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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Poland -- Jan Jagielski Wins Award

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Jan Jagielski in Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, 1993. Photo (c) Sam Gruber

I'm delighted to learn that my old friend, Jan Jagielski, has been awarded the second annual Irena Sendler Memorial Award by the Taube Foundation. The award, named in honor of a Righteous Gentile who saves Jewish children in Warsaw during the Holocaust, honors rescuers of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

Janek, whom I met back in 1981, when I was the UPI chief correspondent in Warsaw and we were both part of the semi-clandestine "Flying Jewish University" study and culture group there, is chief archivist at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and -- as the Taube Foundation put it "a role model for all those who work to salvage and redeem the glory of Poland's Jewish legacy."

Born in 1937, he is a chemical engineer by training. He undertook his personal mission to document synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in, if I recall correctly, the 1960s. It was a way to -- as he and others put it -- literally fill in the blank spaces left by communist policy and regain part of Polish history and identity that had been destroyed by the Nazis and deliberately suppressed by the communist regime.

Back in 1990, when I first started documenting Jewish sites for the first edition of Jewish Heritage Travel, I vividly recall visiting him in his cramped apartment, in a prefab building on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was stuffed, crammed, filled to overflowing, with boxes of photographs, maps and files that he had compiled.

Over the years, Jan often worked with Lena Bergman, who is now the director of the Jewish Historical Institute. He and Lena wrote a catalogue book on synagogues in Poland that came out in the mid-1990s. They also were instrumental in compiling the first comprehensive inventory of Jewish cemeteries in Poland, a project of the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund on behalf of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. Sam Gruber, who coordinated this project, wrote recently about Jan on his blog.

Jan, who also produced various detailed Jewish guidebooks to Warsaw, as well as other publications, has be recognized with a number of awards in recent years.

Mazel Tov, Janek!

Here's the Taube Foundation press release:

ARCHIVIST JAN JAGIELSKI RECEIVES SECOND ANNUAL IRENA SENDLER MEMORIAL AWARD

Award Commemorates “Righteous Gentile” Sendler and Honors Rescuers of Jewish Heritage in Poland

SAN FRANCISCO – Jan Jagielski, a Polish archivist, who has spent his professional career working to document and preserve Jewish monuments in Poland, although he himself is not Jewish, has been named the 2009 recipient of the Irena Sendler Memorial Award by the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture in San Francisco. The award is granted to a non-Jewish Pole who has worked to preserve Jewish heritage in Poland, in memory of the late Irena Sendler, a “Righteous Gentile” who courageously saved over 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. The award was announced on the first anniversary of Sendler’s passing and will be presented at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow on July 1, 2009.

Jagielski, chief archivist at the newly renamed Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, was the first to initiate in the pre-1989 Communist era a project to document and ultimately preserve what remained of Jewish monuments in Poland. A non-Jewish Pole by origin, a chemical engineer by profession, his only motivation was his pain at seeing a part of his country's heritage go to ruin and oblivion. Acting alone and only in his personal capacity at first, he photographed neglected cemeteries and ruined synagogues and started to collect documentation on their former appearance and importance.

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Jagielski has co-produced, with the City of Warsaw, excellent guidebooks to Warsaw's prewar Jewish history. Today, he leads a new major conservation program at Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute. Jan Jagielski remains one of Poland's top authorities on Jewish monuments and is a role model for all those who work to salvage and redeem the glory of Poland's Jewish legacy.

“The symbiotic relationship between Jewish culture and Polish culture cannot be overstated,” said Tad Taube, Honorary Consul for the Republic of Poland and chairman of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. “Jan Jagielski understands the importance of preserving Jewish history in Poland against the backdrop of today’s vibrant Jewish renaissance."

The Jewish community in Poland has come back to life in the 20 years since the fall of Communism in 1989, with synagogues and community centers being built all across the country and many Poles connecting with Jewish roots they did not know they possessed. Jewish culture is embraced by Jews and non-Jews alike; this is evidenced in the great popularity of the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow, celebrated in large part by non-Jews.

This award was founded last year to commemorate Irena Sendler, who passed on May 12, 2008 in Warsaw at the age of 98. Sendler, who saved twice as many Jews as Oskar Schindler during World War II, refused to give up the identities of the children she had rescued, even when captured and tortured by the Nazis. Sendler’s heroic actions went largely unnoticed until ten years ago when several Kansas school girls wrote a play about her. In 2007 she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

“Irena was a true hero to the Jewish community of Poland, and we believe that honoring her legacy with this award is very meaningful,” said Taube. “We hope that honoring people like Jan Jagielski who continue to work diligently for the preservation of Jewish history and culture in Poland is a fitting tribute.”

Nominations for the award were reviewed by a panel made up of foundation staff and grantees involved with the Polish Jewish community.

For more information, email: info@taubephilanthropies.org.

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