Majer Bałaban (2nd row, seated, center) with other teachers and students at the Taḥkemoni Rabbinical School, where he was director of secular studies from 1920 to 1930, Warsaw, 1929. (YIVO)

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Bałaban, Majer

(1877–1942), historian and educator. Majer Bałaban was a founder and architect of modern Polish Jewish historiography and the first to synthesize both Polish archival sources and Jewish communal records and rabbinic responsa.

Bałaban was born in Lwów to a prominent though not prosperous family, members of which had been communal leaders since the late eighteenth century. Some of his relatives were prominent in publishing in the mid-nineteenth century, and among the family’s traditions was hostility toward Hasidism. Bałaban studied in a German-language secondary school, acquiring his Jewish education in Hebrew schools attended after regular school hours. He began his university studies as a law student in 1895 but soon had to leave the program because of financial pressures. He then taught at schools sponsored by the Baron de Hirsch Foundation.

In 1900, Bałaban resumed his attendance at the university in Lwów but chose to study history under Ludwik Finkel, author of a classic bibliographic work on Polish history and editor of the leading journal Kwartalnik Historyczny. By 1903, Bałaban had published, in that journal, the first annotated bibliography of historical literature on Jews in Poland. His bibliographical research continued throughout his career, culminating in a comprehensive list of works related to Polish Jewish history and the history of Jews in neighboring lands. The first part was completed and published in 1939; the second section remained in manuscript and was lost during World War II.

Jewish historians in the office of the Jewish Section at an international historical congress, Warsaw, 1933: (left to right) Ignacy Schiper, Abraham Duker, Emanuel Ringelblum, Raphael Mahler, Salo W. Baron, Me’ir Halevi, Majer Bałaban, M. Stein, and an unidentified participant. (YIVO)

Bałaban completed his dissertation in 1904, on Jews in Lwów at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Żydzi lwowscy na przełomie XVIgo i XVIIgo wieku; 1906). Thereafter he taught in secondary schools until the outbreak of World War I, when he served as a military chaplain in the Austrian army. While stationed in Lublin, he took advantage of the opportunity to prepare a short monograph on the history of Jews in that community.

From 1920 to 1930, Bałaban directed secular studies at the newly founded Mizraḥi rabbinical school, Taḥkemoni, in Warsaw. He began lecturing on Jewish history at the University of Warsaw in 1928 and became an associate professor in 1935. He was the only person to hold a university post in Jewish history in Poland between the wars. Many of Bałaban’s students at the university also attended his lectures at the Institute for Jewish Studies that he had founded with Mojżesz Schorr and Markus Braude in 1928. Aside from the founders, the faculty included Ignacy Schiper, Abraham Weiss, Aryeh Tartakower, and Ya‘akov Cahan. Classes were conducted in Hebrew by all instructors except Bałaban and Schiper, who lectured in Polish. More than 100 masters’ essays were produced under Bałaban’s direction, mainly consisting of communal histories. He insisted on the use of archival sources, and, in this way, trained an entire generation of Polish Jewish historians.

Bałaban published hundreds of works in Polish, German, Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. His popular essays were featured regularly in the Jewish press. His work is largely descriptive, focusing on leading personalities, families, and religious movements and devoting considerable attention to material culture and daily life. In his local histories, for example, the topography of the Jewish quarter in various periods is described in detail. Among his many outstanding works is his two-volume history of Jews in Kraków (1931, 1936; Hebrew translation, 2003), which remains the most detailed study of a leading Jewish community; and his Hebrew-language history of the Frankist movement (2 vols., 1934–1935).

An elegant orator in Polish, Bałaban spoke often at the Progressive Synagogue in Lwów before 1914 and at the Nożyk Synagogue in Warsaw after 1920. Active in General Zionist circles, he ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 1919 and 1922. In September 1939, Bałaban chose to remain in Warsaw, becoming director of the Judenrat archive and continuing his research. He died of a heart attack in the ghetto.

Suggested Reading

Natalia Aleksiun, “Polish Jewish Historians before 1918: Configuring the Liberal East European Jewish Intelligentsia,” East European Jewish Affairs 34.2 (Winter 2004): 41–54; Israel M. Biderman, Mayer Bałaban: Historian of Polish Jewry (New York, 1976); Maria Dold, “‘A Matter of National and Civic Honour’: Majer Bałaban and the Institute of Jewish Studies in Warsaw,” East European Jewish Affairs 34.2 (Winter 2004): 55–72; Artur Eisenbach, “Jewish Historiography in Interwar Poland,” in The Jews of Poland between the Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman et al., pp. 453–493 (Hanover, N.H., 1989).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 323, Gershom Bader, Collection, 1884-1953.