As a history major at Brandeis University, I had the privilege of studying under Prof. Antony Polonsky, among the world’s leading scholars on the Jews of Poland and Russia. He’s also an eminent Holocaust historian.
I took every course Polonsky offered, and few people have had as a profound impact on my life and career as he. Polonsky didn’t just lecture and grade papers. He taught and inspired me to think deeply and critically about the world around me, and to be reasonable in my views and assessments.
He also served as my graduate thesis advisor, and I treasure having spent hours with him discussing some of the darkest pages in modern history—as well as how humanity could and should strive toward a brighter future.
My masters’ thesis (a draft version):
I hold enormous and everlasting respect for this remarkable individual, whose recent three-volume series, The Jews in Poland and Russia, not only extols his most worthy virtues as a caring person concerned with remembering and learning from the past, but also cements him as one of the finest historical minds of our generation.
To learn more about what larger role the study of history has played in his life, I recently reached out for an interview.
Below is an abridged and edited version of the interview.
What was learning history like as a student in South Africa, during apartheid?
I had a wonderful teacher at high school in South Africa. He produced his own notes rather than use the textbooks, although there were textbooks we used for European history. One of the things I remember most strongly was the last two years of high school. The high school was rather like an English high school. There were fewer subjects, and they were taught at a higher level than is taught here. The last two years of high school, you did European history from 1789 to the outbreak of the First World War that was where we stopped and South African history down to 1914 as well.
I remember very distinctly the school teacher. By the way, he was Jewish. He was one of the few Jewish teachers. He started by saying, “If you are to understand the French Revolution, you have to understand what is a revolutionary situation, what are the conditions which give rise to revolution.” He stopped there and said, “If you look out of the window, you can see what is a revolutionary situation.”
You’re clearly passionate about your field, but how do you manage to write dispassionately when you’re dealing with such horrific events?
It’s an effort. When one’s writing, you always have an audience. When I’m writing, I have a double audience. I have a Polish audience because I’m very much involved in Polish affairs. There I’m trying to show what went wrong in Poland. I don’t believe you should pull punches. You have to say how things were but in an honest and open way. I also have a Jewish audience, which has deeply rooted prejudices against Poles. I’m also trying to explain to the Jewish audience why things were the way they were. It’s a challenge to combine those two.
How often do you think about historical framework, as well as empathizing with the subjects you write about?
You have to think about that all the time. What do you include and how do you frame it? If you’re writing detailed analyses of specific problems, that’s much easier, but when you’re writing a broad narrative, it’s a story. You have to think what your story is actually saying. You used the word empathy. One has to be empathetic to everybody. This doesn’t mean one has to excuse or explain everything. You have to explain, but you don’t have to excuse. You have to try and understand and put yourself in the position of everybody in these situations to understand why they behaved in the way that they did. You have to submerge yourself in the documentation so that you can think like people at the time. That’s the goal, I think.
What emotional toll does your work on the Holocaust take on you, and how do you cope?
I don’t regard myself as a Holocaust specialist. If you work on Poland in the 20th century, you have to deal with this, but I deal with other things as well. I know a number of people who deal exclusively with these topics. I have great admiration for them because it isn’t a recipe for, as you say, sleeping easily. It is very troubling. To some extent for me, it’s easier because I grew up in South Africa. I was part of the group that was oppressing the majority of the population. I felt disquiet, but having had this experience, it’s easier to deal with other things. All I’m saying is that I went through this existential problem a little earlier because you were confronted with it every day when you were growing up in Johannesburg.