by Dr. Joseph Bradley
In 2015, I was in Warsaw on a Fulbright grant as the Distinguished Chair of European Studies and taught two courses in Russian history. While there, I was able to visit the Polin Museum.
“Polin” means Poland in Hebrew. But it also means, “Here you shall rest,” referring to the legend of the arrival of the first Jews in Poland, roughly 1,000 years ago. The canyon-shaped entrance hall of the building is meant to evoke both the parting of the Red Sea and the rupture in the history of Jews in Poland caused by the Holocaust. The museum is the result of a 2005 public-private partnership, in which the Polish Ministry of Culture and the City of Warsaw funded the building, while the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute collected private donations, mainly foreign, to fund and support collections and museum programs. The museum is an effort to integrate Polish and Jewish history, to display the history of two peoples who are separate but together in a double helix of shared lives.
The main exhibition is a display of the history, a living memorial or “theater of history,” as the museum catalogue puts it, of the Jews in Poland from medieval to modern times. The exhibition is divided into eight galleries that feature multimedia narratives, interactive installations, paintings, oral histories, maps, and replicas of documents. The viewer may walk from the “Forest” gallery to the “First Encounters,” when Polish kings granted Jews privileges and protection, and then to “Paradisus Iudaeorum” (15th -17th centuries). We learn that religious tolerance in the Kingdom of Poland (in contrast to the religious wars fought in much of Europe) made this period a “golden age” for Jews. Next, the “Jewish Town” (17th and 18th centuries) features perhaps the most striking display of the entire museum: a replica of the roof and bimah of a wooden synagogue in Gwożdziec, a town in present-day Ukraine (then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). The synagogue was destroyed during World War I, then rebuilt and destroyed again during World War II; from 2011 to 2013, a team of restoration specialists rebuilt the ceiling and bimah, the subject of a documentary film Raising the Roof, previously shown at the Circle Cinema.
“Encounters with Modernity” (19th century) shows the disappearance of Polish statehood as monarchs of the region partitioned Poland. World War I brought Polish independence but also unleashed ethnic hatreds that prefigured those of World War II. “On the Jewish Street” portrays the interwar period, when Poland became an independent country, when Jews played a prominent role in public life, and when discriminatory policies against Jews, not entirely unlike those in Nazi Germany, increased in the late 1930s. Finally, “Holocaust” focuses on the Warsaw Ghetto, and its sharp angles and claustrophobic compression of space show how life increasingly closed in on Poland’s Jews. The museum does not emphasize the death camps, even though they were on Polish soil, in order not to overly connect the Holocaust to Poland, a very touchy issue among Poles today.
Indeed, the museum’s founders believed the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland had been overshadowed by the Holocaust. The last thing Poland needed was a Holocaust museum; Poland already was a Holocaust museum. The museum’s mission is to restore the memory of that 1,000-year history, to “build bridges across time and continents and between peoples,” in the words of the museum catalogue. The museum attempts to show that the history of Polish Jews was an integral part of the history of Poland, that a history of Poland is not complete without a history of Polish Jews, and that, likewise, a history of Jews is not complete without a history of Poland. An interpretation that emphasizes the commonality and mutuality of Jews and Poles rather than separateness is fairly new in Poland.
Thus, the overall agenda of the curators is to emphasize life rather than death. “It is not a museum of the Shoah,” said the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, at the opening ceremony in October 2014. “It is a museum of life.” Or, as the American-born Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, put it at the opening ceremony, “We’re back.”
Dr. Joseph Bradley is a professor of history at The University of Tulsa and a member of The Council for Holocaust Education at the Jewish Federation of Tulsa.