2014 Spotlight on Poland

By | Sep 04, 2014

Preview of the Core Exhibition of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews

by Nadine Epstein

My personal journey to Jewish identity has taken place by way of the past. Like many immigrants from Eastern Europe, my grandparents and great-grandparents rarely spoke of the Old Country, leaving me to spend years trying to piece together the clues. This longing to know more about my family’s origins led me to genealogical research and DNA testing, to towns and shtetls in Ukraine, and to Moment.

This past July it brought me to Poland, the mothership of Jews in Eastern Europe. I was invited to preview the core exhibition of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews, months before its official opening on October 28th. To say I was excited is an understatement: Despite my research, I sensed that there were gaping holes in my understanding of the world from which my family came.

I would not be disappointed. From the moment I arrived at the museum, which opened its doors in 2013 before its permanent exhibition was complete, I was filling in knowledge gaps. Set in a minimalist glass structure designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, the museum stands on the site of the vibrant pre-war Jewish MuranÓw neighborhood—later the Warsaw Ghetto. The sand-colored undulating walls of the cavernous central hall symbolize the cracks in Polish-Jewish history. The mezuzah affixed to the main entrance is formed from a brick excavated from a Jewish tenement buried beneath what is now a nearby park. The father and son designers—Andrzej and Maciej Bulanda—who conceptualized the mezuzah were inspired by the words of survivor Hillel Seidman. Upon seeing the sea of rubble after the ghetto was destroyed, Seidman wrote: “Of all the Jewish communities, the largest and most traditional is in Poland, in Warsaw. The corner of Nalewki and Gesia Street, here and nowhere else, is the very center of the Jewish world.” 

While its location speaks volumes, the museum is designed to draw attention to Polish Jewish life before and after the Holocaust. It is the culmination of the dream of a devoted group of Polish and American Jews, working in conjunction with the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland and the Polish government. “In 2002, it became clear to me that a very important part of the Jewish historical experience in Poland was essentially a historical blank,” says Krakow-born American philanthropist Tad Taube, who spearheaded the international campaign to raise $55 million to fund the core exhibition. (The Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the city of Warsaw picked up the building’s $70 million price tag.) “People weren’t talking about it except possibly in pejorative terms, with the emphasis on dying and death and the Holocaust,” he says. “Nothing was being discussed about 1,000 years of Jewish life.”

From this millennium of Polish-Jewish history emerged many of the ideas and movements of modern Western civilization, explains Sigmund Rolat, a Holocaust survivor who grew up in Czestochowa in the south of Poland and immigrated to the United States after the war. “Polish culture had a great influence on Yiddishkeit,” which in turn influenced the world, says Rolat, one of the museum’s major supporters. “Hollywood was born in Poland with the Warner brothers and Sam Goldwyn. All the great Zionists who built Israel were born in Poland or were sons of parents who were born in Poland. That includes every prime minister and every president of Israel except for one, and Theodor Herzl.”

So it is with considerable excitement that our small group of Polish and international visitors gathers on the museum’s main level. After a brief greeting by Museum Director Dariusz Stola, we meet the director of the core exhibition, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the American who orchestrated the international team of a hundred-plus scholars, curators and designers that crafted the exhibition narrative and brought it to life. A veteran museum professional and the daughter of Polish refugees, the New York University professor has been involved with the museum for 12 years, living full-time in Warsaw for seven of them.

Located on the museum’s lower level, the core exhibition comprises eight galleries, covering 43,000 square feet. The exhibition—inspired in part by Washington, DC’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—relies heavily on state-of-the-art technology and the testimonies, letters and journals of people who lived at the time to tell its story. There is the occasional artifact, as well as a 25-ton replica of a wooden synagogue at 85 percent scale. From where we stand we can see its pitched timber roof rising up from the gallery below and held in place by cables from above. The effect is of a building within a building, a metaphor for the Old World within the new. 



Bottom: The roof of the synagogue replica as seen from above. Top: The interior of the synagogue replica. 

Wooden synagogues, fashioned from the bounty of primeval forests that covered pre-modern Poland, were once common, but none of these great 17th- and 18th-century beauties survived the dual furies of nature and Nazis. This one is modeled on the synagogue from the town of Gwozdziec, built circa 1640 and destroyed during World War I. The curators chose it because it was the best documented (photographs, complete architectural drawings, an artist’s rendition of an interior color detail and a university dissertation on how it was constructed), making it possible for the museum to build it section by section using traditional tools, techniques and materials. “The synagogue is the most extraordinary object, not just because it is so beautiful, but because it is so meaningful, and its meaning is exponentially greater because of the way it was made,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. 

