Oral history
History witnesses

Antony Polonsky

Interlocutor name:
Interlocutor surname:
Józef Markiewicz
Przemysław Jaczewski
Catalogue number:
Recording date:
8th August 2018
Recording location:
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Recording duration:
Recording language:
Recording copyright:
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
The Decendents of Polish Jews Around the World

Related places

Interlocutor biogram

Antony Polonsky was born in South Africa in 1940. His family’s ancestors came from areas of, what is now, Lithuania and Belarus. Both his mother and father studied medicine. He grew up in a Jewish district of Johannesburg. The majority of his school friends were Jewish. He learned Hebrew. Observing the social divisions, the discrimination against blacks and the environment in which he became involved at university, all influenced his leftist views and his academic interests.

Antony Polonsky studied history and political science in South Africa and then in Great Britain. In 1964, he came to Poland, on a scholarship, in order to gather material for his doctoral thesis on the subject of Józef Piłsudski’s conflicts with parliament. Initially, he supported Poland’s communist system but, over time, he changed his views and established contacts with the opposition.

Ultimately, under the influence of the events of March’68, Antony Polonsky stumbled upon the possibility of reforming the communist system from within. At that time, he rediscovered his Jewish identity which he had earlier tried to reject. In the 1980’s, at Oxford University, he organised the first conference on Polish-Jewish relations in which Polish academics could participate. He was the principal historical consultant for the Core Exhibition of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Recording circumstances description

Interview was recorded at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.


Recording summary

  1. The history of his maternal grandfather, the Suwałki region – the region from where his grandfather came, its Russification following the January Uprising; studying medicine in Kharkiv; no possibility for further study unless he converted, leaving for further studies in Berlin and Vienna, and then in England and South Africa; 00:00:00
  2. The history of his maternal grandmother -his great-grandfather working in the Polish estate of the Barzyński family in Lithuania; the current state of the estate and his meeting with Barzyński descendants; his great-grandfather in South Africa – running a hotel where Jewish immigrants stayed; 00:03:00
  3. The paternal side of his family coming from near Grodno; the good conditions for white immigrants in South Africa; 00:06:00
  4. His concerns, as a teenager, about the political situation in South Africa; forming his own Marxist-Leninist views at university and from being influenced by observing the discrimination against the black section of the community; 00:06:50
  5. His relations with the Communist Party; being invited to join the Party and declining; being warned by a Trotskyist friend; the left in South Africa; 00:08:50
  6. His involvement in the opposition movement; the story of his friend being sent to gaol; 00:10:12
  7. His academic career, studying in South Africa and then in Oxford; his academic interest in national socialism; 00:11:10
  8. His interest in Poland thanks to a film by Andrzej Wajda, the community of Polish Jews in Johannesburg; 00:12:47
  9. Discussions on the political situation in South Africa coordinated by Professor Jack Simons; the fall of democracy in Poland in 20th century inter-War period as a topic for a doctoral thesis; 00:14:25
  10. The evolution of his views during his stay in Poland – from his support of Władysław Gomułka to observing the lack of freedom; 00:16:30
  11. Support for the socialist opposition; 00:25:00
  12. Prof. Garlicki’s seminar – the participants, the discussions; 00:25:52
  13. His support for “Solidarity” and KOT, discussions amongst British experts on the possibility of and agreement between “Solidarity” and the authorities; 00:31:55
  14. The years 1967-1968 – the recent disappointment with progressive politics in South Africa, his final disappointment with the communist system, losing faith in the possibility of reforming a system from within, developing a sympathy towards the State of Israel; 00:34:14
  15. The significance of 1968 for the emergence of “Solidarity” – the beginning of the road to the “Round Table”; 00:37:20
  16. The rebirth of his sense of Jewish identity following the events of March’68; social divisions in South Africa; the sense of his Jewish identity while growing up in South Africa – growing up in a Jewish environment; 00:38:12
  17. The years 1967-1968, his conviction that there is a lack of coming to terms with antisemitism and chauvinism in post-War Polish society; 00:42:45
  18. His academic interests relating, initially, with Poland’s inter-War history and the Second World War – his numerous publications devoted to Polish history; his later work on Polish-Jewish relations; 00:45:00
  19. The importance of a series of conferences on Polish-Jewish relations which took place in the 1980’s in Colombia, Great Britain and Israel; organising a conference at Oxford in 1984; taking part in a conference of Polish academics and representatives of Polish migrants in Great Britain, the course of the discussions, the inspiration for Jan Błoński to write “”The poor Poles looking at the ghetto”; the trouble with obtaining visas for academics from Poland; 00:47:03
  20. The request from a representative of the Polish authorities to mediate contacts with “world Jewry”, and then the request to condemn Claude Lanzmann’s film “Shoah”; 00:55:05
  21. The development of discussions about Polish-Jewish relation after 1989; the reception of Gross’ book “Neighbours”; 00:59:18
  22. The motivations behind writing books on the history of Polish Jews – among them being the need for concise versions; 01:01:46
  23. Working with the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in role of chief historian of the Core Exhibition, his relationship with Andrzej Cudak – comparing the organisation of the POLIN Museum with Euro 2012, recognition of Dariusz Stola for creating a historical review board, meeting with Culture Minister Małgorzata Omilanowska, his conviction that the Core Exhibition will not prevent antisemitism; 01:05:45
  24. Plans to create an eighth gallery; seeking a compromise in creating the Core Exhibition; 01:10:50
  25. Working on the Core Exhibition as an important experience; the exhibition having a greater impact than the books which he has written; 01:12:23
  26. What he would change in the Exhibition – a greater emphasis on the beginnings of antisemitism in Poland, more about the involvement of Jews in the activities of various leftist organisations, other way of displaying integration in the 19th century, the need to update display technology; 01:13:07
  27. The risk of allowing major changes to the exhibition in the context of the current political situation, his satisfaction with the withdrawal of the amendment to Act relating to the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), possible issues with temporary exhibitions – attacks on the “Estranged” exhibition regarding the events of March’68; 01:15:45
  28. The lack of unambiguous answers to the difficult questions posed by museum exhibitions; difficult topics in Polish-Jewish relation and how to deal with them; 01:19:35
  29. The shaping of his sensitivity and views under the influence of his experiences while growing up in South Africa – his conviction that every country has a black chapter in its history; delivering lectures on the Holocaust in the context of racism in South Africa and the apartheid government; 01:23:35
  30. The necessity to remember the past in order to have a healthy political system, his assessment of the Warsaw Uprising; 01:25:40
  31. Giving up his initial scepticism regarding the creation of an exhibition for positive impressions; discussions within a diverse expert group working on the POLIN Museum’s Core Exhibition; 01:28:30
  32. The need to discuss all ambiguous topics, the idea of having a temporary exhibition on the participation of people with Jewish origins in the communist system; 01:29:35
  33. Divisions within Polish society – the lack of communication between these divides, his participation in discussions organised by the IPN on the diverse attitudes towards the Holocaust; 01:33:40
  34. His recollections about the thirtieth anniversary, organised by the IPN, of the events of March’68; his identifying with one speaker giving a “Jewish point of view”; 01:35:55
  35. Contemporary Polish politics- the politics of fear, attempts at controlling universities; 01:38:05
  36. The necessity for discussions on what we, the intellectual elite, have done badly, such that populism now rules in government; 01:39:30
  37. The need for concise history books about World War II; 01:44:25
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