MAYER-SHMUEL (MEIR, MAJER) BALABAN (February 20, 1877-December 1942)
He was a historian, born in Lemberg (L’viv, Lvov) into a well-to-do family of businessmen and Maskilim. He received a traditional Jewish education. He studied philosophy and history at Lemberg University. For a time he was a teacher in a Polish-Jewish public school supported by the Baron Hirsch Foundation. He later worked as teacher of Jewish religion in a Lemberg high school. During WWI, he served as a Jewish chaplain in the Austrian Army. For a short time after the war, he worked as director of a Jewish high school in Tshenstokhov (Częstochowa). In 1920 he settled in Warsaw where he was director of the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary—until 1929. In 1925 he was named professor of Jewish history in the Free Polish High School. In 1926 he was docent and later professor at Warsaw University. In 1928, he founded (together with Moshe Schorr and Mordechai Broyde) the Institute for Judaic Studies, where for a certain period of time he served as rector. He remained in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII, and there he gave lectures at the People’s University, and he wrote for the ghetto weekly newspaper, Gazeta Żydowska (Jewish gazette). At the time of the first liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto (July 1942), he was saved from death thanks to a special letter of protection from a well-known German historian. Polish scholars wanted to transfer him to the Aryan side of the city, but he wished to stay with on the Jewish side. For a period of time, he served as rabbi in the ghetto. He died of natural causes and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. According to the testimony of Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, he wrote his memoirs in the ghetto and brought them down to the start of the war. He also completed a major work about Jews in Polish culture. The two works were not found among his and his students’ materials now in the possession of Warsaw University.
Balaban was one of the most productive of Jewish historians. He wrote in Polish, German, Yiddish, and a bit in Hebrew. From 1903 he began systematically to till the fields of the history of Jews in Poland, which he published in various historical journals in Polish and Russian. The result of this systematic record-keeping over the course of nearly forty years was the first part of a comprehensive bibliography of the history of Jews in Poland for the years 1900-1930, which appeared in Warsaw in 1939 (Balaban’s last publication) and which comprised nearly 3,000 files. Unfortunately, this incomplete work was published against the strong instructions that Balaban left with his students who very poorly transcribed the Yiddish titles into Latin letters and overall neglected hundreds of sources. Ignoring its defects, though, this work of his constitutes the foundation for a Jewish historical bibliography for twentieth-century Poland.
Growing out of his shorter monographical works concerned with Jewish life in the city of his birth, his classic work (in Polish, 1906) dealt with Jews in Lemberg at the sixteenth-seventeenth century divide. It was awarded a prize by the Foundation of Hyppolite Wawelberg and a mark of distinction by the Scientific Academy in Cracow. In 1913 he produced the first volume of his monumental history of the Jews of Cracow (also in Polish), which came out again in 1931 in a second, much enlarged printing. The second volume appeared in 1936, and it carried the story down to 1868. Both volumes conveyed a great deal of material on the Yiddish language and literature in the Cracow region. An exacting bibliography from his works was published in the jubilee volume that was published in 1937 on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday and also by P. Fridman in the journal Miesięcznik Żydowski (Jewish monthly) III (1933), pp. 340-46. Balaban only began to write in Yiddish when he settled in Warsaw. He published in Haynt (Today) numerous historical articles, mostly of a popular character. In Almanakh-moment (Moment’s almanac), published in 1921, he published a longer work, “Tsu der geshikhte fun di yidisher drukerayen in poyln” (On the history of Jewish publishing houses in Poland), which appeared as well in German and Polish. In Bikhervelt (Book world), 1922-1923, he published in Yiddish several reviews of historical works and celebratory articles. His most important writings in Yiddish appeared in publications of YIVO. A complete listing can be found in Yivo biblyografye (YIVO bibliography) (New York, 1948, vol. 1). His books in Yiddish include: Harov d”r shmuel-avrom poznanski z”l, 1864-1921 (R. Dr. Samuel Abraham Poznański, may his memory be for a blessing, 1864-1921), “his life and his works, biographical features” (Warsaw, 1922), 48 pp.; Yidn in poyln, shtudyes un shilderungen fun fargangene tkufes, mit 45 bilder af 32 bleter (Jews in Poland, studies and depictions of times gone by, with 45 images on 32 pages) (Vilna, 1930), 340 pp.; “Yidn in kroke in der tsayt fun der barer konfederatsye, 1768-1772” (Jews in Cracow at the time of the Confederation of Bar, 1768-1772), offprint from Historishe shriftn (Historical writings) of YIVO, vol. 2, pp. 269-89; Di yidn-shtot Lublin, aynlaytung-vort un iberzetsung fun a. l. shushaym, tseykhnungen fun karl rikhard henker (Jews in the city of Lublin, introductory word and translation by A. L. Shushaym, drawings by Karl Richard Henker) (Buenos Aires, 1947), 191 pp.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; Dr. Y. Shatski, in Yorbukh (Yearbook) (1944-1945), pp. 33-36; Dr. Y. Shatski, in Yivo-bleter 3 (1932), pp. 63-66; Yidishe entsiklopedye (Jewish encyclopedia), vol. 5, pp. 101-2; Yivo-bleter 9 (1936), pp. 123-26; Dr. Y. Shiper, in Yidisher gezelshaftlekher leksikon (Jewish social handbook), ed. Ruben Feldshuh (Warsaw, 1939), pp. 545-50; Dr. R. Mahler, in Yidishe kultur (New York) (August-September 1943); Rokhl Oyerbakh (Rachel Auerbach), in Kidesh hashem (Martyrdom) (New York, 1947), pp. 109-10, 861; Dr. Hillel Zaydman (Seidman), Tog-bukh fun varshover geto (Diary from the Warsaw Ghetto) (Buenos Aires, 1947); Emanuel Ringelblum, Notitsn fun varshover geto (Notices from the Warsaw Ghetto) (Warsaw, 1952); H. Halpern, in Yivo-bleter 27 (1946); B. Y. Byalostotski, in Yorbukh (New York, 1948); N. Mayzil, in Yidishe kultur (New York) (August-September, 1944); L. Holmshtok, in Afn visnshaftlekher front 3-4 (Minsk, 1933), pp. 168-85; M. Edelboym, in Yidisher kemfer (April 16, 1943); Kh. Sh. Kazdan, in Tsukunft (New York) (August 1943); Krystyna Pieradzka, in Kwartalnik Historyczny 53 (1946), pp. 414-15; R. Mahler, Historiker un vegvayzer (Historian and trailblazer) (Tel Aviv, 1967); J. M. Biderman, Mayer Balaban (New York, 1976).