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1000 Years of History & Hope: The story of Polish Jewry comes to life on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto

Dr. Sam Kassow in front of the Ghetto Fighters Memorial Menorah facing the museum entrance.

Dr. Sam Kassow in front of the Ghetto Fighters Memorial Menorah facing the museum entrance.

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 “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.”

A wooden synagogue that is part of "The Jewish town" gallery within the museum's core exhibition. Photo courtesy of M. Starowieyska, D. Golik/POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

A wooden synagogue that is part of “The Jewish town” gallery within the museum’s core exhibition.
Photo courtesy of M. Starowieyska, D. Golik/POLIN
Museum of the History of Polish 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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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