We follow her downstairs to the core exhibition. Upon entering, visitors first see “The Forest,” a multimedia installation designed to evoke the dense woods that Poland’s earliest Jews encountered. The museum draws on the writer S.Y. Agnon’s retelling of the mi polin folktale: Upon their arrival, Jews discovered a saying from the Talmud inscribed on every tree and took this as a sign that Poland would be their home. “Poland” was transposed to polin, which they interpreted to mean “rest here” in Hebrew. (Architect Mahlamäki incorporated polin into the building’s design, silk screening it over and over in Hebrew and Latin letters all across the vast expanse of exterior glass.)

In the “First Encounters” gallery I feel as if I’ve entered a cave covered with wall paintings, and in a sense I have. With only coins and tombstones surviving from 940 to 1507 (the earliest evidence of Jews in Poland is a one-sided coin dating from the beginning of the 13th century, says Kirchenblatt-Gimblett), the exhibition highlights stories culled from Jewish chronicles and rabbinic correspondence, as well as from Christian sources. These are told through medieval-style, hand-painted illuminations, designed by one of Poland’s foremost graphic artists and painted by church conservationists using materials of that period such as natural pigments and gold leaf. The effect is mesmerizing.

Our guide explains how waves of Jews fled expulsions and persecution in the kingdoms of western Europe, and traveled east to Poland over the course of 600 years. Welcomed by kings intent on developing the Polish economy, they brought monetary and credit expertise to the medieval state. One wall depicts the 1264 Statute of Kalisz, which endowed Jews with rights and guaranteed their safety. On another wall is the story of how German town planners designed Jewish neighborhoods with synagogues, cemeteries and mikvehs.

In the 15th- and 16th-century gallery we learn that by 1507, there were an estimated 30,000 Jews in 100 locations in Poland. In 1569, the kingdom became part of a federation called the Poland and Lithuania Commonwealth, encompassing what is today Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia. Many Eastern European historians consider the years from 1569 to 1648 to be the golden age of Polish Jewry. The center of the Ashkenazi Jewish world shifted east: Poland’s powerful rabbis and active Hebrew and Yiddish press transformed the region into a crucible of religious and legal thought. Jews enjoyed a high degree of political autonomy, with local, regional and national Jewish councils overseeing all aspects of Jewish life.

With the new Commonwealth came new business opportunities for Jews. Christian nobles, who had been granted new estates on the southeastern plains of Ukraine, invited Jews to settle in private towns to help manage their land holdings. The region became Europe’s breadbasket and the economy flourished. Meanwhile, a great osmosis occurred: Towns with large Jewish populations incorporated Jewish culture into their characters. At the same time, Jewish life—customs, music, food, even thought—absorbed a Polish flavor.


From top: Tad Taube; Irene Pletka; Sigmund Rolat; Helen Tramiel and her late husband Jack.

In the next gallery, “Into the Country,” we pass through the years from 1648 to 1772. The Jewish golden age ends abruptly with the bloody 1648 Khmelnytsky Uprising, in which tens of thousands of Jews in the southeastern part of the Commonwealth were slaughtered by Cossacks, and thousands more were forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives. The massacres, as well as long wars with Sweden and Russia, left the Commonwealth in shambles. When the turmoil was over, the Polish nobility allowed Jews to return to help rebuild the towns and estates.

But by the time the fields were planted and trade routes reestablished, Europe had its own wheat. That’s when, we learn in the museum’s “Tavern” exhibit, the grain was distilled into alcohol, and Jews became the middlemen in the liquor industry, a role that did not endear them to Ukrainian peasants. Still, prosperity returned, and according to 1765 tax records, an estimated 750,000 Jews lived in 1,100 communities throughout the Commonwealth. The killings and chaos, however, had left their mark: A new era of Jewish spiritual quests ensued, complete with messianic yearnings and the popularization of the Kabbalah. 

We enter the large chamber that holds the lower sections of the replica of the wooden synagogue. The bare timbers we saw upstairs gave no hint of the vibrancy of the interior, which bursts with brightly colored hand-painted scenes, text and designs. I walk up the steps into the sanctuary and onto the bima (actual size) and try to digest the explosion of color, which must have been a refreshing change for Jews living in often drab towns. The messianic tale of the leviathan (sea monster) wrapped around the city of Jerusalem appears on the ceiling along with Zodiac signs (found in temples since antiquity) and animals such as the red bull, hares, fish, the double-headed eagle, a unicorn and a lion. The walls are a swirl of floral and decorative patterns.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett practically has to drag us away to usher us into the 1772-World War I gallery, “Encounters with Modernity.” Here we learn how the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Hapsburg Empire each carved out a piece of the “royal cake,” that is, the Commonwealth. I could have gazed for hours at the three large maps showing the land each empire grabbed and the large numbers of Jews they “acquired” in the process. For example, Russia’s population of 50,000 Jews swelled to 610,000. “This presentation is for those of you who want to know where your families come from and complain that they say they came from Russia when you know they came from Poland,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “Now you might be able to figure it out. You can see where the Pale of Settlement [the area in western Russia where Jews were allowed to live] and Galicia [the part of the Commonwealth that became a province of the Hapsburg Empire], got their Jews.”

