(JHE) — With great sadness we mourn the death of the inimitable Jan Jagielski, a true pioneer in research on Jewish heritage in Poland, an inspiration and mentor to generations — and, perhaps above all, a consummate mensch. In failing health for some time, he died in Warsaw Wednesday (February 17) aged 83.
“Jan was everyone’s teacher and mentor in showing us the way to preserve Jewish cemeteries and memory,” Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich wrote on Facebook, in one of the many tributes that poured in on the announcement of his death. “We will miss him but we will carry on his work.”
Though not Jewish himself, Jan, who was born on October 13, 1937 and was a chemical engineer by training, devoted his life and career to documenting and researching Jewish heritage sites in Poland. He worked first as a volunteer carrying out an individual passion, and then, from 1991, at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, where for many years he was the head of the Heritage Documentation Department.
Under Communism, he traveled all over Poland seeking out Jewish cemeteries and synagogues and taking photographs and notes that eventually formed an extensive personal archive.
“Whenever I travelled through Poland, I took a small notebook, barely 60 pages long, in which I noted the route that I took, how to get there, asking local people about information, writing that down, taking photos and sticking them inside,” he told the artist and scholar Natalia Romik in an interview she carried out for her PhD dissertation.
In the late 1970s, Jan was one of the founders of the so-called “Jewish Flying University” — a semi-clandestine Jewish study group, and in 1981 he co-founded the Citizens’ Committee for the Care of Jewish Cemeteries and Monuments.
“The Committee conducted restoration works at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, organized readings and film screenings, conducted publishing activities, initiated the drawing up of a list of Jewish cemeteries in Poland, and gathered social activists from all over the country,” the Jewish cemetery researcher Krzysztof Bielawski recalled in an obituary.
Jan was a longtime friend and mentor to JHE director Ruth Ellen Gruber. They met back in 1981, when Ruth was the UPI correspondent based in Warsaw and also became involved with the Jewish Flying University. She recalls:
Back in 1990, when I first started documenting Jewish sites for the first edition of my book Jewish Heritage Travel, I vividly recall visiting him in his cramped apartment — I think it was 50 square meters, in a prefab building on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was stuffed, crammed, filled to overflowing, with boxes of photographs, index cards, maps, and files that he had compiled.
Over the years, Jan published many articles and books and was the recipient of many awards. He and Lena Bergman wrote a catalogue book on synagogues in Poland that came out in the mid-1990s. He and Lena also were instrumental in compiling the first comprehensive inventory of historic Jewish monuments 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.
In 2009 Jan was one of the first recipients of the Taube Foundation’s Irene Sendler Award, and some of his other honors included the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta; the Medal of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; the Jan Karski and Pola Nireńska Award; the Preserving Memory Award; the Silver Medal for Merit to Culture – Gloria Artis; and the POLIN Award.
Friends and colleagues took to the internet to mourn him and remember him after the announcement of his death.
“His knowledge, experience, kindness, and friendship was our priceless treasure,” the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland posted on FB. “Jan … was a guide to the Jewish world, and with his work and commitment he restored it to us and future generations.”
“He was a modest and kind man, always ready to share his knowledge,” Krzysztof Bielawski wrote.
He was the doyen and teacher of all those who have been researching the material heritage of Jews in Poland in recent decades. We will miss him very much.
May his soul be bound up in the bond of life! His memory already is truly a blessing!
In this video set in the Okopowa Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, a voiceover reads Jan’s words describing the beginning of his involvement of Jewish heritage research: