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Polish studies internationally. Interview with Moshe Rosman (Bar Ilan University)

Series: What are Polish studies?

Yvonne Kleinmann: How come that you got involved in Polish Studies? And in which kind of studies?

Moshe Rosman: I was born in Chicago, July 4, 1949. From elementary school I loved learning history. In high school I received an award as best American history student. As an undergraduate it was the Jewish history courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), that fired my imagination most of all. The past as the progenitor of the present fascinated me, and I yearned to know as much as I could about how the present came to be.

After deciding I wanted to be a historian of the Jews, I had to choose a geographic region and time period. My personal roots were in Poland/Russia. More significant to me, however, was the role of eastern Europe in shaping modern (and postmodern) Jewish history: Jewish cultural and national renewal, American Jewry, the Holocaust, and Israel were all intricately connected to the Jewish experience in eastern Europe.

My research has focused on four main areas: various aspects of the social, cultural and economic history of the Jews in the Rzeczpospolita (especially relations with other Poles), historiography, the history of Hasidism and women.

You completed a Bachelor in Psychology at Columbia University, a Bachelor of Hebrew Letters and a Master in Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminar (JTS) in New York, before you started your doctorate at JTS. What or who spured your interest in early modern Poland?

The PhD program at JTS included free exchange of history and language courses with nearby Columbia University. My course at Columbia with Andrzej Kaminski in 1973/74 introduced me to the Rzeczpospolita which contradicted almost everything I thought I knew about Poland and piqued my interest. I became enthusiastic for knowledge about this Poland I never understood before. I came to believe that the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the classic period of both Polish and Polish Jewish history. Important to me was the nature of the sources. I wanted to continue studying rabbinic texts throughout my life, and such writings were among the main primary sources of early modern Polish Jewish history. To this was added the appeal of archival research, where I believed I could make new, maybe even dramatic, discoveries. Andrzej continued to mentor me through to the PhD and for years after that. My knowledge of and interest in the Rzeczpospolita kept growing.

When and under what conditions did you first travel to Poland?

At Andrzej's urging I spent the academic year 1977/78 in Israel preparing for Polish archival research by studying Polish archival documents on microfilm at the Central Archive for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem. Having learned the paleography, vocabulary, style and genres of the Polish sources, I was ready to enter the Polish archives. At the end of October 1978, after notable reluctance on the part of the Polish communist authorities to grant me – a Jew working on a Jewish-themed project – a visa, I arrived as an official US government-sponsored IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) and Fulbright research scholar in Poland to get to the heart of my research. The communist bureaucracy, however, had assigned me to Warsaw instead of Kraków, where I needed to be. After a month of working in archives and fighting the bureaucracy in Warsaw, I finally arrived at the Biblioteka Czartoryskich on 5 December 1978. I spent the next four months, under the tutelage of Professor Józef Gierowski, in intensive research and came home with some 10,000 frames of microfilm.

Was there any recognizable interest in Jewish Studies in the People’s Republic of Poland in 1979? Or how did you connect your research with the current Polish research trends?

There was tremendous interest in both Jewish history and in me personally, as a Jew and as someone who had lived in Israel, "The Holy Land". (By my second trip in 1986 there were television shows and movies on Jewish themes.) There were countless discussions on Poland and the Shoah. Everyone I met was curious about my background and why I came to Poland.They were shocked that I could speak Polish (unpolished as it was). Virtually everyone from Professor Aleksander Gieysztor to the microfilm assistant at the Biblioteka Czartoryskich was eager to help me advance my research. My impression was that all of the academic people – both researchers and staff – were anti the communist regime and viewed helping me as a minor form of protest. Several young scholars remarked to me that it was obvious from the Jewish cemeteries, synagogue buildings and other Jewish artifacts that the Jews had been a major presence in Poland. Yet, having a doctorate in Polish history they knew nothing about this part of that history. Something else the regime was hiding and lying about! On the other hand, I met younger people who had been in the West on study trips and were mystified by Poland's image there as antisemitic.

As to research trends, in those days the typical monograph (based on a habilitacja; I bought many of them) was basically statistical tables and graphs strung together by explanatory paragraphs. There was little deeper analysis and drawing of overall conclusions. I took this to be a function of the political climate. There was, so to speak, safety in numbers. This statistical bent definitely influenced me (as you can see in The Lords' Jews), but my general approach was much different. I think the combination of statistics with broad perspective may be why ultimately my work found acceptance in Poland.

What was your most remarkable experience in Polish archives at the time?

