By Cindy Mindell
Legend has it that, as European Jews were fleeing east from the ravages of the First Crusade, a group of them came upon a forest. Stopping for a moment, they heard birds chirping, “po-lin,” Hebrew for “here, rest.” And they did, initiating a millennium of vibrant Jewish life in Poland – “Polin” in Yiddish and Hebrew.
That tale greets visitors to the new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in late October on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Built directly across from the Monument of the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes, the $96 million project received more than $60 million from the Municipality of Warsaw and Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The rest of the funding was raised by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, a non-profit organization that has served as a caretaker of the country’s Jewish heritage for more than six decades. A group of Warsaw-based organizers invited émigré scholars and cultural activists in New York to help promote the museum concept and identify funding sources.
A “soft opening” of the building was held in April 2013 as part of the 70th-anniversary commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Twenty years in the making, the concept for the museum developed in response to the success of, and from a sense of necessity after, the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, according to Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett of New York University, who led the design of the core exhibition. She credits Shaike Weinberg with inspiring the tone of the Polish museum’s core exhibition. Weinberg designed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibition and was a pioneer of the multimedia, narrative museum, which he first implemented in establishing Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv.
Planned in the ‘60s and opened in the ‘70s, the Israeli museum was considered quite radical for its time, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says, as it contained no objects.
“Shaike started out as a theater director, and without objects, he felt that the museum would free itself to use every method and means necessary to tell its story,” she says. “When I asked him, ‘What’s the definition of a museum?’, he said, ‘It’s a story in a three-dimensional space,’ and that sounds a little like theater, and in many ways, I think of the Polish museum as a theater of history.”
If the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was experienced by many as emphasizing death and loss, the Polish museum should offer a countervailing accent on Jewish life, according to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
“Somehow, the world should not know more about how Jews died than how they lived,” she says. “Shaike thought it would be extraordinary to create a museum of the history of Polish Jews in Poland, where the Nazis brought death to the Jews.”
In 2006, after consulting for the museum for several years, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was invited to lead the core exhibition team, comprised of the museum’s curatorial staff and an international group of historical experts from Poland, Israel, and the United States. Samuel D. Kassow, Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College in Hartford, served as lead scholar for the aspects of the exhibition that address the period between 1860 and 1939, his academic expertise.
Ground was broken on June 26, 2007, where the Warsaw Ghetto had once stood, a site reduced to rubble after the uprising of January 1943. Museum designers had no architectural fabric or history to work with, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says, and many collections of objects and documents had been destroyed as well. “We need to engage visitors without requiring a lot of text or docents or tours or apparati – but rather an environment that a visitor can independently explore,” she says.
Described as “the heart and soul of the museum,” the exhibition presents 1,000 years of history of the largest Jewish community in the world, occupying eight galleries and nearly 45,000 square feet. Rather than view this history through locked display cabinets, visitors participate in an interactive, multimedia narrative of Jewish history, culture, and religion based on source materials – drawings, photographs, films, and everyday objects.
The Oct. 28 dedication was attended by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin – making his first foreign trip in that official capacity – and Polish president Bronslaw Komorowski.
Poland became a center of European Jewry around the 17th and 18th centuries, as Jews fled persecution in western and central Europe and were welcomed by Poland’s tolerant leaders. Around 750,000 Jews were living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by 1764, growing to 3.3 million by 1939.
Nearly wiped out during the Holocaust and by the communist regime that followed the war, Polish Jewry has seen a revival in recent years. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Jews currently live in the country.
“It’s very difficult to know how many Jews are in Poland now,” says Kassow, who attended the museum’s opening with his wife, Lisa Pleskow Kassow. “Many people who were given away as infants during the Holocaust find out they’re Jewish. With others, their parents only told them in the last few years that they are of Jewish origin. So, now they have decisions to make: some say nothing; others reach out to the Jewish community. And then, some are halachicly Jewish and some are not. There’s a process of slow development: you have the Nozyk Synagogue on one hand, that does not have an easy time accepting people who are not halachicly Jewish; but on the other hand, you have chavurot [small fellowships of Jews] that do. The JCC is secular, open to anybody. It’s a very diverse community.”
The core exhibition highlights the world of Polish Jews in eight galleries: Forest, First Encounters (Middle Ages), Paradisus Iudaeorum (15th-16th centuries), Into the Country (17th-18th centuries), Encounters with Modernity (19th century), The Street, Holocaust, and Post-War Years.
Three messages drive the museum, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says: (1) The history of Poland is not complete without the history of Polish Jews; (2) there is more to Jewish history in Poland than the Holocaust; and, (3) the story of Polish Jews doesn’t end with the Holocaust, but continues into the post-war period, the present and the future, in Poland and beyond.
“These messages run quite contrary to the way in which Poland has come to be viewed in history; the Holocaust has eclipsed a millennium of life,” she says. “Our task was to somehow address that.”
From the perspective of Polish-born philanthropist Tad Taube, honorary consul for the Republic of Poland in San Francisco, the significance of the museum’s content goes beyond Polish Jewish history.
