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Hero, Conspiracy, and Death: The Jewish Lectures

Translated by Alex Shannon


Maria Janion

With Hero, Conspiracy and Death: The Jewish Lectures, the author has written a book of sweeping significance for readers interested in Polish history, Jewish history, and the Holocaust in which she asks troubling questions: Can a Jew be both a Jew and a Pole? Are we right to talk of «worthy» and «unworthy» death in the Holocaust? What are the implications of Adam Mickiewicz’s philo-Semitism? In Zygmunt Krasiński’s anti-Semitism, do we see the «specter of elimination»? Are humanist and enlightenment values useful in analyzing the Holocaust, or did the experience of Nazi genocide render them obsolete? Tracing the history of anti-Jewish stereotypes in early nineteenth-century Poland (and beyond), the author offers answers to these questions that are bold, clear and compassionate.
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1. A Biography Romantic and Unromantic


With his book Berek Joselewicz i jego syn (Berek Joselewicz and His Son, 1909), Ernest Łuniński was the first to pen a coherent, colorful, and captivating biography of this modern, mournful Polish-Jewish war hero. Łuniński was able to combine erudition with the lofty rhetoric of the vigorous Polish language to narrate a story of great literary value punctuated with scenes from climactic moments in the hero’s life. This was a romantic biography, the highest standard for which had been set by Szymon Askenazy in Książę Józef Poniatowski (Prince Józef Poniatowski, 1905), which itself enjoyed an exceptionally wide readership and was written with extraordinary cognitive and artistic passion. The Napoleonic Era – which lived on in historical and literary works written in the age of the Revolution of 1905 and the Great War from which Poland regained its independence, including Stefan Żeromski’s Popioły (Ashes, 1902-1903) – fostered the perpetuation of the model of the romantic hero fighting for freedom and sacrificing his life at the altar of fatherland and humanity. Battle, combat, and military service were the essential elements of a hero’s biography. Łuniński, Askenazy, and Żeromski cultivated common heroic narratives found as often in historical works as in literary and semi-literary works.

Two equestrian portraits (Berek Joselewicz and Berek Joselewicz at Kock) painted by Juliusz Kossak1 helped bring the “Jewish Colonel” into the gallery of Polish national heroes. Berek was picturesque in his “dark-green cloth coat, his shoulders gleaming with epaulettes, decorated...

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