Archive Researchers

Featuring: Aleksandra Sajdak


Why and when did you start being interested by archives, History and Heritage in general?

I was interested in the history from my very early ages. Growing up in Warsaw you are surrounded by the recent tragic events, but also you are becoming more and more interested in the layers of the city. The more you learn, the more you discover. Thanks to my parents, my grandparents, history was always present in my home.

You are an active member of the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw, Poland. Could you tell us a bit more about the history, the building of the collection and your work with this institution?

I can talk about Jewish Historical Institute for hours. It’s my second home. It’s a very, very unique place in Warsaw’s history, in the Polish-Jewish history, and I think it’s also has a very important place in a Jewish history in general. 85% of the left side of the Vistula river was destroyed during the war, we don’t have many original buildings, but the building of the JHI survived and serves the Jewish community till today. Before the war, the building was the headquarters of the Main Judaic Library and of the Institute for Judaic Studies. The latter opened on February 9th, 1928, became the first Jewish research and educational center in Europe which, alongside theological studies, also took into account secular studies. The building of the Main Judaic Library was built adjacent to the Great Synagogue at T?omackie Street.It was opened in 1936. During the war, our building was one of the centers of Jewish social life in the Warsaw ghetto. From November 16th, 1940 until March 1942, the Library building was within the ghetto borders. Here the literary evenings, theater performances, meetings for children and symphony concerts took place. Also, there took place conspiratorial meetings of the Oneg Shabbat (Hebrew: Joy of Sabbath) which, under the direction of the historian Emanuel Ringelblum was gathering comprehensive documentation of the life and the extermination of the Jews in occupied by the Nazi German Poland during World War II. On May 16th, 1943, as a sign of the suppression of any resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, the SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Polizei Jürgen Stroop ordered the dynamiting of the Great Synagogue and torching of the Library building. By doing this, he symbolically achieved “the final solution of the Warsaw Jewry.”Traces of the fire are visible on the floor of the main hall of the Institute until this day, but building survived. During the war 90% of Polish Jewry was killed, the one who managed to survived established Center Committee of Polish Jews, with a headquarter on T?omackie Street. In 1947 Jewish Historical Institute was opened, as a first Holocaust research center and for me, this place is a symbol of the continuity of Jewish life in Poland

Are Polish people becoming more interested and open to learn about the Jewish heritage of their country?

It’s a very interesting phenomenon, but I think people feel the gap. 75 years ago Poland was multiethnic country, now 90% of the country are “ethnic” Poles (whatever that means). And I think this is amazing, that so many non-Jews are helping with the old cemeteries,  old synagogues, Jewish heritage in general. People are interested in a Jewish culture, books, music, religion, but also many of them realized that there is no Polish culture without Jews, and there is no Ashkenazi culture without Poles. When I see a huge crowd during festivals devoted to the Jewish culture my heart is happy, and I am talking about not only big festivals, like Kraków, Wroc?aw or Warsaw but also in smaller cities. There are so many local historians, crazy people ( in a good way) who wants to know more about the Jewish past of their cities, towns, villages. There is a lot of good initiatives and amazing people, but there is still a lot of work ahead of us. People have to remember or acknowledge more than 3 million Poles, non-Jews victims of the German occupation, but some Poles need to acknowledge the hard truth about the war and time of Shoah, not every Pole helped his/her Jewish neighbor in need… Unfortunately. But only honest dialogue will help us.

The polish documentary film « The Prince of the Dybbuk » received the Venice Classics Award for the Best Documentary won. Are Polish people becoming more interested and open to learn about the Jewishheritage of their country? 

As I said above, there is no Polish culture without Jews and Jewish culture. Many of the Polish directors, books, music were influenced by the Jewish tradition, made by Jewish Poles, so I think Poles are generally aware that their favorite poet has Jewish roots, and the Jewish subject is very present on every level in Poland. In the culture, heritage, politics, all the time. Though every generation has different tools to talk about the heritage, past, shared experience, memory and I think this generation wants to have a deeper conversation about it. Not only the “romantic” image of the Jew as a Fiddler on the Roof but the conversation about Polish Jews. About the identity, thoughts, religion, what does it mean to be a Polish Jew? What does it mean to me?

Do you think there has been a recent surge in archival driven documentary? What is your general view on the current state of the Polish doc industry. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have any statistics in this field but seeing what is going on around me I think there is a huge interest in the documentary work, but when you think about it, there always was. Even during the communist era, when people didn’t have access to the outside iron curtain world, people were curious and very creative, and the work of the documentalists from that period is really impressive.

What resources do you mostly use for your research? 

Archives, newspapers, business directories, immigration/emigration documents, testimonies, it depends.

Could you tell us a bit more about the profession of Archive Researcher in Poland? 

The world of researchers are divided into the one who is doing it professionally in the archives, libraries, public institutions and they are not very well paid. And then there is a second group – private researchers who make a lot of money for doing research and among this group you have another subgroup very devoted and passionate about their work, and the second one who is mainly focused on the financial aspect. Today overall it’s much better, but sometimes you can still see the remnants of the “homo sovieticus”/communist in the behavior in the archives but it’s getting better 🙂

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What is the archive discovery you are the most proud of? 

I know maybe it’s stupid, but I am collecting pictures of T?omackie Street and Great Synagogue in Warsaw, and recently I found an extremely rare picture of T?omackie street. But every day at my work as a genealogist I see small miracles. Sometimes are bigger like founding two sisters separated 70 years ago, but sometimes the location of the house of the family, or occupation or university file with handwriting is something really special for me.

Can you give us a sneak peek into a project you are currently working on? 

There is a chanukia (candelabra for Chanuka)  in a Diaspora Museum in TLV and they claimed is from the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. In my humble opinion, it’s not from our synagogue and I am trying to prove it. Though it will be a long process we will what will happen. I have few very interesting genealogical cases but can’t talk about it without the permission of our guests. So more to come, stay tuned!

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