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  • Ezra Mendelsohn26 October 1940 – 13 May 2015
  • Antony Polonsky (bio)

zra Mendelsohn, who, sadly, died of cancer in May 2015, was one of the pioneers of the rediscovery of the Polish Jewish past. For many years he was a professor at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and after his retirement became Rachel and Michael Edelman Professor Emeritus of European Jewry and Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University. He completed his doctorate at Columbia University in 1966 and subsequently moved to Israel where he spent his entire academic career. A highly creative thinker, he wrote widely on many topics, including the Jewish labour movement, the history of Jews in eastern Europe, modern Jewish politics, and modern Jewish art and music. At the time of his death, he was working on a volume of articles dealing with universalism among Jews. He also served as co-editor for many years of Studies in Contemporary Jewry and more recently as an editor of Zion. He was also an editor of the monograph series of the Center for Research on the History and Culture of Polish Jews.

His books included Class Struggle in the Pale (1970), a pioneering study of the Jewish labour movement; Zionism in Poland: The Formative Years 1915–26 (1981), which is still the standard work on the topic and awaits a sequel dealing with the period from 1927 to 1938; and Jews of East Central Europe between the World Wars (1983), a remarkable work of synthesis which has also been translated into Polish. Also worthy of note are his brilliant synthesis On Modern Jewish Politics (1993) and his remarkable account of one of the first Polish Jewish artists, Painting a People: Maurycy Gottlieb and Jewish Art (2002). His interest in Jewish art derived partly from his family background which included a number of artists and scholars, including the painter Raphael Soyer. As he wrote in the preface to Painting a People, 'three of my uncles, the Soyer brothers, were artists in New York, and while I admit that I took little interest in their work when I was a child, I see now that they had a profound influence upon me. I was extremely fortunate to grow up in a family that honoured learning and was imbued with Jewish idealism.'

His work received considerable recognition. In 2003 Painting a People was awarded the Orbis Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies for the best book in Polish studies that year. In 2005 he was granted a Lifetime Achievement Award in Jewish Scholarship by the National Foundation [End Page 473] for Jewish Culture, and in 2008 he received the Bialik Prize of the Shazar Centre in Jerusalem also for Painting a People.

Mendelsohn was an active participant in the series of academic conferences which took place in the 1980s and which led to the revival of Polish Jewish studies. One of the highpoints of the Oxford conference in September 1984 was his lecture 'Interwar Poland: Good for the Jews or Bad for the Jews?' Brilliantly delivered, it sparked off an extensive and heated debate and was subsequently published in The Jews in Poland (edited by Chimen Abramsky, Maciej Jachimczyk, and Antony Polonsky, 1986) and frequently repeated. Ezra was a member of the editorial board of Polin and contributed an important article to volume 8 on the historiography of Jews in interwar Poland.

To our regret, he was unable to attend the International Conference held in Warsaw at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. One of the sad obligations of the organizers was to mark his death on the second day of the conference. We will long remember his scholarship and striking personality. He was deeply dedicated to a socialist and humanist understanding of Zionism and at the 2012 conference at YIVO on 'Jews and the Left' made a moving plea for an Israel organized on these principles. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife and family. [End Page 474]

Antony Polonsky

Antony Polonsky is emeritus professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University and chief historian of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews...


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