“There is always more to explore here”: A New International MA Program in Eastern European Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław – Taught in English

Anna Nienartowicz

Recently, members of the Taube Department of Jewish Studies at Wroclaw University’s student club, Shnirele Perele, organized the project “What’s New in Nidershlezye? The History of the Postwar Wrocław Jewish Magazine and Publishing House Nidershlezye [Lower Silesia],” with financial backing from the Wrocław Academic Center (a local government agency). The result was a public exhibit displayed outdoors in downtown Wrocław for three weeks. They also organized a workshop on using the press as a source for researching local, regional, and even world history, gave a lecture about postwar Jewish cultural life in Wrocław, and set up an art workshop for children. “The exhibit was received so enthusiastically,” said Anna Urbanowicz, a club leader, “we accomplished so much in seven months.” The team also created an index of the contents of the “Nidershlezye” magazine, using the new Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Wrocław.

Wrocław probably doesn’t come to mind right away when you think of Jewish heritage sites in Poland. This city, located in southwestern Poland, is often overlooked in favor of Warsaw or Krakow. “What’s New in Nidershlezye?” serves as a good reminder of the thriving Polish Jewish community that lived here after 1945. However, not only postwar Jewish history deserves a mention. Before World War II, Wrocław was the German city of Breslau. Like Berlin, it was one of the centers of the post-Haskalah intellectual movement Wissenschaft des Judentums. It was also in Wrocław that Abraham Geiger and Jonah Fränckel founded the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar, the home of Conservative Judaism and Leo Baeck’s alma mater. The University of Wrocław itself has a long Jewish intellectual tradition. Several Nobel Prize laureates of Jewish origin, including physicist Max Born, did research there. Olga Tokarczuk, a more recent Nobel laureate, is a friend of the Taube Department at the University of Wrocław and, as a resident of the Wrocław region, speaks proudly of it wherever she travels.

This fall, the Department is opening its doors to international students who don’t know Polish thanks to its International MA Program in Eastern European Jewish Studies, taught entirely in English. The Program’s three-semester curriculum is dedicated to the in-depth exploration of three main themes of East European Jewish life. First, Prof. Marcin Wodziński and Dr. Wojciech Tworek will coordinate the Hasidism track. Dr. Karolina Szymaniak and Prof. Joanna Degler (Lisek) are in charge of the second track that focuses on Yiddish culture and language. The third track, “Polin/Poland,” is directed by Dr. Kamil Kijek and will explore the nineteenth- and twentieth-century history of Polish Jews. Students of the MA Program will work closely with these distinguished faculty members as well as with a specially selected group of internationally renowned guest lecturers. Thanks to small groups, substantial scholarships, and the tight-knit community of scholars and students from diverse geographic backgrounds, the Program offers a premier learning experience not found anywhere else in the world.

What makes this department so unique? The Taube Department of Jewish Studies is like a home away from home – with considerate people always ready to share their knowledge, a wonderful atmosphere, and a beautiful building in the heart of the city.

When I ask faculty members about the source of their inspiration, everyone points to Professor Jerzy Woronczak (1923-2003). Thanks to his initiative, the Section for Jewish Culture and Language Studies was established at the Institute for Polish Philology at the University of Wrocław in 1994. In 2013, the Section was transformed into an independent Department of Jewish Studies. I enrolled in the new BA program during the second year of its existence. At that time, the department was still housed in the Polish Philology building. In 2018, the Department moved to its own facilities in a renovated historic building located in the heart of the city. From its windows one can enjoy a view of the Odra River, and its inside walls are decorated with paintings by Wrocław-Jerusalem based Lev Stern, the local artist Mira Żelechower-Aleksiun (the mother of the well-known historian Natalia Aleksiun), and artwork by students from the Academy of Fine Arts. Ironically, this building, now one of the thriving hubs of Jewish Studies in Poland and Europe, served as the regional headquarters of the Nazi army during World War II. Professor Eli Lederhendler, Hebrew University, conveyed his greetings last year on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Department of Jewish Studies. He expressed astonishment at how rapidly this department, under the leadership of Jerzy Woronczak and later Marcin Wodziński, has become one of the flourishing centers of Jewish Studies in Europe, “in a very short span of years, starting nearly from scratch”. Taube Philanthropies recently named Marcin Wodzinski recipient of its Irena Sandler Memorial Award for his leadership in elevating the Department to one of the most respected academic programs in all of Central Europe. I remember the festive event of the opening of the new Department headquarters in 2018: everyone – from the head of the department to the undergraduate students – was made to feel equally welcome at the celebration. Marian Turski, a Holocaust survivor and journalist who spoke at the celebration, praised the absence of “barriers or divisions between community members, professors, researchers, and students who are just starting their academic careers”.