January 1, 1979 marked the beginning of a legendary cold spell and beginning on January 2 the Biblioteka Czartoryskich was closed to the public because it was "too cold". (The reading room was never adequately heated. I sat all winter in my coat and gloves.) I talked my way past the guard at the door and the director, Dr. Adam Homecki, let me work in his office for the next two weeks or so. You can see in the record book that I am the only person signed in to the archive during that period, until the Biblioteka Czartoryskich officially re-opened. While in Homecki's office (where there was a space heater!) the page brought me, personally, any material I wanted to order. Moreover, at 11 AM every day Dr. Homecki invited me to join him for tea and I got to ask the many questions I had about the sources. When the reading room re-opened and I returned to working there, still every day at 11 the page informed me that "Dr. Homecki invites you to tea." Sometimes other staff members would join us and we would play "everything you wanted to know about Judaism but had no one to ask".

Then there was my "big discovery" of Polish sources relating to the Ba'al Shem Tov, which I described in detail in the new introduction to Founder of Hasidism.

Also significant was the time Prof. Gierowski came to the archive to help me understand some documents. At one point he looked at me and said that he had been studying these sources for thirty years, seeing the word Żyd repeatedly. Only now, as we talked, did he realize that the Jews actually constituted a research subject of Polish history. It was a Eureka moment. He eventually went on to found the Center for Jewish Studies at the Jagiellonian University.

And what about daily life during your research in the People’s Republic?

It was cold. It was difficult. Few people spoke English. My mail was censored (unless it went through the US diplomatic pouch). It was extremely difficult to find a city map of Warsaw or Krakow. Telephoning internationally was complicated and bothersome. The best way to communicate with my family in the USA was via telegram. There were waiting lines in front of almost every store and, while everything was cheap for me working in USA dollars, the stores had little to sell. It took me days to locate a pair of "once size fits all" rubber boots (price: $1). They were for sale in a rubber goods shop, not a shoe store. When I bought a space heater they did not include an electrical cord. That had to be purchased separately (if you could find it). If one store was out of an item, say pens, they all were. One had to pay customs duty on items sent by post OUT from Poland. Most items on restaurant menus were "nie ma". The black market thrived. There were rolling electrical brownouts from neighborhood to neighborhood. Food, especially for someone observing kashrut, was scarce. Grocery store hours were inconvenient. I lived on canned fish, bułeczki, hard boiled eggs and dried Israeli soups I had brought from the US. Not succeeding in finding an egg carrier, I had to carry the eggs home in a paper bag on crowded buses or trams. Usually only some of them made it. Occasionally I could buy American kosher peanut butter through the American Embassy. Once one of the American diplomats brought me a kosher salami from Germany. I lost almost 10 kilo.

One commodity that was available was books. I frequented the antykwariat bookstores and mailed home dozens of books.

When I arrived in Krakow I went to Dom Piast, a dormitory, where I had a horrible experience. Depressed, I luckily met a fellow American grad student who told me of a room I could rent in a big house. This turned out to be a godsend. The landlord and his family were nice to me, the room had both a bathroom and a gas cooktop. This made my stay tolerable. Otherwise, I probably would have given up and left.

Polish academia was rather formal. I wound up wearing my only suit whenever I had an appointment with a professor, which was frequent. I was introduced to many historians: Aleksander Gieysztor, Antoni Mączak, Emanuel Rostworowski, Irena Rychlikowa, Maria Bogucka, Wacław Urban, Teresa Zielińska, Władysław Serczyk, Maurycy Horn, Adam Kersten, Helena Madurowicz-Urbańska and others.

There was a general vague fear of political entanglement. For example, when having coffee with Prof. Gierowski in a public place he would not say the word "Israel", using various circumlocutions instead. During the month I spent in Warsaw I was assigned a graduate student. I was never sure whether he was there to help me or to monitor me.

In The Lords' Jews, the book that came out of this first intense research, you focused on the relationship between Jews and magnates in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Was it more difficult to enter the mind of a Jewish leaseholder or that of his noble lord?

In my previous research I had already become conversant with the Jewish sources. In Jerusalem and Poland I was reading the Polish correspondence, court testimonies, financial records, petitions, etc. of both groups. I came to feel I knew the people I was writing about. Both the lords and the Jews. I had questions to ask them, if only I could meet them...

In Israel, you have been a professor at the Department of Jewish History at Bar Ilan University for many years. How have you taught Polish-Jewish history?

Most years I taught a survey course on the history of the Jews in Poland and Russia. I also taught more specialized courses such as text courses analyzing primary sources of Polish Jewish history, with Hebrew sources and Polish and Yiddish sources in translation. In my more general courses there was usually a strong Polish Jewish history component. For example, a course on Jewish autonomy would have a big unit on Poland. I also taught about Hasidism, including the Polish contextual perspective.

