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The Polish Catholic who became the world’s leading expert on Hasidim

Elizabeth Finkel
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Published: 26 August 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Professor Marcin Wodzinski is helping Poles fill a very big hole in their history. ELIZABETH FINKEL talks to him in Wroclaw about his unusual intellectual journey.

Marcin Wodzinski is the world’s foremost expert on Hasidism.  I met him in July at the University of Wroclaw where he heads a thriving Jewish studies department situated in an 18th century Augustine monastery. It’s just the first of many twists in this surprising tale.

Casually clad in an unstructured blazer and pants, with striking blue-green eyes set in aquiline features, 56-year-old Wodzinski looks the part of a history professor.

The question is: how did a Polish Catholic become the world expert on Hasidim? 

You could say he was at the right time in the right place.

Wodzinski claims to lead “the fastest growing humanities department in the universe”.  Indeed, in the last ten years, as most humanities departments around the world have shrunk, his has ballooned from one to ten faculty members. That growth reflects a hunger by Poles to fill a Jewish-sized hole in their history.  It is a big hole.

That history goes back a thousand years to towns where Jews often comprised a third or more of the population. In this crucible of extreme survival pressure, dozens of diverse movements evolved, from inward-facing mystical Hasidism to the outward facing, free-thinking Bundism.

Wodzinski also has a personal mission. “I believe I’m part of a general trend looking to diversity as a source of tolerance and understanding. There is also the ethic of searching for truth. Truth is a commitment of the historian, to represent that which is the closest to their sincere understanding. This is how we train our students.” 

I believe I’m part of a general trend looking to diversity as a source of tolerance and understanding.

Wodzinski’s mission for tolerance and truth did not appear in a Eureka moment.  

He began with Polish literary history but found it sterile. “I wanted something that would give me the flesh of life,” he says. He found that verve in the “esoteric” literature of the Kabbalah. Luckily his academic adviser, Jerzy Woron­czak, had brought Jewish studies back to Wroclaw in 1993.  

Before the war Wroclaw, then the German city of Breslau, had an illustrious Jewish past. Home to Germany’s third largest Jewish community, it boasted a Jewish theological seminary and provided a rabbinical home for Abraham Geiger, the father of Reform Judaism. The White Stork Synagogue, where he tended to his enlightened flock for 20 years, was rededicated in 2010.  

Wodzinski was granted his wish to study Kabbalah, but first he needed to learn Hebrew. While Woronczak could read Hebrew, neither he nor anyone at the University of Wroclaw could teach it.  So with his adviser’s help, Wodzinski taught himself. Beginning with the Book of Ruth, he learned the text and translation by heart, then deconstructed the grammar. Impressed by his progress, Woronczak suggested he document the inscriptions on 13th-18th century Jewish tombstones (matzevot) across Silesia, the southwestern region of Poland. They became a window into the history of Hasidim. 

Truth is a commitment of the historian, to represent that which is the closest to their sincere understanding. This is how we train our students.

To study that history, Wodzinski turned to a second mentor: pro­fes­sor Moshe Ros­man at Bar Ilan university in Israel. “Besides advancing my methodological and conceptual skills, he introduced me to the Israeli academy and generally opened up the world of Jewish studies to me”. 

Wodzinski’s books on Hasidism have been lauded across the spectrum of Judaism.  His His­tor­i­cal Atlas of Hasidism, which uses 74 maps to explore the ‘rela­tion­ship between space and spir­it’, won the 2018 US National Jewish Book Award.  Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, writing in the Orthodox US-based magazine, Ami, noted “many Hasidim turn to him for information about their origins, and Professor Wodzinski’s research has saved for posterity much of that history”.  

Today the largest Hasidic communities are located in Israel and the US, where Wodzinski estimates they represent about 3%-4% of the Jewish population.

Wodzinski’s research has attracted far-flung interest. Besides lecturing in Israel, Europe and North America, he taught for two years in China, mostly on Polish language and culture. He was also the main historian for Warsaw’s Museum of the History of the Polish Jews.

To visit Wodzinski’s department is to see a thriving ecosystem of Jewish studies that range from Hasidism to the Haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment), the Shoah, Yiddish and Sephardi culture.

The only way to preserve the academy is to do our research and defend it.

I got a taste of it over lunch in a large, light-filled common room bustling with the chatter of vibrant young intellects. Helping myself to rice paper rolls and a cup of cold soup, I sat at a vast refectory table and tuned in to snatches of conversation with resident and visiting scholars.
Having granted my request for an interview, Wodzinski and I retreat to his office. It is a philosopher’s dream, with high vaulted ceilings, a handsome oval table and a serene vista of the Oder River framed by a tall arched window. “We have the most beautiful space in this university”, he notes, a sign of the esteem the university holds for the department.

The only thing missing is international students. Covid took its toll and then there was the war in Ukraine. “Some of our Ukrainian scholars are at the front with rifles,” says Wodzinski. However, as far as safety is concerned, “Wroclaw is certainly safer than Chicago”, he says referring to the mass shooting in the US two days before.

I ask him how his department has weathered the political storm that embroiled Polish historians like Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking in the wake of the 2018 Polish legislation that penalises attribution of Holocaust crimes to Poles.  Wodzinski says his department has so far remained unscathed. Perhaps, he says, because “significant overseas support gives us a degree of autonomy”. But he adds, “the only way to preserve the academy is to do our research and defend it”.

And for that Wodzinski needs students.

Applications open in mid-September for the Master’s degree in the history and culture of East European Jewry, which will be taught in English. Starting in October this year, there are three semesters and three languages to be mastered: Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish. Luckily for these students, the university now provides teachers!

Professor Marcin Wodzinski

About the author

Elizabeth Finkel

Elizabeth Finkel is a biochemist who switched to journalism. She co-founded Cosmos Magazine, serving as Editor in Chief from 2013-18, and is now Editor at Large. She is the author of Stem Cells, which won the Queensland premier’s Literary award and The Genome Generation. Besides journalism, she serves as a Vice Chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University and on advisory committees for Latrobe University Press and Zoos Victoria.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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