- Bohater, spisek, śmierć: Wykłady żydowskie (Hero, Conspiracy, Death: The Jewish Lectures)
Maria Janion belongs to the top rank of Polish humanities scholars of our age. Her legendary work habits, independence of spirit, and contribution to the renewal of Polish culture studies earned her a special status among the public. Her former and present-day students—university professors, undergraduates, doctoral students, literary critics, and fiction writers—acknowledge her as their mentor.
She was born in 1926 in Monki, a small town in Eastern Poland. During her studies at universities in Lodz and in Warsaw she started to specialize in Polish literature and the Romantic Age in European culture. In 1963 Janion was given full professorship, the youngest academic to receive that distinction in Poland at the time.
In her close to thirty books and more than a hundred articles, Janion has presented a model of Romantic culture, which lasted for two centuries in Poland, approaching it from the perspective of literature, history of ideas, and history of imagination. She introduced such concepts as transgression, phantasmatic critique, and queer into Polish humanities scholarship. She has dealt with the nation-related area, the heroic-martyrological model of Polish culture, uncovering the place for women and Jews within that model, and, most recently, the forgotten, repressed myth of pre-Christian Slavdom, which she described in her book Uncanny Slavdom. Her latest book is entitled Hero, Conspiracy, Death: The Jewish Lectures. Professor Janion is one of the few women in Poland who hold the highest academic titles and scholarly distinctions, [End Page 122] membership in scientific institutions such as the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) and the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences (PAU). She is the winner of numerous scholarly and literary awards, including Grand Prize of the Foundation for Polish Culture.
In 1957 Maria Czapska wrote in Kultura, the distinguished Polish émigré journal published in Paris, that the Holocaust of the Jews "in a Poland chosen by Hitler for the execution yard" led to the creation of a significant bond that has existed between Poland and the Jewish nation ever since. "It is not in our power," wrote Czapska, " to release ourselves from that bond." Maria Janion has cited these words on several occasions. She has juxtaposed them with the conviction of Adam Mickiewicz about the existence of a mystical union bonding the Poles and the Jews, about the destiny "closely uniting these two nationalities, ostensibly alien to each other," as the Romantic poet put it in his 1844 lectures given in Paris-the riddle of the presence of Jews in Polish history and Polish imagination, "Jewish themes" dormant somewhere at the margins of the national canon, and finally—the heavy, bleak mourning for the Holocaust. All of these elements mark a new stage in Janion's work that began several years ago. Hero, Conspiracy, Death: The Jewish Lectures is devoted exclusively to Jews, the rediscovered mysterious heroes of Polish Romanticism and Polish Enlightenment. It is precisely in the texts and symbols considered canonic for Polish identity, in the writings of Staszic, Mickiewicz, and Krasiński, in the legends of national liberation and the heroic myth of dying for the country, that Janion deciphers and unearths records and traces of half-explored themes—Jewish or simply antisemitic, as in Krasiński's The Undivine Comedy. In doing so, she once again restores the meanings, following the question she formulated years ago, because the appreciation of the longue durée of the Romantic paradigm helps to reveal astonishing concealments, neglect, and completely novel interpretations. However, something else is going on here as well. The Holocaust as recorded in texts, testimonials, poetry, and prose explodes the heroic/Romantic Polish tradition, forcing it to awaken, to enter into dialogue.
Janion, usually short on moralizing, discloses that she now believes it to be her moral duty to restore to the Jews their place in history, to reconstruct the dream of freedom won during the Kościuszko-led insurrection, but also of the tormenting antisemitic delusions that have hung over Polish culture from at...