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Handelsman, Marceli

(1882–1945), historian. Coming from a Polonized Jewish family, Marceli Handelsman married the daughter of Józef Kernbaum, a well-known Warsaw Jewish industrialist and philanthropist. Handelsman’s own paternal uncle had been the commander of the insurgents in the Gostynin district during the 1863 uprising.

Between 1900 and 1904, Handelsman studied law at the Russian University in Warsaw and worked as an articled clerk in his uncle’s law practice. His real love was history and in 1905 he moved to Berlin, where he enrolled at the university. He completed his studies in that field in Paris and Zurich. Although Handelsman returned briefly to Warsaw during the Revolution of 1905, he soon became convinced that radical change was unlikely.

During this period, Handelsman established links to the Polish Socialist Party and to the leader of its pro-independence faction, Józef Piłsudski, while writing articles for underground papers. He was never a convinced party man, however, and his political views were essentially liberal and independent. He volunteered in the Polish–Soviet war of 1920, and wrote about his experiences in a vivid memoir. From 1915, he was associated with the recreated Polish University in Warsaw, where he was a founder of the Institute of History and of the Institute for the Study of Nationalities. He also held leading positions in a number of scholarly institutions and was one of the editors of Przegląd Historyczny.

Handelsman’s historical interests ranged widely, from the Middle Ages to the diplomatic history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and to the period of Napoleonic rule in Poland. He later worked on a monumental and unfinished biography of Adam Czartoryski, a central figure in Polish political life in the first half of the nineteenth century, and wrote popular accounts of Polish history and of the development of the idea of nationalism. He was a committed teacher who produced a number of significant studies on the practice of history, the most important of which he called Historyka, a title taken from the nineteenth-century Polish historian Joachim Lelewel.

Handelsman showed no real interest in Jewish history, for which he was attacked by Jewish activists. At the same time, he did encourage Jewish historical scholarship. He was the doctoral supervisor of Emanuel Ringelblum and, as president of the Society of the Lovers of History, facilitated the publication of Ringelblum’s writing, for which Handelsman was bitterly attacked by nationalist circles.

In the eyes of the Polish right, Handelsman was suspect because of his Jewish origin and liberal views. In 1934, after an unsuccessful attempt by antisemites to introduce the “Aryan paragraph” to ban Jewish membership into the Historical Circle of the University of Warsaw, Handelsman (the curator of that circle) was beaten by Polish fascists in the courtyard of the university. Shocked by the worsening political climate, Handelsman was a prominent member of the Klub Demokratyczny (Democratic Club) and its successor the Stronnictwo Demokratyczne (Democratic party), which attempted to oppose the growing authoritarianism of the Polish government and Beck’s pro-German foreign policy.

Handelsman went into hiding under the Nazi occupation but took an active role in underground education. He was also a member of the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Home Army. Denounced as a Jew and a Communist by right-wing circles in the underground, he was arrested by the Germans on 14 August 1944. After being imprisoned in Gross-Rosen concentration camp, he was moved to Nordhausen where he died shortly before the end of the war.

Suggested Reading

Mieczysław Biskupski, “Marceli Handelsman (1882–1945),” in Nation and History: Polish historians from the Enlightenment to the Second World War, ed. Peter Brock, John D. Stanley, and Piotr Wróbel, pp. 352–385 (Toronto, 2006); Andrzej F. Grabski, Zarys historii historiografii polskiej (Poznań, 2000); Tadeusz Manteuffel, “Handelsman, Marcell,” in Polski Słownik Biograficzny, vol. 9.2, pp. 268–271 (Warsaw, 1961).