"There is a historian in each one of us:" Historian Anna Müller on the Experiences that Have Shaped Her Scholarship

tags: historians, What Im Reading

Anna Müller is Associate Professor of History, and The Frank and Mary Padzieski Endowed Professor in Polish/Polish American/Eastern European Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She holds an M.A. from the University of Gdańsk, Poland and a Ph.D. from Indiana University. Dr. Müller is the 2019 recipient of The Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America's (PIASA) Oskar Halecki Polish History Award for her book If the Walls Could Speak: Inside a Women’s Prison in Communist Poland (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). Dr. Müller is President of the Polish American Historical Association (PAHA). 

What books are you reading now?

I have a habit of reading a few books at the same time. A while ago I had the idea of reading some of Ursula Le Guin’s stories to my 9-year-old son in Polish—my native language and the language that I am hoping my son maintains—so we began reading Earthsea. Needless to say, the language in this book turned out to be too difficult for him, but I continued reading it myself. I never read fantasy books, so this was certainly new for me, but something that I enjoyed tremendously. To my surprise, I easily managed to find myself in this world of wizards, who, despite or because of the powers they possess, have to face their own darkness while searching for some kind of version of truth that would help them figure out who they are. One of the things that struck me in the first story in Earthsea was the belief that one’s individual power is in one’s name. As a historian, I see numerous examples throughout history when taking away someone's name becomes a form of dehumanization, but the story of a power hidden in a name opened to me a new richness of this fact—defining who we are, naming ourselves, and protecting our name gives us strength. 

At the same time, I was reading two nonfiction books. One was a book about Pola Nireńska by Polish journalist Weronika Kostyrko. Nireńska was a Polish Jew born in pre-war Warsaw, a modern dancer who managed to survive the Holocaust and immigrate to the United States after the war. She married Jan Karski, a Polish courier of the Polish Underground State who traveled to England and the US during the war to inform the highest American and British authorities about the annihilation of the Jews taking place on the Polish territories. We know a lot about Karski and nothing about his wife. Nireńska struggled her entire life to find her place as a Jewish woman, a modern dancer, and bisexual. As if following the advice of the wizards of Earthsea, she engaged in a constant search for her own name and for her own strength. At various moments of her life, she had to face her demons and her own darkness, which eventually pushed her to take her own life. 

The other nonfiction book I was reading at the same time was a kaleidoscope of various writings by American prisoners sentenced to life. Life Sentencesis a book manifesto and a testament to their daily struggles to find meaning in their lives (beyond the structural placement of a prisoner). This book is also about fighting one’s demons while figuring out one’s name—a result of the journey inside themselves that the authors of the book undertook while in prison, a journey that began and continued because they had enough strength within themselves to know who they are and insist on it. And here is a short excerpt from one of the poems included in the book: 

“In this cell, 

I’m giving fair ones to all my demons, 

And every nightmare wakes up to worse dreaming, 

But that’s just life in a cell” (In a cell, Malakki)

In a sense, we all live in a different version of a cell. 

It always amazes me how these various worlds that open themselves up to me in the books I read are able to speak to each other, as if the historical figures that occupy my history texts are looking for some respite in the world that fiction conjures, or vice versa. That’s my imagined world, literary community, conversation of written words, a dialogue between multiple people and authors while I sit and learn from their wisdom. 

I should add that it is the men I met inside the prison walls that reintroduced me to poetry. Growing up in Poland I got used to memorizing poetry and expressing myself with poetry. Studying Eastern European history, you live and breath poetry. Committing a poem to memory is like committing to the people who wrote it: to their fears, joys, and the trust that they express when writing a poem. But poetry is also a code that we communicate in: concise and fragmentary, but somehow also dialogic and opening space for the readers to find his or her space. Poetry is essential in life. I thought I had lost this in the US until recently when I began hearing the poems that the incarcerated men create in prison. To quote one of them: “Good things come to people that wait.”

