The Genealogy Department of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw


Get to know Aleksandra (Ola) Sajdak, Senior Researcher at the Genealogy Department of the JHI

The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, which houses the Genealogy Department

"When did your family leave Poland?"

"What happened to your family in Poland?"

"Where did your family study?" "Was your relative married?" "Was your family rich or poor?"

These are just some of the many questions you might be asked when you meet with a researcher at the Genealogy Department of the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI) in Warsaw, Poland.

The first goal of any Jewish Genealogist is to help you realize you know more about your family than you thought. Aleksandra (Ola) Sajdak, a Senior Researcher at the Genealogy Department of JHI, explained that often people come in for a genealogy meeting thinking, they don't have any information to contribute about their family history. But, after a few good questions, sometimes that reality changes.

"[Our meetings] are a conversation," Sajdak said. "It's a conversation of two worlds, we want to be a bridge between two worlds, a bridge between now and the past." At times, this involves people accepting facts which are at odds with their knowledge, stereotypes or assumptions.

Established around 1995, the Genealogy Department of the JHI is one of the newest departments at the institute. Each year, the team made up of 4 researchers meets with thousands of families and individuals, from all over the world. Some are young people who just found out they are Jewish, others are people in their 80's, Holocaust survivors who have returned to Poland to see what happened to their family years ago. Often, inter-generational meetings are scheduled where a Holocaust survivor, their granddaughter, and their daughter, come in to the Genealogy Department together. But no matter who arrives at the department, there is one thing all of these people have in common: they are looking to research their Polish Jewish roots.

"With each family you learn something new and, also, you learn a lot about yourself, a lot about your reactions," Sajdak said. "It is work, but it is also a passion, this is the tricky part, it's very hard to stop working and you have to sometimes stop working." 

For Sajdak, like most of the genealogists who have worked at the JHI throughout the years, that passion began with her interest in tracing her own family roots. Originally, Sajdak taught herself how to do genealogical research. She explained that while many people think you need special training to become a genealogist, most genealogists don't need to study the topic at a university.

What is important is that you are open minded and willing to gain experience. She added that having some knowledge of other languages, such as being able to read Cyrillic or Hebrew letters, is helpful, and it is also helpful if you are a historian or interested in history so that you can put stories into context.

Aleksandra (Ola) Sajdak, a Senior Researcher at the Genealogy Department of the JHI

"Poland is quite big, so it's not possible to know everything about every single town, shtetl, city, etc., you just have to be willing to learn and absorb the knowledge," Sajdak said.

While May to October is the Genealogy Department's busiest season, meeting with many visitors in Warsaw face to face, researchers work with families all year long through email. Unlike a lot of researchers and genealogy companies around the world, the Genealogy Department of the JHI doesn't charge for their services, and instead, rely on donations and funding from the Polish government. The goal is for their genealogical research to be open and accessible for anyone.

Some appointments are scheduled weeks in advance, and others happen when people simply walk through the doors of the JHI and begin asking questions. The meetings vary in length: sometimes people sit for three or five hours, other times they come back every single day for one week, and in other cases people return to the department to learn more after a whole year has passed.

In between meetings, the researchers continue researching the families they have met with, by reading books, scouring online databases, and sending emails. Sajdak loves doing research which involves going to the primary sources. She visits archives and makes queries; an experience which she feels allows for more discovering than is possible online. But her favorite moments? They occur with the people.

Researchers from the Genealogy Department often meet with groups like Hillel, a Jewish student organization, from all around the United States. During those meetings people ask all kinds of questions which lead to the dialogues that Sajdak most enjoys.

"I also love working with Polish students because it is something completely different," Sajdak said. "It is amazing how each group of young adults can ask completely different questions. As an educator I'm interested in perspectives. What is the perspective of an average student from New York, compared to the perspective of a student from Warsaw?"

Each time she meets with these students, or Jewish groups from the United States or Israel, there is one question that Sajdak makes sure to ask them.

"Do you know who Emanuel Ringelblum was?" 98 percent of people say they have no idea.

Sajdak explained that she sees this as a problem: so many Jews know the names of German Nazi officers, but don't know the name of Emanuel Ringelblum. Ringelblum was the leader of the Oneg Shabbat group, an underground task force created by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, to document and preserve reports and testimonies of the experience in the ghetto. Since JHI's building was within the borders of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Oneg Shabbat meetings took place inside its walls. While Ringelblum did not survive the war, his legacy did: today, the Jewish Historical Institute preserves the Ringelblum Archive and displays its contents in a special museum exhibit.

A plaque in Yiddish, outside the JHI, dedicated to Emanuel Ringelblum

As tour guides show visitors around TÅ‚omackie Street in Warsaw, a street surrounded by tall buildings everywhere, they might point out the location on the right where the Great Synagogue used to exist, and then nonchalantly mention on the left the location of the modern day Jewish Historical Institute. But there is a lot more to the history of the buildings on that street than is visible to the eye.

"What happened during the war is the greatest tragedy for us," Sajdak said. "But people tend to forget that we are still alive, there is a Jewish community in Warsaw today. We are here. The JHI and this building is a symbol that you cannot destroy Polish Jews. People think Hitler succeeded, but he didn't."

The Genealogy Department is positioned within today's JHI, a building that survived the Holocaust. As a result, everything in the structure of the building, from the floors to the stairs, has a meaning. The floor and walls are the original. The building was built in 1936, only a few years before the start of World War II, so it was very modern and advanced. While much of the building has been renovated, the colors of the building and its core are unchanged.

The outside of the JHI, with Hebrew words which still read "The Main Judaic Library"

Before the Holocaust, the building was the headquarters of the Main Judaic Library and the Institute for Judaic Studies. The institute became the first Jewish research and educational center in Europe which took secular studies into account alongside theological studies.

Although the building survived the war, it was damaged during the destruction of the Great Synagogue right next door. To this day you can see traces of the fire on the floor of the JHI's lobby. While some visitors, not knowing the building's history, question why the floor has not been replaced, Sajdak appreciates the opportunity to explain the history to them, sharing why you can't put a new floor to history. The fact that the Jewish Genealogy Department is housed in that very building, means the continuity of Polish Jewry.

A plaque at the location of the former Great Synagogue, across the street from the JHI

"I have worked here for 10 years and still every single day I feel privileged that I can actually research Polish Jews in this particular building,"  Sajdak said. "I have goosebumps now as I speak. I love this place. I really love this place. This is something more than work. It's a place with a soul, something really, really special."

By: Madison Jackson