Balaban, Meir

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BALABAN, MEIR (Majer ; 1877–1942), historian of Polish Jewry. The Balaban family had been active in Lemberg and Zolkiew (Zholkva) as Hebrew printers from 1830 to 1914. After studying law at the university of his native Lemberg, Balaban taught for seven years in Galician towns in schools founded by Baron de Hirsch. He later returned to the university, devoting himself to the study of history. In those years he was active in the Zionist movement and served on the editorial staff of the Zionist weekly Wschód (The East). After graduating, Balaban continued teaching religion in various secondary schools. During World War i he served as a military chaplain in Lublin and as an official of Jewish affairs for the Austrian occupation authorities in Poland. From 1918 to 1920 he was head of the Jewish High School in Czestochowa. From 1920 to 1930 he directed the rabbinical seminary Taḥkemoni in Warsaw, and from 1928 lectured on Jewish history at the University of Warsaw, becoming associate professor in 1936. He was one of the founders of the Institute for Jewish Studies in Warsaw (1927) and served as its director for several years.

Balaban published about 70 historical studies and about 200 short papers and reviews in various periodicals. He was justly considered the founder of the historiography of Polish Jewry, especially of its communal life. His studies were based on a wealth of source material found in government and municipal archives, as well as in the archives of the Jewish communities. His first book, Zydzi lwówscy na przełomie xvi–xvii wieku (The Jews of Lvov [Lemberg] at the Turn of the 17th Century, 1906), received a prize from the University of Lemberg. In this work he displayed a thorough grasp of his subject, scholarly meticulousness, and a capacity for presenting lucidly the various aspects of life in great detail. These characteristics also mark his second monumental work Dzieje żydów w Krakowie i na Kazimierzu, 1304–1868 ("A History of the Jews of Cracow," 2 vols., 1931–36). His book on the Jews of Lublin, Die Judenstadt von Lublin (Berlin, 1919), is a vivid survey of history of the Jews in that city. A series of articles on the organization of the Jewish communities in old Poland reflect his vast legal knowledge. These papers first appeared in Russian but were later revised and published again in Polish in the monthly publication of the Jewish community of Warsaw (1937–39). To the 11th volume of Istoriya yevreiskogo naroda ("A History of the Jewish People," 1914), of which he was a coeditor, Balaban contributed an exhaustive study of the Council of the Four Lands. Collections of his articles and treatises, containing the biographies of rabbis, doctors, and communal leaders, and the history of printing houses, blood accusations, and the Karaites in Poland, were published in German, Polish, and Yiddish. Balaban contributed over 150 articles to the Russian-Jewish Encyclopedia Yevreyskaya Entsiklopediya. Particularly significant are his studies on the Shabbatean and Frankist movements, summarized in his Le-Toledot ha-Tenu'ah ha-Frankit (History of the Frankist Movement, 2 vols., 1934–35). He also wrote a book on the synagogues and other antiquities of the Jews in Poland, Zabytki historyczne Żydów Polsce (Jewish Antiquities in Poland. 1929). A summary of the history of the Jews in Poland until the end of the 18th century is contained in the second and third volumes of a textbook entitled Historja i literatura żydowska (The History of the Jewish People and its Literature, 1925; first of 3 vols. also in Hebrew, 1931); most of the historical chapters are included in Beit Yisrael be-Polin (vol. 1, 1948). His studies of the history of the Jews in 19th-century Poland are confined to Galicia. From the outset of his scholarly career Balaban applied himself to collecting a bibliography on the history of the Jews in Poland; his first prizewinning publication in this field appeared in Polish in 1903. The first part of his own bibliography for the years 1900–30 appeared in 1939. When the Nazis overran Poland, Balaban refused to flee. He died in Warsaw in November 1942 before the liquidation of the ghetto and was thus vouchsafed burial in the Jewish cemetery.


N.M. Gelber, in: Gazit, 5 nos. 9–10 (1943), 7–10; R. Mahler, in: Yidishe Kultur, nos. 8–9 (1943), 56–59; H. Zeidman, in: S.K. Mirsky (ed.), Ishim u-Demuyyot be-Ḥokhmat Yisrael (1959), 223–74, includes bibliography. add. bibliography: I. Biderman, M. Balaban – Historian of Polish Jewry (1976).

[Raphael Mahler]