In his three-volume history, Antony Polonsky provides a comprehensive survey—socio-political, economic, and religious—of the Jewish communities of eastern Europe from 1350 to the present. Until the Second World War, this was the heartland of the Jewish world: nearly three and a half million Jews lived in Poland alone, while nearly three million more lived in the Soviet Union. Although the majority of the Jews of Europe and the United States, and many of the Jews of Israel, originate from these lands, their history there is not well known. Rather, it is the subject of mythologizing and stereotypes that fail both to bring out the specific features of the Jewish civilization which emerged there and to illustrate what was lost. Jewish life, though often poor materially, was marked by a high degree of spiritual and ideological intensity and creativity. Antony Polonsky recreates this lost world—brutally cut down by the Holocaust and less brutally but still seriously damaged by the Soviet attempt to destroy Jewish culture. Wherever possible, the unfolding of history is illustrated by contemporary Jewish writings to show how Jews felt and reacted to the complex and difficult situations in which they found themselves. This second volume covers the period from 1881 to 1914. It considers the deterioration of the position of the Jews during that period and the new political and cultural movements that developed as a consequence: Zionism, socialism, autonomism, the emergence of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Jewish urbanization, and the rise of popular Jewish culture. Galicia, Prussian Poland, the Kingdom of Poland, and the Tsarist Empire are all treated individually, as are the main towns of these areas. Volume 1 covers the period 1350–1881; Volume 3 covers 1914–2008.
'A truly landmark study of east European Jewish history for the mid-fourteenth century to the outbreak of World War I. This work is an invaluable synthetic exposition of Jewish civilization in Poland and Russia that pays close attention to the larger historical context in which Jewish history unfolded in these areas. While exhaustive in presenting historical detail and utilizing available sources and data of all types, Polonsky is also masterful in conveying the texture of Jewish life in different regions during each period. His study weaves together numerous aspects of that life—among others, the relationship of Jewish communities to the states in the region and their governance mechanisms; Jewish religious and political movements; the evolving role of the synagogue in communities; the wide variety of Jewish organizations over time and space; cultural changes, including the development of the mass press, modern literature, and theatre; the experiences of Jewish women; and descriptions of the towns and cities in which Jewish history played out. The contribution of Polonsky's study, however, is not only an impressive synthesis of a vast topic and vast amount of information. In integrating all of this material, the author also deftly crafts his own interpretations of trends in the area and the timing of shifts in them. His marshalling of evidence and his own insights add up to a compelling set of arguments about the course of Jewish history. Polonsky addresses Jewish, Polish, and Russian historical developments all with great nuance, and that depth of understanding allows him to present the complexities of these intertwined histories with a subtlety rarely achieved in projects of such ambitious temporal and spatial scope. This study will become a “go to” reference for scholars of east European Jewish history for a long time to come.'
From the citation for the 2011 Kulczycki Book Prize for Polish Studies, awarded to Volumes I and II
'This second volume of Polonsky's well-reseached, eloquently written
study provides a finely distinct portrait of Jewish life in eastern Europe in
the years leading up to the Great War . . . Highly recommended.'
- R. K. Byczkiewicz, Choice
'Succeeds admirably. Simply put, these volumes are required reading for
anyone with a serious interest in East European history or for anyone looking
for a scholarly assessment of a particular feature of Polish or Russian Jewish
history. Handsomely produced, with extensive maps and tables, and a glossary .
. . will remain a standard work in the field for some time . . . a body of work
that, in summarizing the current state of our knowledge, effectively sets the
agenda for future scholars. Polonsky is perhaps the scholar most responsible
for the growth of Polish Jewish studies in the late twentieth century . . Very few historians could write a series of
volumes like this . . . [he] has armed scholars with a formidable tool that will
help them dispel stereotypes . . . Just as these volumes are destined to become
the starting point for the work of many students, they will be the touchstone
for scholars working in the field at all levels.'
- Sean Martin, European History Quarterly
'Combines a masterful grasp of Jewish history with that of eastern
Europe. While underlining the unique features and achievements of the Jewish
communal experience he authoritatively integrates them into the history of the
countries in which Jews lived . . . Incorporating current, ground-breaking
scholarship from North America, Israel, and Europe these beautifully narrated
volumes should not only be seen as a staple of university courses, but also as
a must-read for anyone attempting to understand any aspect of modern Jewish
history and religious tradition, wherever it may be playing out . . . With this
extremely important book, Antony Polonsky not only writes history but,
following the example of his illustrious predecessors, makes it.'
- Katarzyna Person, European Judaism
first two volumes of Antony Polonsky's magisterial The Jews in Poland and
Russia trilogy provide a much-needed addition to the landscape of Jewish
historical studies . . . [a] significant achievement in presenting the most
modern findings in a clear, readable, comprehensive survey . . . his narrative
is grand and his analysis tight . . . an excellent synthesis of this
community's history, incorporating much of the groundbreaking scholarship of
the last few decades. Repeatedly, the volumes remind us of the many lost opportunities
for real reform in the region. They help correct the nostalgic and romanticized
portraits of what is sometimes considered a lost civilization, while
simultaneously demonstrating the vibrancy and diversity of Jewish life in the
region . . . essential reading for those seeking a thorough and balanced
understanding of Jewish life in pre-twentieth century Eastern Europe.'
