By Regan Treewater-Lipes
(AJNews) – Despite some Lufthansa scheduling catastrophes, the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies was able to pivot gracefully for this year’s annual Tova Yedlin Lecture which took place in the Student Lounge of the Old Arts Building at the University of Alberta on March 16.
“I am so sorry that I cannot be there in-person with you today,” explained Professor Marcin Wodzinski, this year’s guest speaker from the University of Wroclaw, who spoke to a sizeable crowd of lecture attendees via Zoom. Professor Alexander Carpenter of the Wirth Institute warmly welcomed Professor Wodzinski, who has spoken at the University of Alberta on past occasions as well. In addition to a great number of Edmonton Jewish community members, academics from various departments also joined for a ‘Viewing Party’ and the lecture was accessible to an even larger audience over Zoom.
Professor Wodzinski’s lecture “How to Marry Charisma: Dynasties, Marriages, and Leadership in Hasidism,” drew a diverse crowd to learn about a highly intriguing, and little understood topic. When asked in an interview prior to his talk about what drew the decorated historian to this research, Professor Wodzinski replied: “I think my interest in Hasidism might appear less surprising when you consider where I live and work. Hasidism is possibly the most important religious phenomenon, and I mean of any religion, that has ever emerged in Poland. It is also a religious, but also cultural phenomenon that informed much of contemporary Jewish civilization, even for those who don’t know much about it. And if you live in Poland, a sensitive eye easily catches traces of a Hasidic past, graves, pilgrimage sites, courts, you name it. Then once you get to the Hasidic literature, you discover much of this is happening on the streets of towns and villages you know, in the same neighbourhoods you pass every day, in the same place and space, yet in a different spiritual dimension. This is just fascinating, no?”
His ability to see the significance of historical echoes still resonating in everyday places around him has resulted in some extremely fascinating documenting of the trends and traditions observed in the marriages of Hasidic dynasties throughout Central and Eastern Europe leading up to the first half of the twentieth century. In partnership with two colleagues from Israel, Professor Wodzinski has taken on the monumental task of cataloging these marriage alliances into an online database. This information, although daunting in scope, would be a potential breakthrough for many Jewish genealogy projects.
As the Director of the Taube Department of Jewish Studies, Professor Wodzinski has observed firsthand the significance of strong Jewish studies institutions in his country. “What is unique is the scale of success we managed to achieve,” he stated. “I’m very proud of both our research and teaching activities. I claim we might be the fastest growing humanities department in the universe. When most university programmes in the humanities shrink, we managed to grow from 1 position in 2003 to 10 academic and 3 administrative positions now. We have one of the strongest Yiddish studies in Europe, leading scholars in the field of post-Holocaust Jewish history, excellent team of researchers working on Hasidism and Jewish religious life more generally, amazing scholars working on Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and other Jewish literatures. We have also an excellent research library, including one of the best book collections on Jewish spirituality bequeathed to us by the late professor Ada Rapoport-Albert. I’m also very proud of our BA and two MA programmes in Jewish studies, one in Polish and one in English. The English programme is quite unique globally, I think. This is a three-semester MA programme based on three tracks of specialization in East European Jewish history and culture, with three intensive languages taught: Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish.”
This scope is certainly indicative of a Polish society hungry to understand their thousand-year history alongside Jewish life. Since the first Jews stopped in a forest outside Lublin and heard through the trees “po lin” or “here rest” Jews have been a part of Poland’s historical trajectory. Whether or not the story of how the Jewish first arrived in Poland is apocryphal or not, this influence and lasting contribution to Polish culture is illustrated by the amazing research like Professor Wodzinski is receiving.
Despite trends in the right direction within academy and grassroots local activism throughout the country, Professor Wodzinski is still cautious with his optimism. “The Jewish community in Poland is very small, possibly too small to develop without careful support from the more mighty players outside,” he noted. “At the same time this is deeply divided and painfully torn by all sorts of conflicts. This is not the best situation for the Jewish culture to flourish I’m afraid. At the same time, there is huge interest in Jewish history and culture in Poland which led, among others, to the creation of several major cultural institutions that present Jewish history and culture to the wider public. Some of them are European-scale success. The best example is the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a landmark international success and really an amazing institution. But there are several more, including Jewish Festival in Kraków, a number of smaller museum, cultural events, etc. This disproportion between small and socially weak Jewish community on the one side and thriving presence of Jewish culture in public sphere, usually produced by non-Jews for non-Jews about the Jews, is certainly unhealthy. But there is no easy remedy to this situation.”
Professor Wodzinski is quite right that many prominent and dedicated organizations working to preserve the memory of Jewish Poland are not run by Jews at all: the Brama Grodzka NN Theatre, The Auschwitz Jewish Center, or the work of Bogdan Bialek who has devoted himself to preserving the history of Jewish Kielce and educating the local population of the city’s infamous post-war pogrom. This is a by-product of the dwindling numbers of Jews in the country, but also symptomatic of a national movement to engage with history in an authentic and transparent manner.
Prominent scholars like Professor Wodzinski who are major players on the international stage of Jewish scholarship are safeguarding the knowledge that remains after the dynastic Hasidic communities have dispersed into the diaspora.
“Historical topics of Polish-Jewish past are often targeted by the regime in their whitewashing attempts to reshape the public consciousness of the Polish society,” explained Wodzinski. “This is directly affecting Jewish studies: government officials and state-owned media have, on a number of occasions, continued to express their dissatisfaction with academic research on sensitive issues such as Polish involvement in Holocaust-related crimes or Polish antisemitism. At times this has taken the form of incitement against institutions or individual scholars. The real question is how long this unfavorable political climate will continue to exist, and if it does, how it will reflect on longer-range trends in scholarly interests, choice of studies, distribution of human and financial resources, and public debates.
“In the short run, pronounced polarization of Polish society and major public debates prompt quite a number of individuals to choose studies that are meant to provide them with the tools for pursuing identity quests, of combating antisemitism, and propagating a more diversified and liberal version of Polishness. In this sense, Jewish studies in Poland, as in several other East European countries, is the paradoxical beneficiary of right-wing populism and the rising wave of xenophobia. In the longer run, however, we cannot be certain this will remain the case.”
The crowd was transfixed despite the last-minute technical difficulties. The firing off of questions did not stop, and it was clear how engaged everyone at the ‘Viewing Party’ was. Professor Carpenter fielded questions from the Zoom attendees, and on-site audience members approached the microphone so Professor Wodzinski could see and hear then clearly. If the audience participation was any indication, it is clear that the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies should definitely look into re-engaging Professor Wodzinski.
Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
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