What is your favorite history book?

I am not sure I have a favorite history book. There are many books that I would call my favorite at one particular moment; specific books grab me at different points because where ever I am personally at this particular moment makes me especially attuned to the voice of the author. And then that moment passes and a different one emerges. I tend to think of authors that I read as coffee dates with good friends. They tell me their stories and I listen and learn. I have ended up having many good friends.  

Recently, I enjoyed A History of the Grandparents I Never Had by Ivan Jablonka, partly because this book is so close to the research I am working on at the moment. Jablonka tried to reconstruct the story of his grandparents, Polish Jews and Communists, who barely left any sources behind. It is a touching story of people entangled in perhaps the most dramatic moments of history: Nazism, the Holocaust, Communism. The book carries a very personal touch; in the end, Jablonka is trying to uncover the history of his own grandparents. Especially touching is the part where he investigates their life in Paris, where they immigrated to before the war and where he was born, lived for a while almost next to one of their Parisian locations, and learned about them from the shadows left by history. He owed so much to people he knew so little about. But more than being a personal story, it is also a story of the stubbornness of a historian to show the world that he can recreate the past and the fabric of his grandparent’s life despite a lack of concrete or direct sources. 

Another one of my recent favorites is a book by Kate Brown, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten. This work is another historical journey, this time into forgotten places, but also into an investigation of how our bodies and minds and sites interact, how time and space matter, how bodies play a function in history—bodies that we tend to ignore mostly due to a lack of language to speak about them—and finally how significantly our research is embodied. 

I have the privilege to teach for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at the Macomb Correctional Facility in Michigan. Inside-Out facilitates college classes in prison, where outside students can meet with a group of incarcerated men or women. We sit in a circle and discuss books, ideas, life, individual expectations, and social responsibility. A group of amazing and inspiring individuals made up of Inside-Out alumni, called the Theory Group, help with classes as teaching assistants and also form a group that meets to discuss books separate from faculty-led class periods. One of the books that we recently read was The Body Keeps the Score about how much everything that happens around us affects our bodies. I was unable to participate in the discussion when they read it, but I was reading it along with them. 

These two books (The Body Keeps the Score and Dispatches from Dystopia) made me realize how embodied our research, or perhaps life experiences, are—an obvious statement, I know. But everything in prison reminds me of how much our physicality plays a role in our lives, or how much of our past is written in our bodies. For example, the security checks that we experience to be allowed to enter prison used to awake some of my fears; for example, my documentation being processed under the vigilant eye of an officer was somehow analogous to crossing the borders in Eastern Europe before the fall of Communism or more recently to my going through security checks at American airports after flights back from Europe (and often taken to a back room for additional questioning). But at the same time, this prison space makes me more receptive to understanding the meaning and value of small gestures, such as a handshake. And of course, it brings to the forefront of my thoughts the entire complicated problem of race relationships, which I was really unaware of prior to coming to the United States. 

The concept of humanity gains a very different meaning in prison. So, I could say that as a historian I am trying to experience the present as much as possible in order to understand the past. But also vice versa, what I know about the past gives me an insight into the present, while my various experience as a Polish immigrant (and a bit of an outsider), mother of two great kids, college teacher, and a volunteer in prison keeps me very grounded in the present and do not allow me to lose sight of how rich and wonderful it is to discover people of the present so I do not get lost in the past. To follow Kate Brown, “I am in a place to see, hear, smell, and touch, and there to take a stand.”

Why did you choose history as your career?

I am not sure I chose it, or at least I don’t recall the moment when I made the decision. I think it was history that chose me. I grew up in the amazing town of Gdańsk, Poland, in the 1980s, a time when history, written with a capital H, was happening around me—on the streets, in school, during conversations with my schoolmates. It was happening literally in my yard. Gdańsk was the birthplace of the Free Trade Union Solidarity, which in the long run contributed to the fall of Communism in Poland and the eastern bloc. Regardless of what Americans might think about life in the Eastern bloc, my childhood was full of unbridled joy, but also full of things I had trouble understanding—fires and water cannons in the streets, people running in different directions and hiding in staircases. 

