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20th anniversary of the death of Professor Chone Shmeruk

July 8, 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Professor Chone Szmeruk – a historian of great merit for Jewish studies in Poland. His activity in the last quarter of the twentieth century revived the research on the history of Polish Jews.

Chone Shmeruk (Szmeruk), son of Awigor and Estera, was born in Warsaw on January 5, 1921. As a child, he lived at 22 Franciszkańska Street. He went to Cheder metukan, graduated from Magnus Kryński Gymnasium at 5 Miodowa Street. In 1938, he began his studies in literature and history at the University of Warsaw.

In September 1939, Shmeruk left Warsaw. He found himself in areas occupied by the Soviet Union. He stayed in Rivne and Kovel, where he worked as a teacher. He remained in the USSR until 1946. 

After returning to Warsaw, it became clear that none of his family survived the war. Parents and sister shared the fate of most of Warsaw Jews. In 1942, they were murdered by the Germans in the death camp of Treblinka II during the ‘Great Action’ of liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Shmeruk decided to leave Poland. After two years spent in the displacement camp in Germany, he reached Israel in 1949. He served in the army, and then concentrated on studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied at the Yiddish Department and at the Jewish History Department. In 1957, he received master’s degree, and in 1961 the PhD. Afterwards, he taught at the Hebrew University and at the most prestigious universities in the world.


Professor Chone Shmeruk, photo Family archives / POLIN Museum   

Chone Shmeruk, a historian and literary scholar, was undoubtedly one of the most prominent researchers of the history of Yiddish literature. He analysed literary texts in their historical contexts, the influence of Hebrew and other languages spoken in the countries inhabited by the Jews. He dealt not only with literary works created in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but also with the oldest Yiddish texts. Although Yiddish language and culture was central to his research, Professor Shmeruk maintained that this was only a part of the Jewish culture.

“If by Jewish culture you only mean Yiddish and what was created in Yiddish, then I reject it. There is no Rambam in Yiddish, and it would be ridiculous to dismiss Rambam in the name of Yiddish. We have one culture, but it cannot be limited to one language.”

In the years 1970-1982, Professor Shmeruk was the head of the Yiddish Department at the Hebrew University. He was the founder of, among others, the Centre for Research and Documentation of East European Jewry (1956) and the Centre for Research on the History and Culture of Polish Jewry (1982). He initiated the publication of Yiddish literature series, the creation of the Jewish press catalogue, and the bibliography of old Yiddish prints. For his scientific work, he received the Icyk Manger Award (1983) and the Israel Prize (1996). He was also a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Since the mid-1980s, he visited Poland a number of times. He established cooperation with local researchers, became actively involved in the creation of the Interdisciplinary Department of Jewish History and Culture in Poland at the Jagiellonian University (1986). He also lectured at the University of Warsaw and the University of Lodz. It is precisely to the activity of Professor Shmeruk during this period that we owe the revival of research on the history of Polish Jews.

At the beginning of 1990s, he permanently settled in Poland. He died on July 8, 1997, and was buried at the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa Street in Warsaw.

Aleksandra Król