Antony Polonsky

Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies, Brandeis Univeristy

When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies?

I grew up in very comfortable conditions in post-war South Africa. I soon became aware of the deep racial divisions in that society and came to feel considerable guilt at my parents’ lifestyle, dependent as it was on African servants, whom they, as representatives of the liberal section of the English-speaking minority—friends of Helen Suzman, supporters of the Progressive Party—treated with, as they thought, great benevolence and in my eyes with extreme paternalism. 

When I attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in the late 1950s, the main political division was between the liberals and the marxist-leninists. Those, like myself, who adhered to the latter group did so in rejection of the paternalism which we identified with our parents. Liberalism was merely a form of sympathy for Africans in their difficult plight, whereas we had aligned ourselves with the iron laws of history identified by Marx and Engels. These clearly demonstrated, we believed, that the conflict in South Africa was not racial (as was obvious to most people) but one of class in which we, mostly young Jews and Indians could find our natural place in the struggle of the local proletariat, along with that of the whole world, for the socialist millenium. 

I then joined the fellow-travelling Congress of Democrats and participated in a Marxist study circle at the University, which was led by leading members of the South African Communist Party. The one who had most influence on me was Jack Simons, then Professor of Economic History at the University of Cape Town, subsequently chief political commissar of the armed forces of the ANC in Angola. Once when we were discussing the South African Marxist obsession with demonstrating that what we were confronted with was a class and not a racial conflict, he observed, ‘If you want to see how a class conflict is transformed so that it looks like an ethnic or racial struggle, you need to look at the history of Tsarist and Habsburg Empires’. These words remained with me and were one of the reasons which ultimately led me to investigate the history of Poland. 

I was still a Marxist-Leninist when I went to study at Oxford in the early 1960s. Coming from what we saw as a fascist country, when I began to look for a subject for my doctoral dissertation I wished to study the phenomenon of right-radicalism and fascism. I believed (wrongly) that all the interesting topics in the history of German National Socialism had already been investigated and was drawn to analyze what I thought were similar manifestations in Poland, partly inspired by the words of Jack Simons. As one who, in spite of my Marxist beliefs, rejected the rigid discipline and bureaucratic character of the Communist Party of South Africa, I was attracted to what I thought was Gomułka’s independent ‘Polish Road to Socialism’ and was also greatly impressed by the films of Andrzej Wajda, above all A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds. I accepted that in a socialist country like Poland there was an inevitable price to be paid in the form of a loss of freedom. But I believed that this only affected the intelligentsia which was in any case hostile to socialism and that this loss of freedom was compensated for by the higher rate of economic growth compared to the capitalist west, and the greater degree of social justice and equality. 

I was quickly disillusioned. It became apparent to me that the loss of freedom affected the whole of society that it was more far-reaching than in my native country and that it made almost impossible serious and open discussion of the problems that Poland needed to confront in the period of the ‘little stabilization’. The economic system, with its shortages and distortions, was clearly much less efficient than that of the West, while Milovan Djilas had clearly been correct when he identified the emergence of new privileged class under socialism. 

Under these circumstances, I was greatly impressed by the socialist critique of the regime for allegedly betraying the interests of the workers circulated in 1965 by two young party members, lecturers at this university, Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski, for which they were imprisoned in July 1965 at the end of our first stay in Warsaw. I now began to write critically of Stalin’s policies towards Poland during the Second World War and of the establishment and character of the communist system established in Poland after July 1944. I still believed that the communist system could be reformed from within. The years 1967-1968 marked my final disillusionment. I was alarmed that the Soviet Union and its allies could pursue policies which seemed aimed at the destruction of the state of Israel, was disgusted that a faction of the Polish United Workers’ Party could use crude antisemitic slogans in a bid for power and to discredit the student calls for democratization and strongly identified with these calls and for Alexander Dubček’s attempt to establish communism ‘with a human face’ in Czechoslovakia. It was particularly painful to me that the African National Congress and the Communist Party of South Africa issued a statement in early September 1968 welcoming the ‘fraternal intervention’ of the countries of the Warsaw pact in Czechoslovakia. 

During these years I wrote on different aspects on Polish history, including the breakdown of democracy in interwar Poland, the ‘Polish question’ during the Second World War, the imposition of communist rule in Poland and aspects of the politics of the Polish People’s Republic. museum

How have your interests changed since then?

After 1968, I sided strongly with the developing opposition movement in Poland with the Committee for the Defence of the Workers’ and with the Solidarity movement. Like most Poles, I was shocked and surprised by the relative ease with which martial law was established (I shouldn’t have been–the other side had an army, which we did not). I also now felt much more involved with Jewish life, as I found, to my surprise, that I cared deeply about the survival of the state of Israel and even considered volunteering in the run-up to the war which broke out in June 1967. A number of my friends believed that one of the reasons for the defeat of the first Solidarity had been its failure to make a proper reckoning with chauvinistic and antisemitic currents in Polish life. They encouraged me to seek contacts within the Jewish world to alleviate the obvious gap between Poles and Jews insofar as these are separate and discrete groups, which is clearly not always the case. I participated in the series of academic conferences in the 1980s which attempted to bridge this divide and also became chief editor of the yearbook Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, which attempted to encourage  research on an inter-disciplinary basis and from a wide variety of viewpoints. I now wrote my three-volume history, The Jews in Russia and Poland, and in 2014 was appointed Chief Historian at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. 

What is your current research/work project?

I am writing my autobiography, Four Lives: An Intellectual Journey from Johannesburg to Warsaw.

What do you value about your ASEEES membership?

I very much depend on the Slavic Review and Newsnet and on attending the annual conference.  

Besides your professional work, what other interests and/or hobbies do you enjoy?

My main hobby is music. I no longer play the cello, but very much like to attend concerts and opera.