Antony Barry Polonsky (born 23 September 1940, Johannesburg, South Africa) is Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of many historical works on the Holocaust, and is an expert on Polish Jewish history.
Antony Polonsky was born in Johannesburg, South Africa to Eastern European immigrant Jewish parents who arrived in South Africa in the late 19th century. His father was from a Yiddish speaking family from near Grodno (in modern Belarus) and his mother was from a Russified Jewish family from Lithuania. Polonsky was not raised in a Polish speaking background.
Polonsky has compared his childhood, growing up in South Africa, to the movie The Help, being brought up by African servants who had no political rights. As a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, Polonsky organised non-violent demonstrations against apartheid policies. A Rhodes Scholarship took him to England to read modern history at Worcester College and St Antony’s College. His doctoral thesis at Oxford was a study of Józef Piłsudski's relationship with parliament, subtitled: The Crisis of Parliamentary Government in Poland, 1922-1931. Polonsky became a lecturer in International History at the London School of Economics in 1970, and was appointed as professor in 1989. When it was discovered that Polonsky had redirected more than £24,000 of research money he had claimed in the name of colleagues and donated it to Oxford's Institute of Polish-Jewish Studies, disciplinary proceedings were instituted. Although the amount was repaid (including 15,000 from the Institute's own funds), the misappropriation, which was used to finance Institute publications, nevertheless proved highly embarrassing for Polonsky. The disciplinary committee found that although his publications had brought credit to the London School of Economics, he should be 'severely reprimanded'. He decided to take early retirement and seek a new position. Polonsky then moved to Brandeis University in 1992, and in 1999 was appointed Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies—held jointly at Brandeis and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has served as a visiting professor at the University of Warsaw, the Institute for the Human Sciences, Vienna and the University of Cape Town; he has also been a visiting fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
Polonsky has played a leading role in setting up the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies in Oxford, and served for six years on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, including membership of the Yad Vashem Memorial Committee. Polonsky also spent time at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College, London, and is an Associate of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. President Aleksander Kwaśniewski presented the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland to Polonsky in 1999. In 2006, he received the Rafael Scharf award from the Judaica Foundation in Krakow for "outstanding achievement in preserving and making known the heritage of Polish Jewry". He is the founder and general editor of Polin. A Journal of Polish-Jewish Studies, perhaps the only scholarly publication devoted entirely to Polish–Jewish history.
In 2011, Polonsky was awarded the Kulczycki Books Prize by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies for Volumes I and II of The Jews in Poland and Russia.
In The Jews in Poland and Russia, Volume I, Polonsky describes how "shtetl" culture emerged in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th and 17th centuries during the process of Polish colonization of the Ukraine. In private towns, owned by Polish nobility and endistanced from royal authority, the Jewish community assisted the landowner in turning their estates into profitable concerns. In this context, "Jewish communal autonomy became an integral part of the Polish political system. Jews appointed their own rabbis and communal authorities and collected their own taxes, for their own communities and for the state."
With the partition of Poland, most Jews found themselves living under the rule of Russia. "In a single blow, a state without Jews became the largest Jewish state in the world." Polonsky argues that interference with Jewish life during the reigns of Catherine the Great and Nicholas I was motivated more by the Russian rulers' integrationist policies, rather than by antisemitism. The reforms of Alexander II led to circles of integrated culture, primarily in Odessa and St Petersburg. The retreat of the tsarist government from integrationist policies during the period from 1881 to 1914 led to a rise in the poverty of the Jewish masses. But a period of enormous creativity and transformation of religious culture coincided with these years of repression.
Professor Jeffrey Veidlinger of Indiana University has commented that Polonsky’s history of the Jews in Poland and Russia helps to “correct the nostalgic and romanticized portraits of what is sometimes considered a lost civilization, while simultaneously demonstrating the vibrancy and diversity of Jewish life in the region.”
