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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Teaching from experience: Polonsky’s studies reflect his upbringing in South Africa

Published: December 2, 2011
Section: Features

Professor Antony Polonsky does not just lecture from a book. Rather, he draws on his travels and the people he has met to create a unique learning environment.

Polonsky teaches three specific areas of study at Brandeis: the Holocaust, the history of Jews in Eastern Europe and the history of secular Jews. On their own, these courses appear to reflect Brandeis’ Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department.

These courses, however, gain a new meaning as students learn how Polonsky’s areas of study reflect the path he took over the course of his life, starting with his commitment to social change as a young college student in South Africa.

Comparing his childhood upbringing to the movie “The Help,” Polonsky described how he had been brought up by African servants who were without any political or social rights. Since his father was ill for most of Polonksy’s upbringing, the servants became similar to substitute parents for Polonsky. It was one of the male servants who had taught Polonsky how to tie a tie and how to dance.

“His wife and family were living hundreds of thousands of miles away,” Polonksy said. “He used to visit them once a year, but he used to show me a picture of his two daughters who are named after my mother and my mother’s sister. Well, you feel badly when you think about this.”

Thus, while Polonsky’s childhood upbringing in South Africa was quite comfortable, he was vehemently opposed to the country’s system of apartheid. He quickly began doing his part to alleviate the situation.

In one incident, he and his friends began a non-violent protest against his university’s policy of social segregation through enacting a non-segregated tennis tournament. They had everybody gather together on a Saturday morning to participate in the tournament. At around 12 o’clock, however, somebody reported that a group of students were occupying the tennis courts and the group was told to leave. Polonsky’s large house included its own tennis court, so Polonsky simply brought the group back home to continue the match. At the age of 18, Polonsky was thus already exhibiting a commitment to non-violent social justice, which is valued at Brandeis.

“[My parents] were very comfortable and part of the liberal Jewish middle class—very much opposed to apartheid and believed that they were doing what they could to alleviate the difficult situation of Africans in South Africa … but to us, at least when I became politically aware, this seemed merely a form of paternalism,” Polonsky said.

Polonksy therefore became involved in his university’s leftist opposition. Fortunately, he had already left for England in the late 1960s on a Rhodes scholarship when a member of his group was arrested. The young man gave the names of most of the people associated with that group under pressure from the police. While several of his associates had subsequently received prison sentences back in South Africa, Polonsky was earning his second undergraduate degree at Oxford University.

Nevertheless, Polonsky’s upbringing in South Africa still had a hold on him and he became interested in studying the history of fascist Germany since, in his opinion, he had come from a fascist country. This interest eventually brought him to Poland, where he became involved in the opposition to communism.

Polonsky’s interest in Polish-Jewish history was largely influenced by the defeat of the first solidarity of Poland in 1981. Many of Polonksy’s colleagues felt one of the reasons why the solidarity had failed was because they hadn’t made an adequate reckoning with the anti-Semitic and chauvinist past of Poland.

“I knew the Jewish languages and had a religious education in South Africa, so when people said we should be looking at these Jewish issues and [asked if I had] contacts in the Jewish world, I did.”

This marked the beginning of serious research on the history of Jews in Poland. Polonsky became the chief editor of “Polin,” a journal focused on studies in Polish Jewry. Its 24th volume will be launched in London’s Polish Embassy this December.

Throughout the course of his research, Polonsky has received a number of awards and honors, including the Knight’s Cross and Officer’s Cross from Poland, the Officer’s Cross from Lithuania and an honorary doctorate from the University of Warsaw. Each award honors Polonsky’s contribution to Polish-Jewish and Lithuanian-Jewish studies. He is also to receive the Kulczycki Prize for the best work in any area of Polish studies.

Although Polonsky’s awards are numerous, he is certainly not one to brag about his accomplishments. When asked how many languages he speaks, he had off-handedly replied “Oh, eight or nine,” as if the ability to speak so many languages is nothing praiseworthy. Nevertheless, Polonsky is still particularly proud of his honorary doctorate from the University of Warsaw and the Kulczycki Prize since both awards are not Jewish decorations. Rather, they are decorations from the Polish academia, thus symbolizing Poland’s understanding that the Jews are part of Polish history.

“These last two are important to me because they are … recognition by the Poles that what I’m doing is important to them, and that is important to me,” Polonsky said.

Before arriving at Brandeis University, Polonsky taught at the London School of Economics. While there, he inquired if he could introduce a course on the Holocaust. The university’s committee turned his idea down, explaining that it was a Jewish agenda. Thus, it was a feeling of liberation for Polonksy to be able to come to Brandeis and actually teach Holocaust studies.

Polonsky is now on the retirement track at Brandeis, meaning that he only teaches one semester per year. His time at Brandeis, however, has continuously impacted Polonsky’s research.

“I’ve had very good students in all of my courses and everything I’ve written since I’ve been here has benefited from the interaction with students,” Polonsky said.

It is often difficult to imagine a Brandeis professor’s life outside of the Brandeis setting. As Polonsky’s story illustrates, however, our entire learning environment is made up of the incidents which brought each professor here. When students take a course with Polonsky, they are participating in a unique experience which takes root in a childhood upbringing in South Africa.