“In portraying 1,000 years of Jewish culture and history in Greater Poland, the museum traces the foundations of Judeo-Christian Western culture,” he says, referring to the contribution of Polish Jews to the various spectrums of Jewish and Christian faith in addition to significant Jewish cultural influence in philosophy, literature, theater, music, and the physical sciences. Taube is the chairman of Taube Philanthropies and president of the Koret Foundation, which together provided significant funding for the museum.
The design took shape in dozens of meetings over three years, says Kassow, because “there’s an enormous difference between what a historian thinks and believes is important – how a historian presents history – and how it has to be presented in a museum. In the end, 99 percent of the scholars’ material was discarded, distilled down to the one percent that created the most compelling narrative.
“It’s a narrative museum; people are not going from artifact to artifact to artifact, but each gallery has a story to tell and each inch of space is carefully planned to be integrated into that story,” Kassow says.
The remaining one percent describes the interconnectedness of Jews and Poles. “Jewish history doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s more than simply ideas and religion; it is about people and life, many individual lives,” he says. “It’s not just politics but social movements like emigration, how people decided to get married, the books they decided to read. That’s what the exhibition spaces show.”
The Street constitutes the main space of the exhibition. Flanked by two-story buildings, one side is dedicated to politics and the other to culture, Kassow explains. Visual displays on Zionism, Orthodoxy, and the Bund sit across from, and interact conceptually with an entire wall plastered with Yiddish and Polish newspapers, illustrating the multilingual nature of Polish Jewry.
Scholars and designers drew from home movies and a photographer’s negatives to create scenes from daily life, culled from various Polish shtetls and cities: a market square; the wedding of a Chassidic rabbi’s daughter. One scene portrays the German- and Polish-speaking Jewish community of Katowice in southern Poland, whose rabbi was the father of West Hartford resident and Holocaust survivor, Dr. Leon Chameides. Another area shows Gdynia, a port city in the north of the country, as a way to discuss the issue of emigration.
The last part of the 19th century was “complicated,” Kassow says, “because there was no Poland: the country was divided between different empires, so it is much more challenging to tell a coherent story.”
The spaces for this part of the narrative are built around a large railway station, conveying the transformation and energy of the period through the stories of individuals buying tickets to ride. Around the railway station are areas portraying factories and the life of the working class, and the rise of Hebrew and Yiddish literature.
As a civic initiative and state-funded institution, the museum’s target audience is much broader than the Jewish community in Poland, says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
“Every inch of space counts and is carefully calculated,” Kassow says. “We have to remember that we’re dealing with different audiences: For the Polish high school seniors making their class trip to Warsaw and to the museum and never saw a Jew, this is about their own country at the peak of its multicultural period, when the cities were half-Jewish. We’re dealing with tourists from Israel, both religious and secular. Hopefully, we’ll be dealing with March of the Living, if it decides the museum fits into its agenda, showing that Poland was not just about death but about life. We’re trying to counter the notion that Poland is a cemetery.”
While some may hold onto that narrative no matter what, Kassow says that the museum is meant to help reframe the way Jews see their past, a contribution to the notion of Jewish peoplehood.
“This is a story of a Jewish civilization that developed in Poland, which provided its own special character. It was a civilization that was vibrant and in many ways, very self-confident,” he says. “Many visitors to the museum point out the beautiful reconstructed ceiling of the wooden synagogue of Gwozdziec. People should remember that, just as Jews were feeling oppressed and poor and trapped in Poland, the community wouldn’t have built such a beautiful synagogue if it didn’t also have that self-confidence.”
Kassow’s involvement in the project is not only from a scholarly motivation. “As a child of survivors, I feel I’m here because of a miracle and I want to keep the memory of Polish Jewry very much alive,” he says.
The museum’s opening ceremonies struck that tone, with a gala concert featuring works exclusively by Polish-Jewish composers. Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Prof. Małgorzata Omilanowska, announced that the museum’s opening should launch a new era of mutual understanding, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
At the same time, Kassow doesn’t allow his optimism to cloud his awareness of the growing anti-Semitism in much of Europe.
“I’m an alarmist; I’m worried about anti-Semitism that is nicely packaged as anti-Zionism, and I don’t think Jews are worried enough,” he says. “Poland is one of best countries in Europe in that regard. There is anti-Semitism there, but it’s kind of old folk anti-Semitism, not as serious as in Scandinavia or Britain or France.”
Even that specter seems to dim in the face of the current Jewish community in Poland, says Lisa Kassow, director of Trinity College Hillel. “It’s important to note that the story of Jewish life in Poland isn’t over,” she says. “There is an increasing interest in a renewal of Jewish life in Poland, and that’s a really interesting dimension to the story.”
Lisa Kassow led a group of Trinity College Hillel students to Poland last year.
“Engaging with the present and thinking about the future was very much part of the mission of our trip,” she says. “There’s a day school, congregations of different denominational communities, one synagogue building, a JCC busting out of its walls that looks like it could be in trendy Brooklyn – we saw lots of hipster people with their babies.”
This time, she says, that mood seemed to spill out into the streets. Looking out a window of the Bristol Hotel in Warsaw, where her husband was giving an impromptu talk to a group of Jews visiting from California, Lisa saw a row of lampposts, bedecked with Polish and Israeli flags hanging side by side.
In June, Sam Kassow will be heading back to the museum, this time as leader of a delegation from the Center of Jewish History – home to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, among other Jewish institutions – and the Forward Association.
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