Professor Rejects $19K Award from Polish Institute

Professor Eliyana Adler (Photo by Michael T. Davis)

To professors, grants and awards are the currency upon which they do their most important work. So, in that light, a $19,000 award can make or break a crucial career project.

Eliyana Adler, an associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Penn State University, understands the dynamic very well.

Yet she’s turning down the award anyway.

Early in November, Adler wrote a letter to the Polish government-affiliated Pilecki Institute rejecting the offer. The Jewish professor, who studies the “modern Jewish experience in Eastern Europe,” according to Penn State’s website, said it was a matter of principle.

“The Pilecki Institute, while very generous in supporting some historical scholarship on the Second World War, has also been involved in suppressing the work of historians who strive to show the complex and indeed tragic aspects of Poland’s wartime past,” Adler wrote.

A 2019 Polish law prevents the country’s citizens from holding the government responsible for aiding in Nazi atrocities. In February, a Polish court ruled that two historians had to apologize for discovering that a Polish mayor had helped the Nazis carry out a pogrom. By August, though, that ruling had been overturned on appeal.

Adler, nonetheless, sees a trend and doesn’t want to aid in the whitewashing of history. If she accepted the award, she would not have just been able to take the money for her research.

She would have been required to become a representative of the Pilecki Institute and, in effect, the Polish government. According to the professor, her duties would have included giving talks on behalf of the institute and sitting for a video interview with its website.

Adler explained that the Pilecki Institute takes the same approach as the Polish government to the World War II era. It tries to focus on Polish people who helped Jews — and to obscure those who didn’t.

With her “very Jewish face and name,” as she described them, Adler would have aided in this effort.

“For an institution that people have questions about, who better than me to put on their website?” Adler said.

The Penn State professor, who also teaches at Gratz College in Philadelphia, did say that she appreciates the institute’s focus on non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust.

“I would never want to diminish those non-Jews,” Adler said. “But when that becomes the only story that’s presented, it’s a manipulation of history.”

In response to Adler’s letter, the director of the Pilecki Institute, Wojciech Kozłowski, wrote a letter challenging her claims.

Its tone was diplomatic and much of its content was complimentary toward Adler. But Kozłowski still expressed a desire for the professor to air her grievances through dialogue with the institution, not through rejecting it.

“I agree that ‘recognizing and researching this entangled past is part of moving forward,’” Kozłowski wrote, referring to Adler’s original letter. “This cannot be done, however, in the absence of a culture of open dialogue.”

Adler didn’t respond to Kozłowski’s letter.

“I don’t want to get into a this-detail or that-detail war with anybody else,” she said. “I just want to take a stand on behalf of history.”

The Pilecki Institute wanted to award Adler the $19,000 because of her last book: “Survival on the Margins: Polish Jewish Refugees in the Wartime Soviet Union.” But the professor would have used the money to research her next project: an exploration of memorial books that show life in Polish towns before and then during the Holocaust.

Such books are filled with photographs, essays, maps, drawings and documents to bring those old towns back to life for historical memory. They are often the products of Jews around the world pooling their resources to build albums of life in Jewish towns.

Adler wants to learn about the history and ubiquity of these albums — and to perhaps write her own book.

“It’s kind of a grassroots response to the Holocaust, to loss, to homesickness, to longing,” she said of the albums. “I find it very beautiful.”

Due to their photo album style, the books are not taken seriously by the academic world, according to Adler. But she views them as important artifacts.

“They’ve been derided for being amateur-ish,” Adler said. “I want to give it some serious attention.”

To do so, though, she will need money. But Adler, like most professors, is used to that process. She is always applying for grants and awards.

Now, after rejecting a big one on principle, she just has to apply for some more. And she’s already gotten started.

“I’m confident that sooner or later I’ll be able to get my research done,” Adler said.

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