My students rarely knew anything about Poland beyond stereotypes. I tried to convey to them the uniqueness of the Rzeczpospolita with its forma mixta style of government and its ambivalent tolerance towards the Jews. I also emphasized the religious, social and political experiences of early modern Polish Jewry.

How would you describe the broader picture of Polish-Jewish studies in Israel and its development over the years?

In the 1970s and 80s Poland was a "hot topic". Centers for the study of Polish Jewish history were established in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the journal Gal-Ed was begun. There were many conferences, courses, students, prizes. There was a visiting professorship for Polish Studies instituted at Hebrew University. I think the peak moment was the World Congress for Jewish Studies in 1985 where relatively many sessions were devoted to Poland and for the first time scholars living in Poland attended. There was real excitement then about Poland. Since then, and especially with the deaths of the leading figures, like Chone Szmeruk (1997), Jakub Goldberg (2011) and Ezra Mendelsohn (2015), there has been a gradual waning of interest and lessening of resources. This is partly due to the general crisis in the humanities but also Polish-Jewish studies have lost some of their attraction, although it is still a central topic. In 2011 the Roth Chair in Polish Jewish history could still be established, at Bar Ilan University. On the other hand, when Gershon Bacon and I retired in 2017, our two positions were merged into one.

In 2007, in a postmodern vein, you published How Jewish Is Jewish History, questioning metanarratives of Jewish historiography and contextualizing Jewish history. How does this relate to your empirical research into early modern Poland-Lithuania? Or in other words: Do you draw a line between Polish Studies and Jewish Studies?

Not at all! The two intersect and I am working in the space they share in common. I once wrote an article entitled How Polish Is Polish History? where I leveraged the historiography of the Jews as a portal to Polish historigraphy in general. In 2014 I was honored to speak at the Polish Constitutional Court about the Four Year Sejm and the Jews where again I used the Jews as a point of entree to the entire issue of the Sejm and the Constitution.

One of the distinguishing features of my research is the consistent attempt to integrate Jewish and Polish sources, demonstrating how they are both essential components in constructing the history of Polish Jewry and of Poland. On occasion, I have been fortunate enough to find sources from these two different reservoirs that each directly address the same person, event, or process. I treasure the honors I have been granted in Poland and regard them as, more than recognition of my scholarship, recognition of the shared contexts of Polish and Jewish history.

As to postmodernism, I endeavor to research and write in the spirit of "reformed positivism" that I advocated in How Jewish is Jewish History?. I believe that criticism is the coin of academia and must be constantly and consistently applied – to everything.

During the preparation of the permanent exhibition of the Museum for the History of Polish Jews, POLIN, in Warsaw, you acted as an academic consultant. Was this an effort to create a powerful new narrative of Polish-Jewish history? And are you satisfied with the result?

I think over the course of the past three academic generations a new Polish-Jewish metahistory evolved (with respect to the pre-partition period), that can be summarized as follows: The Jews developed a "marriage of convenience" with the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This was a dynamic relationship that evolved into a saga of overall achievement and relative stability, punctuated by crisis and persecution.

I think this idea underlies the narrative of the POLIN Museum. I have some criticisms but my overall feeling is that for the most part the Museum is a wonderful realization of the historical research of the last half century. That the Museum was built and opened is a miracle. I love going there.

Your most recent research focuses on another aspect of postmodern historiography: Gender Studies. So how has this theoretical inspiration – and your subsequent empirical studies – changed your picture of early modern Poland?

By adding women we are developing different pictures of the economy, religious life, social life and even politics. A good example is the synagogue. We now know that there was much negotiation going on between men and women as to who should be there, when and where; and what exactly should happen there. Another example is the marketplace. It belonged to both genders. This had both economic and social consequences.

Focus on women's lives also opens up the whole subject of home and family life. Consequently, we are beginning to understand how men fit in these frameworks. The search for single women has led to the insight that in this society virtually no one lived alone. This has important ramifications. We can also trace, over the longue duree, how the gender boundary moved and how the gender hierarchy was challenged. Gender roles were in flux to some extent.

Does this research open a new academic network for you – in Israel, in Poland or elsewhere?

In 2016-17 I headed a research group in Jerusalem on Jewish women's cultural capital. This put me in touch with a network of scholars on three continents working on gender and women's history. I recently published a chapter in Jewish Women's History from Antiquity to the Present. I am surrounded there by cutting edge scholars in Gender Studies.

Many thanks for these insights into your thinking, experiences, and work!


Sociology Jewish studies History Ethnology


Day-to-day research History of the Polish People's Republic Jewish-Polish relations Gender history History of science
Pol-Int team

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