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Luminary historian of Middle Ages passes away

The Faculty of History of the University of Warsaw (UW) has announced that Professor Henryk Samsonowicz, a luminary and an authority in the field of medieval history, former Education Minister, member of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) and the Polish Academy of Skills (PAU), Knight of the Order of the White Eagle passed away on Friday at the age of 91.

Henryk Samsonowicz was born on January 23, 1930, in Warsaw to a family of noble roots using the coat of arms “Samson”. His father, Jan Samsonowicz, was the discoverer of the neolithic flint mines in the Krzemionki Opatowskie and also of the Lubelskie coal-mining area. Moreover, Jan Samsonowicz fought on Poland’s side in the Polish-Soviet War of 1920-1921.

Henryk’s mother Henryka nee Korwin-Krukowska, graduated from the Faculty of Mathematics and Life Sciences of the University of Petersburg. She was a chemistry and geography teacher at the prestigious Juliusz Słowacki High School in Warsaw.

Henryk’s older brother Andrzej was a soldier of the Assault Squads of the Grey Ranks — a Polish scouting paramilitary formation. As a member of the “Zośka” Battalion, he fell in the Warsaw Uprising in the Warsaw district of Czerniaków.

Finding himself under the watchful eye of mentors and lecturers of the most eminent knowledge and standing such as Aleksander Gieysztor, Witold Kula, Tadeusz Manteuffel and Stanisław Herbst, Henryk Samsonowicz defended his masters’ diploma in 1950 and his doctoral thesis in 1954. He went to become the dean of the Faculty of History in 1970-1973.

When a series of major student, intellectual and other protests against the communist regime of the Polish People’s Republic unfolded in March 1968, he was the only member of the High Disciplinary Committee operating by the education and higher education minister who opposed the laying off of Professor Damazy Tilgner of the Gdańsk University of Technology.

In 1981, Mr Samsonowicz was given a professorial title and held the position of the head of the Institute of History of the UW in 1975-1980. In 1975, he initiated the first history contest that has become the most respected competition in the field of history at a high school level.

Those who had the chance to attend his lectures and workshops recognised an unmatched authority and outstanding propagator of history in Prof. Samsonowicz. Today, Professor Michał Kopczyński of the Institute of History of the UW recalls one of his mentor’s lectures given in 1983, immediately after the Martial Law’s discontinuation. “He would tell us of the medieval history of Italy, Venetia, of the Byzantine frescos. When he would say that while visiting Venetia we must not skip Ravenna, the room would burst with laughter. For us, it was a sheer abstract at the time [to think of visiting Ravenna] and yet in a couple of years, it became reality. What I learnt at the university I came to appreciate after many years as a historian,” he confessed.

In 1980, Professor Henryk Samsonowicz became active within the anti-communist Solidarność Movement. The new political atmosphere and the general respect he enjoyed, resulted in his election as the UW chancellor. Nevertheless, Prof. Samsonowicz was compelled by the communist authorities to step down in 1982. In way of protest, he left the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) in the same year. Prof. Samsonowicz also took part in the Roundtable talks — a seminal step towards the political transformation in Poland.

Henryk Samsonowicz authored around 800 papers, including 16 books and handbooks, hundreds of articles and over 200 reviews.

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