Zbigniew Pełczyński 

29 December 1925-22 June 2021


Zbigniew Pełczyński, who died in June at the age of 95 was a man who made his mark in both England and Poland. He had a successful career as a political scientist at the University of Oxford and particularly after the negotiated end of communism in Poland in 1989 contributed there to the development of a democratic and constitutional system. Born in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, some twenty miles from Warsaw, he had a troubled childhood because of the bankruptcy of his father a local wholesale and retail merchant and the severe strains this imposed on his parents’ marriage. He was fourteen when the Germans invaded Poland and continued his education in underground schools, joining the Home Army in 1943 and taking part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, in which he was nearly killed in a bombing raid. He was taken prisoner by the Germans and then served in First Armoured Division of General Maczek.  He decided not to return to Poland, coming to the United Kingdom in January 1946 and, after studying as an undergraduate at St. Andrews University in Scotland, successfully completed his D.Phil. in 1956 at the Queen’s College, Oxford, on Hegel’s minor political works. His Hegel’s Political Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives: a collection of new essays (Cambridge, 1971) was published to mark the bicentenary of Hegel’s birth. This was followed by two edited volumes, Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy (with John Gray, London, 1984) and The State and civil society: studies in Hegel’s political philosophy (Cambridge, 1984). In1957 he was elected a Fellow of Pembroke College, an institution to which he was devoted and where he lectured in politics until his retirement in 1992. Among his students there were Bill Clinton and the present prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán.

He was fully integrated into English life, a process which was facilitated by his Italian-born wife, Denise, a BBC journalist to whom he was devoted and who predeceased him in 2013. He was, however, always conscious of his Polish roots, asserting on many occasions that he believed an individual could have more than one patriotism. “National identity is not something you are born with, nor is it determined by legal status” . It is rather the consequence of what you take and what you reject from your country of origin and from where you live and what are your main fields of activity. Once, at a party at the Polish Embassy in London he told the Polish Ambassador, “I am a man of two hundred percent. I am one hundred percent British and one hundred percent Polish.” 

He returned to Poland for the first time in December 1956.  His links with the country were greatly strengthened by the emergence of the Solidarity movement. As he put it, “I was very proud of what the Poles had achieved and were trying to achieve”. In 1982 he took advantage of the desire of the government of General Jaruzelski to improve its image in the west to set up  a program to bring Polish academics for short periods to Oxford, the  “Oxford Colleges Hospitality Scheme” . Colleges offered scholars from Poland free board and lodging in the summer vacation, while the University offered free access to libraries and laboratories. The program was later expanded to become the School for Young Social Leaders (today the Association for Social Leaders) and was supported by the Stefan Batory Foundation created at his suggestion by George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist who later established a similar program for Hungary. It reflected his view that the democratic system would only work in Poland if there was an independent and competent civil service and intellectuals who could strengthen civil society. Since its inception, some 4,000 Poles have taken advantage of the scheme. It was extended to Cambridge where several hundred more benefited. Among those who profited from these efforts were several who were later to play an important role in Polish life, notably the former Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, who was also part of the circle of pro-Solidarity activists in England in the mid-1980s. 

Zbyszek (as he was known) was also active in Poland. In the 1990s he advised the Constitutional Committee of the Polish Sejm in drafting the new Constitution of Poland and was also an advisor to the Chief of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland on institutional reform. For his activities, he was awarded the Commander’s Cross and Star of the Order of Reborn Poland and the Order of the British Empire. 

He was very impressed by the rapid transition to a western style democracy in Poland and with the far-reaching privatization of industry which accompanied this, but was aware the dangers inherent in the inequalities this created. According to his biographer David McAvoy in his Zbigniew Pełczyński: A Life Remembered :

Seated in Mazowiecki’s office and knowing that drastic economic reforms were planned, Pełczyński asked what measures the government would take to prepare public opinion for the hardships ahead… “You need a top-level minister whose only job it is to keep up a relentless barrage of information and stories for all the mass media”. 

