Exploring Jewish life in 1950s Poland

Frankee Lyons

Growing up in Mount Airy, Maryland, Frankee Lyons believed her ancestors came from Ireland and England.

In high school and college, Eastern Europe, Jewish history and the Holocaust became areas of intellectual interest for her.

Her passion for historical research combined with related academic success as an undergraduate at George Washington University helped her to land UIC’s competitive University Fellowship.

It was not until her arrival at UIC to study for her Ph.D. in modern Eastern European history that her sister discovered through genealogical research that their family actually has Jewish ancestry from Poland.

“Two summers ago, my family and I went to Konin, Poland, our ancestral town,” said Lyons, a UIC doctoral candidate in history. “Seeing that piece of my family history was a very spiritual experience, which I wasn’t expecting because I am used to keeping an academic distance from what I study. I really felt a profound connection.”

The latest honor for Lyons is a coveted Fulbright grant offer to conduct nine months of research in Warsaw, Poland, beginning in September.

There, she will be affiliated with the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences and have a secondary affiliation with the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw.

Her Fulbright research will explore Jewish life in 1950s Poland, expanding on two papers she has produced while at UIC. The first paper investigated Warsaw’s 1955 World Festival of Youth and Students, the Jewish and Israeli delegates at the event, and their interactions with the secret police and locals. Poland’s only Communist-era veterans’ organization and its Jewish members were the focus of her second paper.

With a potential government service career in the future, Lyons believes the Fulbright opportunity will help her to build valuable international connections.

“Issues of Jewish history and memory are significant in Poland today, and the relationship between Poland, Israel and the United States is increasingly sensitive,” she said. “I feel like my work has become even more important since I’ve embarked on research here at UIC.”

Her Polish language and culture work has previously merited support via fellowships under the U.S. Department of State’s Title VIII Program for Research and Training in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. In 2018, she was an Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow through the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City and the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim, Poland.

Lyons, who received a master’s in history at UIC last year, considers the guidance from her advisors Małgorzata Fidelis, associate professor of history, and Keely Stauter-Halsted, Hejna Family Chair in Polish Studies and professor of history, a key part of her success.

“The Polish studies program here at UIC is incredible and their support is unmatched,” she said. “I love that it is interdisciplinary, so as a historian I also have connections with scholars from art history, literature and linguistics who are interested in Slavic studies.”

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