Bałaban Majer

Majer Bałaban - Personal data
Date of birth: 20th February 1877
Place of birth: Lwów
Date of death: 1942
Place of death: Warszawa
Occupation: historyk
Related towns: Lviv, Lublin

Balaban, Meir (1877, Lviv – 1942 or 1943, Warsaw) – historian, prominent researcher of the history of Jews in Poland. He did not continue the family tradition of working in the printing business. He studied under the hospices of Louis Finkel and Simon Ashkenazy at Lviv University, where he earned his doctorate degree in 1904. He served as a military rabbi in Lublin during World War I. He worked in secondary education for many years.

In the years 1920-1930, he was the rector of the "Tachkemoni" Rabbinical Seminar, founded in 1920 in Warsaw at the initiative of the Mizrachi. Similarly to other institutions established by the Mizrachi, the school had a dual nature, combining the principles of religious education with Zionist worldview. It was meant to serve both as a yeshiva and as a modern academy. Balaban oversaw thorough education of its graduates (the school followed the curriculum of a secular humanistic junior high school), preparing them for being future leaders of Orthodox communities. Rabbi Mojżesz Sołowiejczyk, who worked at the seminar in the years 1920–1929, was responsible for Talmudic studies. The graduates of the school received the title of rabbi and had the possibility to continue their studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (Balaban was the co-founder and board member of the Society of Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem).

As a result of the escalating conflict between Balaban, who had great authority among students, and Sołowiejczyk, who accused Meir of having destructive influence on young people and leading them towards excessive secularisation, both scholars left the university. Sołowiejczyk started to give lectures on the Talmud at the Yeshiva University in New York, while Balaban gave up teaching, claiming he had to many scientific duties. This conflict, as well as the departure of two such distinguished lecturers, resulted in the demise of the school.

Balaban gained his habilitation at the University of Warsaw in 1928. He started working as a professor at the University of Warsaw and as a lecturer of the Free Polish University. He was the co-founder and, starting from 1928, a professor of the Institute of Jewish Studies in Warsaw. He was greatly respected by students. He is considered one of the greatest scholars of Jewish history in Poland, specialising in the history of the 16th-18th century. In his research, he encompassed a number of issues, discussing political, constitutional and cultural-moral matters. Balaban’s works are based on cross-sectional archival studies performed on Polish sources and kehilla collections.

He wrote a number of monographs: Żydzi lwowscy na przełomie XVI i XVII wieku (The Jews of Lviv at the Turn of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century; 1906), Dzieje Żydów w Galicjii i Rzeczpospolitej Krakowskiej 1772-1868 (The History of Jews in Galicia and the Kraków Republic 1772-1868; 1916), Historia Żydów w Krakowie i na Kazimierzu 1304-1655 (The History of Jews in Kraków and Kazimierz 1304-1655; 1931, 2nd ed. 1936). He is also the author of the excellent cultural and moral study Z historii Żydów w Polsce (From the History of Jews in Poland; 1920), in which he performed a thorough characterisation of the types of Jewish communities in former Poland. He also published an interesting work on the importance of Lublin as the centre of Jewish culture entitled Die Judenstadt von Lublin (1919). Balaban was also interested in material heritage, as evidenced by such works as Zabytki historyczne Żydów w Polsce (Historical Monuments of Jews in Poland; 1929), Bóżnice obronne na wschodnich kresach Rzeczpospolitej (Defensive Synagogues in the Eastern Borderlands of the Commonwealth; 1927), which, in the context of the devastation caused by the historical cataclysms of the 20th century, are now an invaluable source of information about Jewish architecture. He wrote the synthetic outline Historia i literatura żydowska ze szczególnym uwzględnieniem historii Żydów w Polsce (Jewish History and Literature, with Particular Emphasis on the History of Jews in Poland; vol.1-3 1920-1925). He collected bibliographies, among which particular attention should be given to the unfinished Bibliografia historii Żydów w Polsce i krajach ościennych za lata 1900-1930 (Bibliography of the Jewish History in Poland and its Neighbouring Countries in the Years 1900-1930; part 1, 1939, reprint 1978). He wrote articles for such Jewish magazines as Wschód (The East), which he co-edited, and for numerous Polish-Jewish magazines. He published the magazine Nowe życie (New Life; 1924).

After Warsaw had been captured by Germans, he was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto, where he headed the Archive Department of the Judenrat. On the order of the German authorities, he confiscated Jewish books in the spring of 1940. He never stopped his academic research. His alleged suicide has never been confirmed. It is only certain that he died at the end of 1942 or in early 1943, but the exact date remains unknown.

Anna Maria Szczepan Wojnarska

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