A Virtual Visit to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Following 20 years of exhaustive works, preparation and fundraising, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is unlocking its doors. What will we discover inside? What does the main exhibition have to say about Polish-Jewish history?
On the final stretch, its name changed. The museum, now called Polin, is opening on October 28th. The heart and soul of the museum – its main exhibition, prepared by a team of curators under the lead of programme director Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett – has so far not been seen by the public. It is made up of eight galleries, illustrates a thousand years of Jewish life on Polish territory and will answer many questions and controversies regarding Polish-Jewish relations. And it will surely raise new ones.
The gallery is composed of various exhibition pieces. The first one is a map of the journeys of Ibrahim Ibn Jakob, a Jewish merchant from Cordoba who arrived in Poland (or as he writes, "the land of Mieszko") 960 years ago. Professor Hanna Zaremska, curator of the gallery explains,
The first people of Israel who appeared in this region were nomadic merchants and arrived from Western Europe. They traded in slaves and furs, expensive fabrics, roots and weapons. The slave trade was very profitable. Buyers went with the slaves to Asia – in the great Islamic empire, Slavic slaves were in high demand.
Next along the First Meetings gallery is an enlarged piece of the doors of Gniezno Cathedral. On it are Jewish slave merchants harassed by representatives of the Catholic church. The exhibition piece announces an important motif explored by the museum: the relations of Jews and the Church.
The role of Jewish merchants in the history of Jewish settlement in Poland is also illustrated by the museum's oldest exhibition – a bracteate from the Middle Ages. A bracteate is a flat, thin, single-sided gold medal worn as jewellery. This particular one was manufactured in Poland by Jewish minters with the name of Mieszko in Hebrew.
This gallery also reveals why Jews stayed in Poland and why settlement intensified. To ensure good relations, Polish rulers issued appropriate statutes. The most famous and important such document is on display in this gallery: the Kalisz Statute, a legislative act for the Jews issued by a priest from Kalisz, Bolesław Pobożny, on the 16th August, 1264. It concerned Jewish courts and separate courts for dealing with Jews and Christians. It guaranteed the personal freedom and security of Jews, and freedom of belief, travel and trade. The act can be read page by page.
The gallery also shows the place of Jews in the burgeoning Polish cities and sheds light on what they did for a living. They didn't become craftsmen, because craft production was monopolised by guilds which kept their corporations strictly Christian. Jewish populations were left with two main professions: trade and loans, in other words, usury.
We extensively deal with this delicate problem in the gallery by making use of different texts: Christian, sermons, city council books, and Hebrew writing. We explain what a loan was in the Middle Ages, we show a moneylender, the position of the Church, which allowed for an interest rate of up to 10 percent per year, and branded a higher interest rate a sin. A Jewish loan was short term and involved small amounts – explains Professor Zaremska.
On the walls of the gallery are hand-painted drawings reminiscent of works from the Middle Ages. The First Meetings gallery covers the longest period presented at the exhibition (960-1500).
Spanning the years 1569-1648, one of the biggest galleries of the exhibition presents the so-called Golden Age of the culture of Polish Jews. A heated discussion surrounded the name of the gallery, which at first finished with a question mark. "Paradisus Iudaeorum" i.e. "paradise for Jews" is after all an expression from a lampoon most likely written from the perspective of a Catholic townsman. Its author believes that Poland is a paradise for Jews and nobility but hell for servants and townsmen. The lampoon was a critique of the nobility and the Jewish community.
The Polish tolerance which allowed for the culture of Polish Jews to develop is one of the most interesting and controversial phenomena of Polish history. Today, it is often accepted that the famous Polish tolerance is relative, in other words, it becomes evident in comparison with the persecution that Jews experienced in Western Europe and from which they fled to Poland. The Paradisus Judaeorum gallery divides the issue into different themes.
A large part of the gallery is dedicated to education, the history of literary activity in Hebrew, and printing. Part of the exhibition features the story of the Helicz brothers – Jewish printers who opened a Hebrew printery in Krakow in 1534, and the story of another printery – this time in Lublin, managed by a German Jew, Kolonymos Ben Mardochai Jaffe. The evolution of print allowed for wide distribution of rabbinic commentary, such as that by the Rabbi of the Jewish community in Krakow, the President of the Krakow Yeshiwa, of Talmudist, and the philosopher Moses Isserles, commonly known as Remu. Education was no longer only for the elite.
There's an interactive part to the exhibition. Visitors can print and take home the symbols (today's logos) of the different 17th and 18th century printeries.
What follows is a virtual library and reading room. Printed on the walls are the names of the most important Jewish books. Together, the virtual library and the display dedicated to Rabbi Remu and printeries represent the richness of the spiritual and intellectual Jewish life of the time.
