Whenever I go to Poland I make a point of visiting the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. It is an amazing place, known not only for its exhibits, but all the projects that go on behind the closed doors of different departments.
One person who constantly impresses me with the tremendous amount of work he does is Jan Jagielski. Jan is head of the Jewish Monument Division and Photo Archives for the institute. From all over the world, scholars, as well as novices in the field of Polish Jewish history, praise his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish sites throughout Poland.
Mr. Jagielski has compiled a catalogue of synagogues in Poland that I use as a resource for many of my articles. (Plans are in the works to translate the book into English.) Last month when I visited him at his office I asked what he was working on at the moment. He got very excited at the opportunity of publicity for a new project of his – not for profit, but for posterity.
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Often a picture outlives the photographer and bears witness to events and times of long ago. Mr. Jagielski has been working with photographs that detail Jewish life in Poland before and during the Shoah. Using rare photos, he has made some interesting discoveries. His office is often asked to identify places, and if possible, people, in pictures sent in from around the world.
Jan Jagielski going over pictures of Jewish people and places in Poland.
Some people sent him photographs they had bought on Internet auction sites, such as eBay. He discovered the wealth of material being sold, lost to him and other researchers.
“In some of these pictures we can see synagogues, cemeteries, or other Jewish property, as well as a chronicle of Jewish life,” he told me. “Look at this picture here, you can see a synagogue in the background with children playing in the foreground and a cemetery off to the side. Using this photograph I hope to identify the town and maybe rescue the cemetery or synagogue from desecration.
“I would like to ask your readers for two things,” he said. “One, if they have pictures from before the Shoah, to send a set to the Institute. (Even scans would be helpful.) Second, we need a budget to buy pictures off the Internet.” Mr. Jagielski figures that 20,000 zloty or $7,000 would be enough to buy the pictures online.
It is interesting to note that Mr. Jagielski, foremost expert on Jewish remains in Poland, is not Jewish. There are a few Poles throughout the country that have taken it upon themselves to ensure that the history of the Jewish people in Poland is not forgotten. The chief rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, has coined this phenomenon as “The Jegielskian Complex.”
There are many photographic collections of Jewish life in Poland; consolidating the material is underway. YIVO has a large collection for research on the Internet, and there are also photographs taken before the Shoah, e.g. by noted photographer, Roman Vishniak.
There is also an exhibit, “And I Still See Their Faces” at the Yeshiva University Museum in Lower Manhattan. The exhibit is made up of photographs found mostly after the war by Poles, with captions telling what the donor knows of the people, places, and circumstances of each photo. The photos are on exhibit until the end of June. A review of the exhibit will appear in an upcoming issue of The Jewish Press.
Anybody wishing to donate material or money to the project can send it to: Shmuel Ben Eliezer, The Jewish Press, 338 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11215-1897, or directly to Mr. Jagielski at: Mgr Jan Jagielski, The Jewish Historical Institute, Tlomackie 3/5 Street,00-950 Warsaw.