Kulczycki Book Prize in Polish Studies

2015 Citation Recipient

Per Andres Rudling

The Kulczycki Book Prize in Polish Studies (formerly the Orbis Book Prize), established in 1996 and sponsored by the Kulczycki family, former owners of the Orbis Books Ltd. of London, England, is awarded annually for the best book in any discipline, on any aspect of Polish affairs, published in the previous calendar year.

Co-Winner: Per Andres Rudling
Title: The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906-1931 (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Per Anders Rudling’s study, based on multilingual archival research, probes a neglected corner of early 20th-century East Central European history, exploring a national movement that did not come to fruition at the time, but which provides vital context for the political and cultural shape of Belarus today. At the turn of the 20th century, and especially after the Revolution of 1905, this geographical center of former Poland-Lithuania, which also constituted the core of Jewish settlement in Europe, was at the receiving end of various national movements. Its predominantly rural population preferred confessional and estate identities; few saw themselves in national terms. During the Great War, the region underwent a radical overhaul. Organized as a quasi-polity, Land Ober Ost, Germany pursued its modernization by replacing Russian with German and Polish, and introducing—for the first time ever—Belarusian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Yiddish as languages of education, newspapers, and local administration. The Peace of Riga split the land between interwar Poland and Bolshevik Russia. Despite as many as five declarations of Belarusian independence by 1920, Belarusian nationalism and language never became a rallying point for the population. Warsaw sought to assimilate ‘tentative Belarusians’ through Polonization efforts and by destroying or seizing Orthodox churches. In the Soviet Union, the tactical usefulness of Belarusian nationalism was recognized and a Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic fashioned; there, the official multilingualism of the Land Ober Ost continued until mid-1930s, when the Great Terror shifted gears to Russification. Rudling’s masterful text demonstrates how Belarusian nationalism, caught between the nationalizing Polish state and the totalizing aims of the Soviet Union, never really spread much further than its elite adherents, many of whom had been dependent on German support. All the same, the movement laid the framework for a Belarusian state. The book should become the first port of call for commentators on present-day Belarus.

Co-Winner: Michael Fleming

Honorable Mention: Glenn Kurtz
Title: Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)

This highly original book begins with something seemingly prosaic—a damaged, old spool of film—and, thanks to the author’s obsessiveness, elegant prose, and patient humanity, spins that spool into a portrait of a place on the brink of destruction. Shot by his grandfather during a European tour in 1938, the film contained some three minutes of both color and black-and-white footage of the Polish town from which he and his family emigrated before the First World War. As Kurtz follows leads, consulting experts, secondary sources, and even survivors depicted in that footage, he finds Morry Chandler, born Moszek Tuchendler in Nasielsk, Poland, whose memory is revitalized by the images he sees in the film, including several shots of himself as a schoolboy. Morry’s story of village life before the war and of survival during it leads Kurtz to other people in the US, Great Britain, Poland, and Israel, enabling him to uncover strands of the town’s “web of interrelations.” While he knows that the town’s legacy will never be more than fragmentary, he sees that his “grandfather’s film became the medium that brought the pieces together, unexpectedly, creating a new kind of community” (277). Thanks to the author, the film is now available, after painstaking restoration by staff of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, on their website and in an Auschwitz exhibit of Jewish life before the war. That outcome is valuable enough. The book, meanwhile, warrants an honorable mention because of its splendid research, compelling presentation, and powerful depiction of life in interwar and wartime Poland.