IAJGS: We are all from Chelm

The 38th annual meeting of the International Society of Jewish Genealogy Societies kicked off last night (Sunday) in Warsaw, Poland, with a moving session featuring greetings by dignitaries including the chief rabbi of Poland, the chairman of the POLIN Museum of Polish Jewish History (a Holocaust survivor), the director of JRI-Poland (which for 30 years has led the extensive indexing of Jewish vital records in the Polish lands) and the managing director of the Polish state archives. 

Conference scholar-in-residence Antony Polonsky presented his views on the importance of collaboration between professional historians, who study the great historical processes, and family history researchers, who document how individuals were affected by those processes. “All history is autobiography—we aim to learn about our place in the world. Professionals like myself have much to learn from dedicated amateur genealogists,” he declared.

The conference marks the first time the meeting has been held in Poland or any of the countries of Eastern Europe that was once the homeland of Ashkenazi Jewry, until that civilization was largely wiped outduring the Holocaust. A pre-conference panel discussion at the POLIN Museum explored the fraught relationship between non-Jewish Poles and local and international Jews, communities still struggling to make sense of the terrible events that took place here in the 1940s. It also comes in the wake of a  controversial new Polish law that makes illegal any assertion of Polish anti-semitism or complicity in Holocaust actions. The consensus of the panelists is that members of both groups need to make conscious efforts to break down stereotypes of the other, and to recognize the suffering that all Poles endured in World War II. 

The opening session concluded with a dramatic performance of a fanciful Yiddish tale about the Jewish town of Chelm presented by actor Witold Dabrowski from the Grodzka Gate Theater in Lublin, with accordion accompaniment in the klezmer musical style that originated here during the heyday of Jewish cultural achievement. Presented in Polish with English translation projected on a screen, the performance ended with the message: “Chelm is everywhere. We are all from Chelm.”

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