Reviewing the first two volumes of Polonsky's three volume The Jews in Poland and Russia, The Jewish Chronicle wrote that Polonsky wants "to avoid the earlier tendencies to either dismiss the eastern European Jewish experience as backward (the approach of the great German Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz) and ultimately doomed to extinction or, alternatively, to view it nostalgically post-Holocaust as an unchanging and harmonious lost world." The reviewer concludes that Polonsky succeeds in his task, but says that the books are most successful when they manage to synthesise experiences across regions and time periods, particularly in the mini-studies of Jewish Places, Jewish Literature and Women.
Timothy Snyder, reviewing Volume Three of The Jews in Poland and Russia in The Wall Street Journal, praises the book but suggests that Polonsky could have made a stronger link between imperial Russia and modern German anti-Semitism. Snyder suggests that after the 1917 revolution, the White Russian commanders fled to the west, bringing with them a concept of the Bolshevik revolution as profoundly Jewish. Snyder argues that the "Judeo-Bolshevik" idea, "brought west by Russians and Baltic Germans after the Bolshevik victory in Russia's civil wars, became an integral part of Hitler's vision." Nonetheless, Snyder calls Polonsky’s three volume work "a grand history in the old 19th-century style, a result all the more remarkable because he cannot have the confidence in progress that historians of that age possessed."
Polonsky has written that one of the biggest issues confronting historians of the Holocaust is that all of the countries of Eastern Europe were subjected to two occupations— the German Nazi and the Soviet Russian occupation. The Poles, the Lithuanians, Latvians, and the Ukrainians, were faced with two enemies, and faced the dilemma of how to choose between them. In a talk at the United States Holocaust Museum, Polonsky said:
The Jews were in a different position. For the Jews, the Nazis were unequivocally enemies, whose goal was to destroy physically Jews in Eastern Europe. The Soviets were potential allies. So we’re talking about a very complicated situation in which two totalitarian systems are in conflict, and in which a lot of innocent people on all sides are suffering. And what we need to do is to understand the complexity of these events and show some empathy for all those people—including Jews—caught up in this tragic conflict."
In Volume Three of The Jews in Poland and Russia, Polonsky critiques the typology which Raul Hilberg established in his analysis of the Holocaust, dividing those involved into perpetrators, victims and bystanders. Polonsky writes that the term 'bystander' is problematic, because "the implication that the bystanders had free choice, as in the parable of the good Samaritan, either to assist the Jews or go on their way fails to take into account the nature of Nazi rule." Polonski argues that those people living under Nazi occupation were subject to savage treatment, adding that "assistance to Jews was punished severely, often by death, while participation in the looting and murder of Jews was rewarded, particularly in the case of those who served in local police forces and other units subordinate to the Germans." Polonsky writes that criticism of people living under German occupation in Eastern Europe is often overtly moralistic, and accompanied by unsubstantiated speculation about what these so-called 'bystanders' might have done.
Controversy and academic conflict
As a historian of Jewish-Polish relations, Polonsky has been a leading figure in one of two main groups of scholars of Polish-Jewish history in the English language. These two groups have been involved in a series of academic conflicts about the historiography of Poland in the 20th century, particularly the German 1939-44 occupation when 17.2% of Poland's prewar population perished,
In 2001, Jan Tomasz Gross published his study of the pogrom at Jedwabne in July 1941, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. This book generated considerable comment and controversy. In 2005, Marek Chodakiewicz published a monograph, The Massacre in Jedwabne, July 10, 1941: Before, During, and After, which was critical of Gross’s book. When Chodakiewicz’s work was favorably reviewed by Peter Stachura in the British journal History, Polonsky and Joanna Michlic wrote a letter, which History published, complaining that both Chodakiewicz’s book and Stachura’s review "uphold a view of the Polish past which seeks to return to an untenable vision of modern Poland as solely victim and hero… It is a matter of considerable regret to us that you have allowed your journal to be used to advance this neo-nationalist agenda." Stachura sought to reply to the letter of Polonsky and Michlic, but History declined to publish his response. Subsequently, Richard Tyndorf, J.D. of Toronto (who worked with both Chodakiewicz and Currell) mailed his own letter to History's Editor noting that Polonsky's published letter was grossly disproportionate in size, while seriously distorting the review, in order to discredit Chodakiewicz's book:
One is really at a loss to explain why Drs. Michlic and Polonsky would have compromised themselves to this extent in order to press an agenda that patently has little, if anything, to do with furthering the scholarship in this area.— Richard Tyndorf, J.D., Letter to the Editor of History, Glaukopis.pl.
