitions will not open until this fall. The Museum stands in what was once the center of Jewish Warsaw, the area the Nazis made the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. This location was chosen for its proximity to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, also an important place in the Polish-Jewish past.
The museum will cover all aspects of Jewish history. The core exhibition will tell the story of Polish Jews from the first Jewish merchants in the 10th century until present day. Polonsky emphasizes that “there are still Jews in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and the complex civilization the Jews created here remains a source of admiration and inspiration to both Jews and non-Jews. It is our hope that the museum will contribute to the preservation and informed appreciation of the history and accomplishments of the Jews of this region.” Polonsky acknowledged the most difficult topic to cover was the Holocaust. “In our display we stress that the adoption, planning and implementation of a policy of the mass murder of the Jews here was the work of the Nazi leadership and the German people who for the most part, willingly or unwillingly, followed their lead.” One of the most important themes of the museum will be to show the contribution of Jews to Polish culture and history.
Polonsky’s primary role as chief historian will put him in charge of the museum’s academic board, and he will also act as a member of its core exhibition committee. He will give an annual lecture at the museum, chair the academic board of Global Educational Outreach Program (GEOP), which allocates funds for specific academic programs and assess them afterwards, head the GEOP Research grants and scholarships program committee and advise the museum director and other team members.
Polonsky’s appointment as chief historian of the museum is the culmination of more than 35 years of work on the history of Jews in Poland and Polish-Jewish relations. His goal for the museum is to “not only make better known the complex history of Jews in the Polish lands, but act as a major stimulus to its scholarly investigation in Poland, Europe, Israel and the rest of the world.”