- Jeffrey Veidlinger, H-Judaic
several decades now, Antony Polonsky has been at the forefront of Polish–Jewish
studies . . . It is thus fitting that Polosnky, who has nurtured young
scholars, especially in Poland itself and North America, should bring together
old and new work in this remarkable multi-volume synthesis of Jewish history
and culture . . . These volumes will provide the first port of call for any
student of east European Jewry.'
- Tony Kushner, Jewish Chronicle
can only commend Antony Polonsky for his massive effort to explain seven
centuries of Jewish history in a mere 2,000 pages . . . Polonsky's strength
lies in his ability to illuminate intellectual and cultural developments . . .
Because of the excellent bibliographies, extensive annotation, and wonderful
maps included in each volume, any reader wishing to read in greater detail
about Polish and Russian Jewry will have plenty of resources to enable the
- Alexandra S. Korros, Jewish Quarterly
excellent synthesis of recent research on east European Jewish culture and
history. As such it fills a definite need for an accessible introduction to the
current scholarship and thinking about the Jews of Poland and Russia . . .
should be on the reading list of anyone interested in the history and folk
cultures of eastern Europe, whether they work specifically with Jewish history
and folk culture, or with other regional cultures.'
- David Elton Gay, Journal of Folklore Research
'Any reader who invests the time and money to read the book . . . will
find it very rewarding—and not just because of the wealth of information it
contains. What Polonsky's book brings home, in a way that a narrower study
could not, is the sheer complexity and vitality of Jewish life in that time and
place . . . this broader picture is needed to make sense of the social changes
that were accelerating by the late nineteenth century—above all, in the
situation of women, the subject of one of Polonsky's best chapters . . .
Polonsky's panoramic book, which packs so much vivid detail and statistical
information into its 500 pages, helps to show just how rich, and how difficult,
that life really was.'
- Adam Kirsch, The New Republic and Tablet Magazine
magisterial The Jews in Poland and Russia is one of those rare works
that can hope to bridge the gap between specialist and “intelligent general
reader”, providing a strong narrative and appealing prose for the latter as
well as an up-to-date distilled knowledge of both primary and secondary sources
for the former. No one interested in Jewish, Polish, or Russian history can
afford to be without these volumes . . . will long remain the standard work on
this crucial Jewish community . . . While a survey of this sort requires a
goodly bit of politics . . . Polonsky has gone out of his way to include
culture, religious life, gender, Jewish mass culture, and social history . . .
The books' structure is entirely appropriate for its primary purpose: to
provide a basic overview of this Jewish community's history . . . strikingly
high level of scholarship . . . [The publisher] is particularly to be commended
on its allowing Polonsky to cite at length from the Jewish literary sources he
is considering and not begrudging space for a dozen pages of useful statistics
(not a small thing in a publishing world where bibliographies are often
considered superfluous!) . . . This history, written by a major scholar of both
Polish and Jewish history and a person profoundly attached to both communities,
is exemplary in its efforts to integrate Jews into Polish history, neither
white-washing sources of friction nor painting an overly rosy picture. The most
important thing one can say about Antony Polonsky's The Jews in Poland and
Russia is: get it and read it!'
- Theodore R. Weeks, The Polish Review
superb and very up-to-date book is very well written, carefully documented,
balanced, and will be a standard reference in the field. It has a glossary and
a wide-ranging bibliography, very useful maps, and statistical tables, all of
which make it a good starting point for any reading on east European
- Shaul Stampfer, Religious Studies Review
and formidable . . . Polonsky, as much as anyone else, has created the field of
modern Jewish history as a subject to be considered and understood rather than
simply a tragic past to be mourned. He is too good a historian to confuse the
history of Jewish life with the German policies that brought Jewish death . . .
The barely visible commitment in these three wonderful volumes is to rescue a
world from polemic, for the sake of history.'
- Timothy Snyder, Wall Street Journal
‘The first serious,
and most successful, effort thus far to summarize the history of the Jews of
“Eastern Europe” . . . the first book to synthesize the vast research that has
emerged since the seventies . . . comprehensive and multidisciplinary . . .
there is no book today that can compare to its scope and to the vast and new
materials that he brings forth and analyzes with a broad imagination, an
intensive approach, and a moderate style.’
- Moshe Rosman, Zion
Each of the three volumes of this magisterial work provides a comprehensive picture of the realities of Jewish life in the Polish lands in the period it covers, while also considering the contemporary political, economic, and social context.
Volume I: 1350 to 1881 provides a wide-ranging overview down to the mid-eighteenth century, including social, economic, and religious history. The period from 1764 to 1881 is covered in more detail, with attention focused on developments in each country in turn, especially with regard to the politics of emancipation, acculturation, assimilation, and forced integration.
Volume II: 1881 to 1914 explores the factors that had a negative impact on Jewish life as well as the political and cultural movements that developed in consequence: Zionism, socialism, autonomism, the emergence of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Jewish urbanization, and the rise of popular Jewish culture. Galicia, Prussian Poland, the Kingdom of Poland, and the tsarist empire are all treated individually, as are the main cities.Volume III: 1914 to 2008 covers the interwar period, the Second World War, and the Holocaust, including Polish–Jewish relations and the Soviet record on the Holocaust. A survey of developments since 1945 concludes with an epilogue on the situation of the Jews since the collapse of communism.