Meanwhile, posted on the website of the Polish history journal Glaukopis, Stachura’s own letter described Polin, the journal edited by Polonsky, as having earned "an unenviable reputation among some historians for publishing articles, reviews and other contributions that are invariably highly critical of one side only of the Polish-Jewish symbiosis. Polonsky, it might be thought, therefore, is a historian with a large axe to grind."
In 2010, John Radzilowski, assistant professor of history at the University of Alaska Southeast, published an article, also in Glaukopis, protesting what he termed, "The Shame of Polish Historical Studies in America". Radzilowski accused Polonsky of being part of a "conspiracy", along with Jan Tomasz Gross, Joanna Michlic, Piotr Wróbel, and Danusha Goska, to blacklist Professor Chodakiewicz as part of "a systematic effort to destroy his career, deny him the ability to publish in his field, get him banned from conferences and speaking engagements at public institutions, and blacken his reputation." Radzilowski characterized the academics he named as "neo-Stalinists", and wrote: "In recent years, many fields of scholarly research in the social sciences and humanities have become ideological battlegrounds... The study of modern Polish history in English-speaking countries is no exception."
Danusha Goska (Polonsky's personal and family friend), and Piotr Wróbel had written unfavourable reviews of two of Chodakiewicz's monographs for The Sarmatian Review in 2004 and 2006. Radzilowski's characterisation of several prominent Polish-studies scholars, including Wrobel, Michlic, Padraic Kenney, Gunnar S. Paulsson and John Connelly, as "neo-Stalinists" was repeated in Golden Harvest or Hearts of Gold?, a 2012 collection of essays co-edited by Chodakiewicz. The characterisation of these historians was strongly criticised by Goska in her review of the book for Polin.
- Politics in Independent Poland: The Crisis of Constitutional Government (Clarendon Press, 1972)
- The Little Dictators: The History of Eastern Europe since 1918 (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975) ISBN 978-0-7100-8095-0
- The Great Powers and the Polish Question, 1941-1945 (London School of Economics, 1976) ISBN 978-0-85328-046-0
- The Beginnings of Communist Rule in Poland, December 1943-July 1945, co-author with Bolesaw Drukier (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980) ISBN 978-0-7100-0540-3
- A History of Poland, co-author with Oskar Halecki (Routledge, 1983) ISBN 978-0-7100-8647-1
- The History of Poland Since 1863, co-editor with R.F. Leslie, et al., (Cambridge University Press, 1983) ISBN 978-0-521-27501-9
- 'My Brother’s Keeper?': Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust, editor (Routledge, 1990) ISBN 978-0-415-04232-1
- Jews in Eastern Poland and the USSR, 1939-46, co-editor with Norman Davies. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991) ISBN 978-0-312-06200-2
- Contemporary Jewish Writing in Poland: An Anthology, co-editor with Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, (University of Nebraska Press, 2001) ISBN 978-0-8032-3721-6
- The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland, co-editor with Joanna B. Michlic, (Princeton University Press, 2004) ISBN 978-0-691-11306-7
- The Jews in Poland and Russia, Volume 1: 1350-1881 (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2009) ISBN 978-1-874774-64-8
- The Jews in Poland and Russia, Volume 2: 1881-1914 (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2009) ISBN 978-1-904113-83-6
- The Jews in Poland and Russia, Volume 3: 1914-2008 (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2011) ISBN 978-1-904113-48-5
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- R. Hilberg, (1992), Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945, New York.
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- Findings of Investigation S 1/00/Zn into the Murder of Polish Citizens of Jewish Origin in the Town of Jedwabne on 10 July 1941, pursuant to Article 1 Point 1 of the Decree of 31 August 1944. In: Antony Polonsky & Joanna B. Michlic, eds. The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland. Princeton University Press, 2003.
- Polonsky, Antony; Michlik, Joanna (January 2008). "Letter to the Editor". History. 93 (309): 154–158. doi:10.1111/j.1468-229x.2008.00415.x.
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