After this, the Jews of Poland lived in three different empires, each with its own set of laws for Jews: There were new rules for rabbis, marriage, taxes, conscription and surnames. The exhibition focuses on three main organized responses to the changing conditions: the Jewish Haskalah or enlightenment; the modern yeshiva (an animated film depicting a day in the life of a 19th-century yeshiva student is constructed around actual quotes from students); and Hasidism. At the same time, the industrial revolution arrived in Eastern Europe. Trains and machines brought new opportunities, and Jewish entrepreneurs such as Izrael Kalanowicz Poznanski opened factories, which would have enormous impact on the 20th century. A Jewish working class emerged, giving birth to the labor and the revolutionary movements. 

An exhibit replicates the salon of a wealthy Jewish woman, making it clear that Jews had begun to gain acceptance in non-Jewish Russian, Polish and German circles. With communal authority weak, individual Jews became more likely to make decisions for themselves. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism remained: When pogroms broke out in 1880-1881, one-third of Polish Jews (including one of my great-grandfathers) made the decision to leave, largely to the United States. Many of those who stayed became affiliated with new national political movements that were shaping modern Yiddish society, such as the socialist Bund, Zionism, diaspora nationalism and, later, Orthodoxy’s Agudas Israel.

We have now arrived at the dramatic entance of the 20th century. There was World War I, the collapse of the great empires, and the struggle to establish the Second Polish Republic. Despite fighting over borders and continuing pogroms, Jews were optimistic: They embraced the rights that came with the Republic—elections and equality for all. The museum calls this period between the wars a second golden age for Poland’s Jews, although Kirshenblatt-Gimblatt tells us that there are historians who view it as a downhill slide into disaster. “The Street” gallery captures the excitement of this interwar period with a stone street lined with projections of shops, cafés and a theater, complete with various detours into everyday Yiddish life, politics and culture.

Up to this point there has been no mention of the Holocaust, although the knowledge that it is coming cannot help but weigh heavily in a museum built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. “You cannot see it on the interwar street,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “When you turn the corner you will.” That it has taken us a long time to get here is deliberate. The creators of the exhibition clearly want visitors to be grounded in the breadth and length of Polish Jewish life before entering the “Holocaust” gallery. The tragic events began to unfold on September 1, 1939—the day the Germans invaded Poland from the west. Seventeen days later the Soviets crossed into Poland from the east. “Our whole history unfolds within the borders of occupied Poland,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “We try as much as we can to tell the story from documents of the period. The museum is interested in those who perished and those who endured, and their experiences are the first point of entry.” Visitors are asked to forget that they know what happened. Only gradually along the path through the gallery is the extent of the genocide exposed.


The mezuzah outside the museum’s entrance.

The steps to what Kirschenbatt-Gimblett calls “separation and isolation” are chilling. First, Jews were forced to wear identifying markings; segregation followed with certain sidewalks and other places declared off-limits; then Jewish property was looted; and finally, Jews were isolated in ghettos. Rather than an amalgam, the focus is on Warsaw. “We do this because we are standing on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto,” she explains. “We are a site-specific museum, and you should feel strongly that you are right here.” To tell the story, the museum quotes from the Yiddish diary of historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who led a team of ghetto inhabitants in creating a secret archive of daily life and Nazi atrocities, and the journal of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the ghetto Jewish council known as the Judenrat. Their written words accompany visitors until their voices go silent. 

There are a few other voices as well. “Among the team of writers and artists led by Ringelblum was a beautiful young artist, Gela Seksztajn, whose work was the only art to survive the liquidation of the ghetto,” says Shana Penn, the executive director of the California-based Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, which played a major role in the creation of the museum. Penn finds Seksztajn particularly inspiring. The artist buried her work in metal boxes along with her last will and testament, which states: “I bequeath my artwork to the Jewish museum that will one day be built in Poland to celebrate pre-war Jewish cultural life.”

No museum of Polish-Jewish history would be complete without the story of the Poles who lived outside the walls of the ghettos. “They lived under the rule of terror,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. In the exhibition’s “Aryan Street,” visitors learn about Poles who perpetrated crimes against Jews and about Poles who saved Jewish lives at great peril to themselves and their families. There is also a section of the exhibition devoted to hiding. Some Jews were hidden “in the light” with the help of organizations that provided false papers. Jews hidden “in the dark”—in a cupboard, attic, basement or hole in the ground—were usually helped by individuals.