With time came a desire to put it all into some kind of sequence, narrative, or story that would provide an explanation. And with that came a joy of participating in something important and curious. These were my formative moments. History was pulling me in with incredible force. All I wanted was to understand the changing reality, and history seemed to hold the keys to understanding. Hence, it was the time, but also the space. Gdańsk—I had the privilege to be born in a place where history speaks to us at every corner. And to fully recognize myself as Gdańszczanka, to gain that name, I had to learn history. For me, history was an existential necessity. And Gdańsk will forever be my home. Or at least one of them. 

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

There is a historian in each one of us. Once we begin asking questions of why the past unfolds in a given way, we become historians. I think a historian should be curious and open, but aren’t these qualities necessary for every discipline? We should be ready to complicate the answers we have while trying to go beyond what appears to be black and white. But again, isn’t that something that can be said about many disciplines as well? Maybe historians need to be more empathetic in order to be able to see the world through the prism of somebody else’s eyes, but also perhaps very patient so as not to get frustrated when layer after layer of a complex set of circumstances and reasons why individuals act a certain way unravel in front of us. 

It is easier for me to say what qualities one can develop once you begin thinking of one’s self as a historian and working on mastering skills that historians, in my eyes, should have: imagination and empathy combined with distance or at least an understanding of how much context matters in understanding motivations, reasoning, desires, fears, and even the emotions of the people we study. In many respects, I think the historians’ trade provides foundational skills in analyzing and understanding the world around us: the significance of changing context, a complex set of factors that define individuals and their positions in society. 

Who was your favorite history teacher?

I am lucky to have met many people who are not only excellent historians but also wonderful people, who in different moments of my life pushed me to look at the reality around me from different perspectives. During my high school years, history and so-called education about society seemed to be one of the most important subjects, because it was teaching us to understand the changing reality around us and how to engage with it. I remember endless discussions about what democracy is and what its limits are … imagining the US as a role model. 

My history teachers in both high school and then colleges in Poland, Switzerland (where I briefly studied), and the US very quickly became role models for civic disagreement, engagement, and way of life. I arrived to the USA to begin my graduate school pregnant with my first child. For many reasons, it was a very scary moment. And one of the first female professors I met welcomed me and my pregnant and anxious self with incredible warmth and support, saying that she wore different hats, so she knew how to support me in this difficult transition that was happening to me on multiple levels. It was hard for me at first to understand what hats had to do with my situation, but eventually I understood the expression as well as the philosophy of life expressed through it. I think that became my pattern – I do wear many different hats in life. Some of my professors may read this conversation (and I don’t want to mention names because I will inevitably miss somebody), so they should know that I will never stop thanking them from the bottom of my heart for teaching me how to keep broadening my world and keep my mind open. 

What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

There are plenty. Every class involves meeting new people and personalities but also new problems. I love the beginning of every semester; it is filled with expectation, anticipation, anxieties.  

But the experiences that I would describe as most life-changing are teaching for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which I already mentioned, and the Study Abroad program in Poland, which I have had a chance to lead three times so far. Both give me a chance for amazing interactions with people based on sharing the world we read about and the world we experience together. It is all about learning together, broadening horizons, encountering the unknown, and facing what may be uncomfortable. But it is also about the journey to create a community that can emerge as a result of this act of sharing. 

