Resurrecting the Jews of Poland

A new museum in Warsaw commemorates the country’s millennium-long Jewish history that has been overshadowed by the Holocaust

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw
ON AN early Sunday afternoon in Warsaw, Polin – The Museum of the History of Polish Jews was packed. Tickets for the permanent Core Exhibition – the grand opening of which at the end of October enjoyed exceptionally warm media coverage by a wide range of Polish, international and Israeli media – were already sold out.
In the spacy cafeteria most of the food has run out. And, so it seems, have the pamphlets handed out by the museum’s ushers to help visitors absorb the endless flow of informa - tion emanating from eight galleries, each dedicated to a different era of the millenni - um-long Jewish existence in Poland. Yet, the good-natured crowd – most of them Polish – took it all in their stride and patiently navi - gated the 4,200-square meters of exhibitions.
Families with school-aged children tried out the vivid multimedia stations; toddlers stared at colorful maps, nibbling snacks from rustling packages; and grownups attentively examined the various captions on the walls, watched videos, jabbed fingers on interactive screens, or flipped illustrated objects to read the texts on the back.
They participated in quizzes that deter - mined, as a Jewish inhabitant of late 18th century Poland, if their status and profession would have qualified them to live in one of the three areas of the country partitioned by foreign powers. A different quiz allowed them to identify for which Jewish political party in Poland’s parliamentary elections in the interwar years they would have been in - clined to vote had they been one of the three million Jews living there.
In the last two galleries, dedicated to the Holocaust and post-World War II years, vis - itors somberly examined the hard evidence testifying to the horrendous crimes perpe - trated, to a large extent on Polish soil, against the Jews of Europe, and which eradicated 90 percent of Poland’s Jews.
The next morning, a few minutes before my interview with the curator of the Core Exhi - bition, Prof. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, I encountered a group of Israeli teens in front of the museum’s entrance. These high school students from Netanya in central Israel, who were participating in a traditional school tour to Holocaust sites in Poland, had just visited the monuments commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto uprising across from where the new museum is situated. (Each year some 30,000 Jewish Israeli high-school students and sol - diers travel to Poland on such missions.
) The Polin Museum, an impressive copper and glass edifice, designed by Finnish ar - chitects Lahdelma and Mahlmaki, was in - augurated in April last year. The building, its ambitious goal of presenting 1,000 years of Jewish existence in Poland and its loca - tion alongside Nathan Rapoport’s renowned Monument to the Ghetto Heroes at the heart of the area – which was once the city’s Jewish quarter and was then turned by the Nazis into a ghetto – make it a new Warsaw landmark.
It was pretty bewildering, then, to learn from the school group’s Israeli security es - cort that the group did not intend visiting the museum.
KIRSHENBLATT-GIMBLETT did not seem surprised by this. Nor was she alarmed by it.
“They have a formula,” she said, “and they’re going to have to change it.” She added that the museum has established good relations with Israel’s Education Ministry and she believes that the one-dimensional picture presented to youngsters on these trips will be changed once the museum is added to the agenda of such trips.
The initiative to establish a museum in Warsaw to highlight the millennium-long Jewish history in the country was set in mo - tion in 1993 by an NGO called The Associa - tion of the Jewish Historical Institute of Po - land. Defined as a public cultural institution, the Polin Museum is a private-public partner - ship. The Museum’s public partners, Poland’s Ministry of Culture and the City of Warsaw, allocated the land, paid for the building and its construction – a total of $60 million – and are covering most of its annual budget. The private partner created the exhibitions and raised $48 million for them.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor of Performance Studies at New York University and a scholar of Polish-Jewish and Yiddish studies, was invited in 2002 by the first di - rector of the emerging museum to review the project and, in 2006, joined it as program director of the Core Exhibition. As such, she heads an international, multidisciplinary team of historians, social psychologists, so - ciologists, literary historians, art historians, anthropologists and a philologist.
“They brought their own original research,” she says. “And their research findings represent the best, newest, most thoughtful and critical ways of thinking about this history.
So they actually did not simply come as historians to work on preexisting material. They brought their own historical imagination, critical thinking and knowledge based on new and original research.”