By now the procession of history has become all too familiar. The gallery tells the history of the deportations and the Nazi death camps. By the end of the war, only 300,000 of Poland’s nearly 3,300,000 Jews remained alive.

But unlike most other museums that chronicle the Holocaust, the story doesn’t end here. “As far as they are concerned, the story is finished, and there is nothing more to say,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “Actually there is a huge amount to say, and it is a revelation for people who do not live here and are not familiar with this story. I think it is one of the most interesting exhibits in the entire museum because it is the gallery that comes closest to the present and is the way to understand the present.”

The “Postwar” gallery, she says, is organized around the most pressing question for Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust: Should they stay or leave? Most left, never to return. Those who stayed were faced with the same question time and again, particularly in 1968, when Poland’s communist government launched an anti-Semitic purge. Visitors then learn about post-1989 Jewish life and the small new Jewish community that has taken root. The exhibits reflect a phenomenon taking place beyond the museum’s walls. Fueled by young Poles—most of them not Jewish—and nurtured by diaspora Jews with Polish origins, the country has experienced a revival of Jewish culture. “Poles have realized there is a gaping hole in their history,” says Irene Pletka, a New York philanthropist whose parents were Polish refugees who fled to Australia via Shanghai, and whose largesse made the synagogue replica possible. “That hole was the presence of the Jews and the museum illustrates this honestly and with great artistry.”

Tad Taube recalls a conversation he had with the Polish consul general in Los Angeles in 2003 about why non-Jewish Poles had become so interested in anything Jewish, be it books, artifacts or music. “He remarked that in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, there were 35 million people in Poland,” says Taube. “Ten percent were Jewish but 75 percent of the culture came from that small Jewish population, and when Poland lost its Jewish citizenry it was essentially as if Polish culture had been amputated.” 

Understandably, not all Polish Jewish émigrés have been enthusiastic about the museum. Helen Tramiel, who survived the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz as did her late husband Sam—founder of the Commodore and Atari computer companies—was among those who found it hard to endorse. “For years my husband and I didn’t like Poland and refused to go back there,” she says. “We felt the Poles had betrayed the Jews in the Holocaust, and we didn’t want to support anything in Poland.” But after traveling to Poland and meeting Poles who were interested in Jewish culture and willing to confront the country’s past, the Tramiels decided to support the museum. “I want to make sure that the Jews of Poland and our history are not forgotten,” she says.

With its permanent exhibition in place, the museum (it also has a state-of-the-art auditorium, gift shop, restaurant, café and educational center) expects 500,000 visitors a year from Poland and around the world. For its Polish audience, the museum will provide the Jewish history that is a significant component of their national heritage. For its foreign guests, the museum will help put visits to Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps in context. “Many international visitors don’t really see very much of Poland,” says Sigmund Rolat, whose parents and brother died in the Holocaust. “Now I hope their first stop will be the museum. That will be the new portal.”

My preview tour lasted exactly an hour and ten minutes, far too short a time for me to absorb anything near what the museum has to offer. I will be returning for a deeper immersion. But months after my visit, I am still mulling over what I have learned: As the visionaries behind this extraordinary museum stress, 1,000 Jewish years in Poland are necessary to an understanding of Jewish history—including my own.

[box type=”shadow” align=”aligncenter” ]Galicia Jewish Museum’s New Permanent Exhibition
An Unfinished Memory: Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia


In An Unfinished Memory, photographer and essayist Jason Francisco’s images and text explore the legacy of Jewish heritage in Eastern Galicia, the still-powerful impact of the Holocaust and the challenge of remembering. The exhibition is on display at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland. [/box]

2 thoughts on “2014 Spotlight on Poland

  1. Arline Jolles Lotman says:

    The finest narrative I have ever read on a portion of my Jewish heritage. I felt as it I were in the Museum-I hope I will be some time in the future. My father’s family is from Galicia; my mother’s from Latvia. I am first generation American. Thank you for this written tour. Having visited the Jewish Museum in Philadelphia, I am disappointed at how little it conveys of my heritage-whereas this narrative seemed real. American Jews and others from the diaspora should have the opportunity of reading this presentation. I’m not sure how? Possibly asking the Jewish Museum in Philadelphia to stream it daily? I have some knowledge of its Board members but not certain that it is relevant unless funding comes with a proposal. Hopefully, there are others who have an interest in disseminating this narrative. Perhaps on our Public TV stations? I have little first hand knowledge of Germany’s Holocaust Memorial. What I have seen on film leaves a huge void that Poland’s tragic Jewish history could be helpful in filling. This history has life in it. The German memorial is a different perspective. But, as a Jew, I think this view would help the German people understand what they really have lost by murdering their fellow Germans who also were Jewish.

    1. Elzbieta Tracewicz says:

      Great comment!

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