And now I need to mention the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature while I was drafting my responses to these questions. One of the books by her that affected me the most is Flights. I loved the Polish version and am in the middle of reading the English version, one chapter per day in order to savor it slowly. This book is about travels, journeys in and out, inside oneself alone and with others—reaching moments that feel liminal, as if standing on the edge of the world and looking down and not knowing if that means the end or the beginning. Teaching gives me those moments, especially teaching in prison or while taking students abroad, when our worlds join together to create a new one. And Tokarczuk knows best what words to use to reflect the silence around us when we realize the power of what is happening:

“Nothing happens—the march of darkness halts at the door to the house, and all the clamor of fading fails silent, makes a thick skin like on hot milk cooling. The contours of the buildings against the backdrop of the sky stretch out into infinity, slowly lose their sharp angles, corners, edges. The dimming light takes the air with it—there’s nothing left to breathe. Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawing their snail’s eyes; the orchestra of the world had departed, vanishing into the park. 

That evening is the limit of the world…”


Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

No, I am not a collector. I love being surrounded by books, but not rare books. It’s like being surrounded by stories and people that make your life more interesting. Maybe I never had a chance to become a collector. I value old things tremendously, and I love living in old houses, where every single corner speaks to you about history, but I never wanted to possess anything old. I worked for some museums throughout my life and the amount of care and attention old things require always surprised me and made me appreciate people who have enough time and knowledge to take care of the old maps, books, and documents that they collect. I don’t think I am capable of that. 


What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career? 

Students. Reading. Writing. Teaching. Interacting with students and seeing them grow is definitely the most rewarding part of my work. The same can be said about reading. There are so many beautiful and delightful books coming out: history books, novels, philosophical treaties. There is something beautiful in seeing a story unravel in front of your eyes, new intricate connections that authors make between certain facts. The same goes for writing; creating and looking for connections is endlessly satisfying. Having said that, all of this can be equally frustrating. I always struggle with finding enough time to read, write, or prepare classes. It physically hurts when students are simply uninterested in what I have to offer or when I cannot find a key to unlock their hearts and minds to history. 


What are you doing next?

My next project is a biography of Tonia Lechtman, a Pole, Jew, and Communist. Her family left Poland when she was coming of age, at a time when the ugly head of anti-Semitism began rising fast in public life in Poland and its neighboring countries. Her departure from Poland in 1935 led to over a decade of wandering from Palestine through France to Switzerland and Germany. After the war, when she decided to return to Poland, it was East European Communism with its paranoia and anti-Semitism that haunted her.

It is a fascinating story, but in many respects, she was an ordinary person. So, in a sense, it is a biography of ordinary life. From the very beginning of writing this biography, I struggled with the pressure imposed by the larger historical framework that clearly delineated her life but also with the urge to underscore her own agency. Historians working on biographies or those who try to reconstruct individual narratives from oral interviews or varied sources tend to think of life as composed according to an idea that helps an individual imbue it with meaning. Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson (Composing a Life) defines it beautifully when she states that work on individual life is like weaving a quilt, the ultimate shape of which depends on how we arrange various elements together. Even if we know the norms and rules, there is always space for an individual and a distinctive way of stitching the past together—creative makeshifts and improvisations. And Tonia indeed surprises me with her ability to weave her life together. My travel through her life is like learning how to read those quilts. 

Finally, there is an amazing array of sources left behind to tell her life—photos, letters, some interviews. I don’t think any historian could walk by this collection. The cache of photos and letters seems to be never-ending. Some of the documents are as distant as her grandfather Tobiasz Bialer’s school certificate or the medical certificate showing that her father, Aron, had chickenpox when he was nine (1886). The touch and smell of these old documents help us almost feel the presence of the family. Tomasz Kietliński, a political philosopher and cultural and social analyst, wrote beautifully when he reflected on archives in general: “Archives are the secrets of existence enchanted in the secrets of images and texts.... Archives are senses and sensuality of wardrobes, drawers—real and virtual, visual and written, thought and written, spoken and concealed.... The archive is a multi-voiced, open, process, infinity.” Tonia’s archives are indeed a treasure trove of images and texts that are leading me to present Tonia’s voice. And that almost intimate interaction with her, an attempt to recover her intentions and fears is intoxicating – that’s the essence of the thrill of being a historian for me. 

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak about the importance that the written has for me.