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, though mindful of my tendency to view the museum through an Israeli lens, nevertheless clarifies that the museum’s prospective audience is varied and that the exhibition’s goal is as broad and ambitious as it gets.
“The mission of the museum is to recover a 1,000-year history that’s been overshadowed, understandably, by the Holocaust, and to tell the story where the story happened,” she asserts. “To tell it for an audience here in Poland today, which is a largely Polish audience because the Jewish community here is very small, but also for Jews around the world for whom this history is a closed chapter; and for the world.
“I think that no matter where people come from, they will somehow find themselves in the story, in the sense that there are many aspects of the story that are quite universal – whether they are the experience of a minority living in a wider society over a long period of time, or whether it is a story of genocide, which unfortunately has many other examples in the world, even today. Or whether it is a story of, if you will, transformations over long periods of time.”
The name of the museum clearly reflects its worldview, noting that the decision to call it a Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and not a Museum of the History of Jews in Poland or a Jewish Museum, defines what it really is – an exploration of history rather than of identity.
Polin, the Hebrew word for Poland, which is also the name of the museum, indicates that this history is about Jewish experience from multiple perspectives. Referring explicitly to “Polish Jews” indicates not only Jews in Poland, but also Polish Jews in the world. The museum’s name thus expresses the notion that during their 1,000-year history, Jews in Poland were not only a significant part of the country’s population, but also an integral part of its very being.
WHEN I question the extent to which Poland’s Jews perceived themselves as Polish or were identified by the larger society as such, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett responds sharply.
“Let’s take the interwar years. The Jewish schools were private schools and you had to pay for them, which means that they were not affordable for many families. As a result, 90 percent or more of Jewish children went to olish public schools, and many of them went to a Jewish after-school.”
A Canadian-born daughter of Jewish im - migrants from Poland, she notes that this was exactly the case with her father, who got his education in Polish public schools and then attended a heder in the afternoon. The Jew - ish private schools, another manifestation of the creativity and diversity of that popula - tion, were run by the different streams in Poland’s vibrant Jewish arena – Zionists, Bund, Agudas Yisroel, and other cultural and reli - gious organizations.
“You had a generation,” she says, “who was growing up in Polish public schools, who was absolutely fluent in Polish, who read Polish literature and learned Polish history. They were citizens, they voted. In fact, until 1935, the country was rather more a state of nations than a nation state.”
Indeed, for most of the past millennium, Poland, with its changing borders and dynamic history, was a country of diverse pop - ulations. The Jews who arrived in Poland a thousand years ago and throughout the following centuries settled in a country whose population was varied in almost every possi - ble way – culturally, linguistically, religiously, ethnically and nationally.
UNTIL THE late 1930s, Kirshenblatt- Gimblett points out, as much as 40 percent of the Polish population were of different national or ethnic groups: Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Germans, and Jews.
“That was what being Polish meant: being a Polish citizen, voting in elections and at the same time being recognized – and the Jews fought for that recognition – as a national minority that was self-determining in social and cultural terms. Being Polish meant that you could be a part of the wider society but also cultivate your own language and culture.
This model is probably much closer to today’s United States or Canada than to Poland, as you have it today.
“As a result of genocide, redrawing of boundaries, relocation of populations, emi - gration, assimilation and communism, Po - land today is a country that is smaller in ter - ritory and much more homogeneous than it ever was in its entire history.”
Polish Jewry, as the exhibition reveals, was far more diverse than is commonly perceived.
“This is not,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett stresses, “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Definitely not. Even the gallery that pres - ents the Jewish Town of the 17th and 18th centuries has no resemblance whatsoever to the dark, muddy and gloomy shtetl that has been tattooed into the collective memory.
“The exhibition could not have been further from the stereotypes of poor, persecuted and pious Jews,” she says, “nor of a paradise lost, a world of authentic Judaism. This is a 1,000- year story; each period has its own very spe - cific character. Jewish life developed. It was not a static, unchanging traditional world. It is a story that has many strands, and it is always connected to larger historical processes.”
The role of that diversity is emphasized at every layer of the Core Exhibition, whether by content or design. For the visitor, it’s a re - freshing curatorial approach, but it can also be a pretty challenging one as the opulence of visual presentations is almost as extensive as the enormous amount of displayed data.
