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Feliks Tych (1929-2015)

Feliks Tych died on 17 February 2015 and with him one of the personalities that had a most formative influence on the “Internationale Tagung der Historiker der Arbeiterbewegung” (ITH) (as the International Conference of Labour and Social History was originally called).

Already at the age of 30 Tych was among the internationally most well-known Polish historians – a reputation he had gained as editor of Rosa Luxemburg’s letters to her comrade and lover Leo Jogiches (“Róza Luksemburg, Listy do Leona Jogichesa-Tyszkî”). In the late 1950’s, Tych found almost thousand letters of Rosa Luxemburg in Polish language in a Moscow archive, he later made available in an annotated edition. This three-volume oeuvre was the result of an imposed “sabbatical” of several years: In the wake of the anti-Semitic campaign that the communist leadership started off in 1967, almost 20.000 Jews denounced as “Zionists” and “fifth column” had to leave the Polish People’s Republic; those who stayed in the country lost jobs and positions and in most cases tried – as did Tych and his wife – to keep afloat as “freelancers”. However, on 17 May 1968 Tych’s freedom of travel was restricted due to the “anti-socialist pursuit” of “revisionist and Zionist positions”. The much-noticed edition of letters brought Tych professional and personal contacts into the West; many colleagues were impressed by his expertise and integrity. The letters were published in 1971 in a single-volume German edition and in 1979 in an English edition (“Comrade and Lover: Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters to Leo Jogiches”).

It was an educational centre of the Upper Austrian Chamber of Labour – the Jägermayrhof on the Freiberg over Linz – that became the “relay station” that made Tych known especially in the German-speaking area. The numerous discussions during the Linz Conferences also allowed Tych to establish many personal contacts. Almost every year in September Feliks Tych participated in the ITH’s Linz Conferences. By his statements in the general assemblies, he time and again succeeded in having a decisive influence on the thematic orientation of future Linz Conferences. Tych was amongst those who vehemently opposed the dissolution of the ITH after the institution had lost its originally important diplomatic function in the scientific exchange between East and West upon the end of the Cold War. His dedication cannot be underestimated for the further development of the ITH and the renewal of the attractiveness of the Linz Conferences.

Feliks Tych was born on 31 July 1929 as the ninth child of a Jewish family in Warsaw. He grew up in Radomsko in central Poland – one of the oldest Polish cities, located on the first railway line Warsaw-Vienna. His father owned a small metal factory in the city. The small town was predominately Jewish, but there was also a Polish primary school that Tych attended. Radomsko, 60 kilometres behind the German-Polish border of that time, was occupied by the German Wehrmacht only three days after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Here, on 20 December, the German occupation administration established the first ghetto in the so-called “General Government for the Occupied Polish Territories”. Even before the formal start of the “Operation Reinhardt” in July 1942, the German occupiers began with the liquidation of the ghettos in the General Government in the spring of 1942. As Feliks Tych’s parents suspected that actions against the residents of their ghetto were approaching, they secretly brought their 13-year-old son Feliks to Warsaw with the help of a non-Jewish friend in the summer of 1942. In Warsaw Feliks could survive with fake documents as the orphan “nephew” of a Polish secondary-school teacher. Indeed, the Radomsko Ghetto was liquidated on 9 October 1942. Feliks Tych’s parents and siblings were murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp.

After the liberation Tych studied history in Warsaw, then in Moscow. His dissertation dealt with the history of the SDKPiL (“Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania”) – the internationalist wing of the Polish labour movement in Tsarist Russia represented by Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches and Julian Marchlewski. In 1960 he habilitated in Warsaw with a work on the left-wing within the Polish Socialist Party during World War I. His commitment for the scientific investigation of the history of the labour movement and his organisational talent had already became apparent in 1957, when he succeeded in convincing the Institute of History at the Central Committee of the Polish United Worker’s Party to publish the first scientific Polish quarterly on social and labour history: “Z Pola Walki” (“From the Battlefield”).

In 1968, Tych lost his lectureship at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Science and was “purged” from all scientific bodies. A short time afterwards he was even removed as executive editor of his own journal. Also his wife Lucyna was ousted from her appointment as theatre director. Tych’s wife was the daughter of the old communist and temporary head of the intelligence service Jakub Berman, who was expelled from the Polish United Workers’ Party as one of the guilty for the fallacies and errors of the Stalin-era after the 20th Congress of the CPSU. However, Tych did not surrender and continued – henceforth as “freelance author” – his intensive work on the earlier mentioned Rosa Luxemburg edition.

After the anti-Semitic wave faded away, Tych was appointed associate professor in 1970, got employed at the archive of the Central Committee of the Polish United Worker’s Party in 1971 and became full professor for history in 1982. In 1973, Tych assumed the editorship of the publishing project “Archiwum ruchu robotniczego” (“Archives of the Labour Movement”) that eventually comprised eleven volumes from Polish and Soviet archives. Tych was particularly committed to the “Slownik biograficzny dzialaczy polskiego ruchu robotniczego“ (“Biographical Dictionary of Polish Labour Movement Activists”) started in 1978. Due to the political upheavals, however, the dictionary could only be published until 1992 (as far as the letter “K”). The singularity of the Slownik biograficzny was the equal treatment of all tendencies within the Polish labour movement. Realizing the aspiration to list all available biographical data turned out to be the project’s most delicate aspect, since a “semi-offical” work for the first time extensively and in detail addressed the history of persecution during the time of Stalinist terror.

After his retirement in 1996, Feliks Tych was entrusted with running the Warsaw ZIH (Zydowski Instytut Historyczny, “Jewish Historical Institute”) and remained its director for eleven years. In these years, Tych’s research included the beginnings of Holocaust research initiated by Jewish documentation projects in the immediate post-war years as well as the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Jews, who in 1939-1941 had fled to the Soviet-occupied territories of Poland (the “Kresy”). The volume Widzialem Aniola Smierci. Losy deportowanych Zydów polskich w ZSRR w latach II wojny swiatowej (“I saw the angel of death: experiences of Polish Jews deported to the USSR during World War II”) – testimonies collected in 1943-1944 by the Ministry of Information and Documentation of the Polish Government in Exile – co-edited by Tych in 2006 was among the results of this work. In 2008, Tych’s article “The Emergence of Holocaust Research in Poland. The Jewish Historical Commission and the Jewish Historical Institute (ZIH), 1944-1989” was published. Based on this research, Feliks Tych also participated in the plans of the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW) and the Austrian Research Agency for Post-War Justice (FStN) to publish a commented translation of the minutes of the trial against the commandant of the concentration camp Plaszów, the Austrian Amon Leopold Göth, at the Supreme National Tribunal in Cracow that was originally published by the Jewish Historical Institute.

Tych’s “farewell gift” to the ITH was his repeatedly undertaken attempt since 2008/2009 of an overview of what he called “civilizational contribution” of the labour movement to human development; especially during the 20th century apostrophised by Eric Hobsbawm as “the age of extremes”. Tych argued that the impact (and he truly loved the English word in this context) of the labour movement on historical events was much broader than a notion focussing exclusively on the state (the Communist dictatorship and the Social Democratic welfare state respectively) would suggest. Feliks Tych’s proposal was finally adopted in a modified form: The title of the 48th Linz Conference (September 2012) was: “Interventions: The Impact of Labour Movements on Social and Cultural Development”.

Winfried R. Garscha (Vienna)
Translated from German by Lukas Neissl