Mazowiecki’s reaction was hostile. “We have just got rid of the communists. We don’t want any more state propaganda in Poland”. One factor in the rise of populism in Poland has certainly been the sufferings of a large part of the population as a result of the rapid and often brutal privatization, which were not sufficiently anticipated by the liberal elite.  

One product of Zbyszek’s deeper involvement in Polish affairs was his participation in the multi-authored The History of Poland Since 1863 (Cambridge, 1984), which was edited by Robert Leslie and to which the other contributors were Jan Ciechanowski and myself. Both Jan Ciechanowski and Zbyszek had fought as adolescents in the Warsaw Uprising and both saw this event as a tragic mistake. I remember once visiting with Zbyszek the Powążki cemetery in Warsaw where many of the insurgents are buried. We walked past a succession of the graves of members of scout troops, mostly fifteen and sixteen year-olds who had perished in the Uprising. ‘What sort of men’, he asked bitterly, ‘would send boys like this their deaths’. His contribution has been criticized for giving too sympathetic a treatment of the People’s Republic, but it reflected his rejection of the blind condemnation of the communist regime which was common in the Polish emigration. He attempted to describe the rise and ebb of Stalinism and how  forced industrialization vastly expanded the urban and working-class population and created the environment in which the emergence of Solidarity was possible. 

To celebrate the launch of the book there was a dinner at Pembroke College at the end of March 1981. This coincided with the crisis provoked by the proposed nation-wide protest strike called by Solidarity against police brutality in Bydgoszcz. Both Jan Ciechanowski and Zbyszek repeatedly left the table to telephone young nephews in Poland in order to dissuade them from going onto the streets in the event of a Soviet invasion. Both came back gloomy. “They are just like we were at their age—they can’t be stopped”. Fortunately the crisis passed off peacefully.

Given his liberal political views, Zbyszek was a strong supporter of the attempts in the 1980s to improve Polish-Jewish understanding. He was one of the organizers of the Conference on Polish-Jewish Relations held in Oxford in 1984 and his links with George Soros played a crucial role in the success of the largest largest and most ambitious and of the series of conferences, that which took place in Jerusalem early 1988. It proved a difficult task to raise the money for the airfares of the Poles to Israel. I was a member of the organizing committee and at a meeting in Jerusalem, the chairman, Chone Shmeruk, told me bluntly that it was my obligation to find this money. I had no idea how to do so and decided to consult Zbyszek. He promised to introduce to me to Soros. When I met him, I explained our financial needs which required about £12,000, a large sum in those days. He asked me, “How many of the people you have invited from Poland are Jews”. I was somewhat taken aback and explained that naturally we didn’t ask such questions. However, given the small number of Jews in Poland, the overwhelming majority of those we had invited were not Jewish. “On that basis”, he replied, “you can have the money.” Obviously, Soros as a Hungarian-Jewish integrationist saw antisemitism a problem in the creation of the open and outward-looking societies he was trying to create. However, he was unwilling to support anything which would reinforce Jewish separatism. 

Zbyszek remained active in Polish-Jewish affairs and in spite of his failing health was Vice-President of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies until his death. He was a remarkable and creative individual and will be sorely missed. He was once asked what he had learned from life. His answer was characteristic:

Try to have a specific purpose in life. It is as if you are in a boat, trying to get to a destination, never let the boat drift. This purpose may change and lead your life in a clear direction. Do not ever be frightened by difficulties. All life’s difficulties can be overcome.

We extend our deepest condolences to his three children, Jan, Wanda and Tonton (Antonia), and their families.  


Professor Richard Pipes
July 11, 1923 – May 17, 2018


We are deeply saddened to announce the death of Professor Richard Pipes, a distinguished member of the Advisory Board of our sister organisation, the American Association of Polish-Jewish Studies (AAPJS).