Students agree that faculty members are always ready to help, both in educational matters, such as finding a suitable summer school or language course, and in quite prosaic matters like finding housing. “I feel very supported. I know that I can ask about anything, and I will always get an honest answer,” says Anna Urbanowicz, a first-year MA student. “Studying here taught me that asking questions is not something to be ashamed of.” An alumnus, Philip Schwartz, mentioned that he not only received support in writing his master’s thesis, but the staff also tried to help him find opportunities to apply his new skills in practical contexts. He continued, “Professor Joanna Degler (Lisek) recommended me as a Yiddish teacher; thanks to Dr. Karolina Szymaniak, this will be my third consecutive year teaching at the Warsaw Summer Yiddish Seminar, and Dr. Kamil Kijek recommended me as a research assistant.” Furthermore, he adds, “Thanks to Dr. Wojciech Tworek, I became interested in an entirely new field, the study of Hasidism. Later, he also invited me to present at a conference with leading scholars in that field.” Philip also mentioned that thanks to individual Hebrew lessons with Leszek Kwiatkowski, a translator of Israeli literature into Polish, he significantly improved his proficiency in the language. Focusing on language skills is something that Reyze Turner, who came here from the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study in the Polish MA program, sees as a striking difference from U.S. Jewish Studies programs. “At the Taube Department, there’s an emphasis on multilingualism as a fundamental skill necessary for Jewish Studies research. Students in the Polish MA program are expected to master the basics of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino, even if only one of these languages is relevant to their research.” She also points out that the Department, being part of the Faculty of Philology, places a special focus on studying texts — “whether through close reading, curation, translation, language teaching, or annotation. In my experience, in the U.S. (and to some extent in Israel), these activities are often considered of lower rank or even a waste of time compared to pure research.” Having acquired the necessary language and cultural skills, along with the ability for in-depth textual analysis, another alumna of the Department, Agata Ganczarska, wrote her master’s thesis on the Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld. Agata’s thesis was published in book form by the Borderland Foundation as Der higer – Tutejszy (Der higer - Local) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death.

The department’s friendly and wide-ranging connections, both local and international, have also inspired gifts and bequests that enrich the department’s impressive library collection. Much of it was a gift from Holocaust survivor Alex Lauterbach. Another major donation has just arrived from Israeli historian Professor Moshe Rosman. The private collection of University College London Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert, bequeathed to the department after her passing, has its own dedicated reading room. “In recent years, an increasing number of people have contacted us, expressing a desire to enrich our collection,” says librarian Monika Jaremków. Some of the most valuable items in the library collection are the Yiddish books. Also, archival collections, such as documents from local branches of the Provincial Jewish Committee [WKŻ] and The Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland [TSKŻ], hold great value for research on the postwar Jewish community in Lower Silesia. Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert’s collection is invaluable as a comprehensive body of scholarly literature assembled by an outstanding scholar. It also holds sentimental value because she was a beloved mentor to one of our faculty and a close scholarly colleague of another. The reading room has become a venue for book launches, Jewish Book Club meetings in collaboration with the Żydoteka Foundation, group study of religious texts in Hebrew and Aramaic led by Dr. Wojciech Tworek, and other events.

Applications for the MA program are now open. Contact the program administration for more details at: [email protected]

If you want to learn more about the three academic tracks, visit the program website or listen to lectures delivered by the faculty coordinators: Yiddish Culture (Karolina Szymaniak) and Social History and Jewish-Christian Relations in the XX Century (Kamil Kijek).

Follow us on social media: Facebook [ENG], Facebook [PL], Instagram [ENG], Instagram [PL] or YouTube.

Definitely check out our podcast Żydzi i inni Polacy [Jews and Other Poles] for information about our projects on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. All the episodes to date are in Polish, but a series of English episodes will be released this spring.

Nienartowicz, Anna. ““There is always more to explore here”: A New International MA Program in Eastern European Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław – Taught in English.” In geveb, March 2024:ław.
Nienartowicz, Anna. ““There is always more to explore here”: A New International MA Program in Eastern European Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław – Taught in English.” In geveb (March 2024): Accessed May 20, 2024.


Anna Nienartowicz

Anna Nienartowicz is a Ph.D. candidate at the Taube Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wroclaw (Poland).