This dazzling effect was tellingly described to The Report by Ana Strika and Goran Galic, Swiss artists touring Eastern Europe.
“Getting a clear picture of the story is almost Jewish World impossible in one single visit,” notes Strika.
“It’s like reading a book – leafing through it is one experience, but without reading each page you may miss the essential parts.”
Galic too pinpoints that feeling. “The content per se is extremely interesting and I’m all for multimedia. But the overflow of visual in - formation makes it feel a little too much like a kaleidoscope.”
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett believes visitors will get accustomed to the way the exhi - bition tells the story. “It is storytelling in space,” she says. “So, in that way, it’s like environmental theater and it asks of the visitor to explore and discover. For visitors who want a road map, there is a short guide to the whole exhibition that they can carry with them. There is also an audio guide.
But once in the gallery, the visit should be less about reading and more about experience – more about exploration and less about instruction.”
Another refreshing virtue of the Polin Museum is that it insists on introducing the many facets of that history via the voices and experience of sectors that are often silenced or pushed aside. Thus, community life, economy, regime, education, religion, gender is - sues, politics, and arts are also told via the perspectives of women or, for example, of Polish Jews who immigrated to America.
“We did our best,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says about women’s representation at the exhibition. But, she then adds, “If I had been able to, I would have strengthened that aspect of our story.” And, she notes, “I would also have strengthened the story of Polish Jews in the world.”
The theme of diversity also concerns the museum’s visitors. “Our biggest and most loyal audience would be people living in Poland today, but there are already many Jews coming to Poland from Israel and abroad for whom the museum is their first stop,” she declares.
IT IS no coincidence, therefore, that the first name visitors at the museum see when they step into its first gallery is that of the Cordovan Jew Ibrahim Ibn Ya’kub, who reported on his diplomatic travels to Eastern Europe sometime around the year 965 – and whose Arabic account is the first known reliable description of the Polish state under Mieszko, the first historical ruler of the country.
While the curriculum at Polish schools includes the Holocaust, it hardly addresses the country’s rich Jewish history. Ibn Yakub, being the first to record Poland in writing, is an exception. Seeing his name at the beginning of the tour offers the Pol - ish visitor a sense of familiarity. A grant received from the Norwegian government will deepen this familiarity as it is designed to bring every student in Poland to the Polin Museum at least once during his or her school years.
Another affair that Poles are familiar with is the Jedwabne massacre. A book, published in 2001 by the Polish-born American historian Jan Gross, revealed that the 1941 massacre of hundreds of Jews in Jedwabne, a town in eastern Poland, was conducted by their Polish neighbors and not, as the Pol - ish narrative had described until then, by the Nazis. Gross’s book “Neighbors” shook that narrative – which, by focusing on the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis had largely denied the extent of Polish violence against Jews during the Holocaust – and started a huge public debate about Polish accountability for such crimes, including pogroms and violence during which dozens of Jews were murdered after the war.
I ASK Kirshenblatt-Gimblett how this subject is presented – the sensitivity of which makes it highly explosive among both Poles and Jews.
“We present the events themselves in the exhibition and we present the debates,” she responds. “We present them in terms of the period and within their historical context.
We don’t introduce Jan Gross to a presen - tation in 1946 – when it’s 1946, we’re in 1946. But when we come to the period after 1989, that is when we introduce the debates that took place at that time.”
Poles are obviously keen to explore the new museum – the crowded galleries during my visit testify that this is another expres - sion of the growing Polish interest in the country’s Jewish heritage. Rapidly becoming a social, cultural and political factor in the Polish arena, this phenomenon also serves as a platform for a successful tourism industry and gradually cracks the prevalent image that ties Poland and the Jews exclu - sively with destruction and death.
“It’s a completely new generation,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says. “And I think that they miss the diversity that was once Poland.”
The enthusiasm with which the Polish media covered the opening of the perma - nent exhibition, she speculates, reflects the general public’s attitude. “I think that they took a deep breath and thought, ‘Oh my God! So the conversation is wider than the Holocaust and anti-Semitism? How did that happen?’”