The Times of London wrote of “his own immediate family’s miraculous escape from Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940”; “at Harvard…he became one of the best-known historians of Russia and the Soviet Union. He saw significant continuities between tsarist imperialism and authoritarianism and what followed the 1917 Revolution, and wrote unfashionably and unflinchingly about the personal evils and culpability of communist leaders such as Lenin and Stalin. And he took his academic perspective of Russian behaviour into a brief but highly influential political role as an adviser to President Reagan in the early 1980s, persuading him to adopt a less compromising approach towards Moscow in the belief that the Soviet Union could not survive a sustained economic and military challenge.”

The New York Times wrote of him “Richard Pipes, the author of a monumental, sharply polemical series of historical works on Russia, the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik regime, and a top adviser to the Reagan administration on Soviet and Eastern European policy”.
These obituaries are available to read here: The Times of London and the New York Times.


Professor Jerzy Tomaszewski


We mourn the passing of Professor Jerzy Tomaszewski who died on November 3rd 2014 at the age of 84 and was for many years professor and Director of the Mordechai Anielewicz Centre for the Study and Teaching of the History and Culture of the Jews in Poland at Warsaw University. He was also professor of the Wyższa Szkola Gospodarki Krajowej in Kutno.

He was one of the pioneers in the study of national minorities in Poland in the twentieth century, above all the Jews, and a great expert on the history of Central Europe, particularly that of the Czechs and Slovaks. He was present at all the conferences which transformed Polish-Jewish studies. As one of the founders of ‘Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry’ Jerzy Tomaszewski was a member of its editorial collegium, and he was among the founding fathers of the Pollin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

His many publications include Z dziejów Polesia 1921–1939. Zarys stosunków społeczno-ekonomicznych (On the History of Polesie 1921–1939. An Outline of Social and Economic Conditions) (Warsaw, 1963); Rzeczpospolita wielu narododów (A Republic of Many Nations) (Warsaw, 1985), Ojczyzna nie tylko Polaków: Mniejszości narodowe w Polsce w latach 1918–1939 (A Fatherland not only for Poles: National Minorities in Poland in the Years 1918–1939) (Warsaw, 1985), and Preludium zagłady: wygnanie Żydow polskich z Niemiec w 1938 r. (Prelude to Destruction: the Expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany in 1938) (Warsaw, 1998).

His latest book Czechy i Słowacja (Czech Lands and Slovakia) was published only a few months before his death. He will be sorely missed.


Jerzy Kulczycki
12.10.1931- 18.07. 2013


It is with great sadness that we relay the news of death of Jerzy Kulczycki, one of the original founders of the Institute for Polish Jewish Studies in 1984. His loss will be deeply felt as it leaves a great hole in the Polish-Jewish community.

He worked tirelessly and with great enthusiasm not just for Polish community but for Polish-Jewish community as well. He was a Treasurer for the IPJS and one of the strongest supporters of the Institute and its work.

Jerzy was born in Poland, in Lwów (Lviv, now in Ukraine) on 12 Oct. 1931. He lost his father in 1940 who was killed by the Soviet secret police. Jerzy and his mother were deported to Kazakhstan. In 1942 with the army of Gen. Władysław Anders, they escaped from Kazakhstan and managed to get to Iran and later to Palestine where Jerzy began his military training as he was too young to fight. In 1947 Jerzy with his mother and aunt went to England, to London, where he founded the publishing house Odnowa in 1964. Since 1972 he and his wife Aleksandra, founded Orbis Books (London) believing in the power of truthful and uncensored information. As the result, during that period he published around 100 titles that were prohibited in communist Poland, later smuggling some of the émigré publications to Poland and other countries within the Soviet block. He was also involved in the works of the Institute of Polish Jewish Studies believing in improving and developing Polish Jewish relations.

He was decorated with Poland’s highest orders, including The Order of Polonia Restituta.

Jerzy is survived by his wife Aleksandra who was his most devoted supporter in all his undertaking, and his children, Ryszard, Andrzej and Marta with their families.