An important theme brought up by the exhibition is Jewish self-governance and the role of the Kehillot. Kehillot were autonomous governments of Jewish communities. One of them was Waad Arba Aracot (Parliament of the Four Lands), an institution that regulated the life of Jewish communities in Poland.
This part of the exhibition ends with a narrow hallway. it becomes evident that the drama of history is reflected in the design and adaptation of the museum building. The so-called Corridor of Fire symbolises the Khmelnytsky Uprising, which is considered by Jews the biggest national catastrophe since the destruction of Solomon's Temple. The walls are covered with paintings of war and conflagration, as well as quotes from a Hebrew chronicle of the Uprising, Yeven Mezulah by Nathan Hannover.
At first glance the gallery appears to present Jewish life in the 17th and 18th century. But you can't read a book by its cover. The authors purposefully left out the stigmatising term "shtetl" from the name of the gallery and the exhibition. There's a model Jewish village (that used Żółkiew as a prototype) with a tavern, a market place, a synagogue and people (computer-made figures from paintings by Jean-Pierre Norblin). Visitors are told about the history of the dynamic changes that occurred within Jewish society. Traditional Judaism was stirred by reformist movements – Hasidism, Frankism, Haskalah. A short film portrays the leaders of those movements: Baal Shem Tov, Jakob Frank, Vilna Gaon.
Further on, the exhibition illustrates the close economic ties between Jews and the aristocracy. Even before the Cossack uprising, magnates encouraged Jews to settle in small trade villages in eastern Poland, now, wanting to expand their estates, they did this even more willingly. In the eastern parts of Poland, where they were protected by the magnates, Jews were often the most numerous group of people (40-50 percent of all inhabitants). They managed the estates of the nobility by renting the taverns and mills. Under Jan III Sobieski these lands flourished.
The exhibition also sheds light on relations with Poles and Catholic Church. We are explained how the Catholic church viewed the Jewish community, and we can see images depicting the popular myth of blood libel.
The central element of the gallery and the entire museum is a synagogue, represented in the museum by a replica of the wooden roof of the synagogue in Gwoździec. It was one of the three oldest wooden synagogues. The documents regarding it date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Without them, the reconstruction of the building could not have been carried out. It was completed using traditional techniques, and decorated with elaborate polychrome murals in the same manner. The reconstruction is the symbolic heart of the museum, and it is visible from the museum's ground level.
The gallery introduces two figures: Ber from Bolechow and Salomon Maimon. The latter, a 19th-century child prodigy, studied Kant, learned languages and interpreted the Talmud from an early age. He left his home town and went to Królewiec, then Berlin and Amsterdam. In the German capital, he wrote his memoir in German and dedicated it to Stanisław August Poniatowski. The visitor is introduced to the epoch through his childhood and adolescent memories from Lithuania.
Encounters with Modernity is the largest gallery of the main exhibition (stretching over 800m2of the total 4000 m2 area). It's an account of the 19th century and how radically it changed the lives of Polish Jews.
The geopolitical, legal, demographic and industrial developments brought on by the partition of Poland also affected the Jews living in Poland. The new form of government and its new concepts were without a doubt more repressive towards the Jews – on the other hand, they created an opportunity for assimilation.
The visitor is shown the transformation of traditional customs. From the paintings of Wincenty Smokowski (Jewish Wedding) and sketches by Maurycy Gottlieb, we observe the evolution of Jewish wedding rituals.
Important Jewish bankers and financiers Herman Epstein, Leopold Kronenberg and J.G.Bloch exemplify the 19th century industrial processes and urbanisation. The men played a key role in the development of the Polish Kingdom's railway system.
A mock railway station symbolises the departure of the Jewish "train to modernity". The train is scheduled to leave from Warsaw to Vienna in October 1878.
In the 19th century the Jewish population of cities like Łódź and Warsaw began to grow. Three new social classes began to form mid-century – bourgeoisie, proletariat, intelligentsia. Jewish presence in Polish cultural life intensified – "a large portion of the museum is dedicated to this issue: how they saw their place and how Polish culture reacted to them" – says the gallery's curator Marcin Wodziński.
Polish lands continued to be home to the largest Jewish convergence of the 19th century. Cultural and religious life flourished. Here, Jewish culture branched out and new religious forms such as Hasidism or Lithuanian Yeshiva were born.
The exhibition features an animated film with the history of "Mother Yeshiva", the model religious school which was looked up to by all other schools worldwide. The gallery offers insight into Hasidism and life on the court of a Tzadik.
Haskala, Yeshivas and Hasidism became very creative culturally. Hasidism was an inspiration for many other areas of Jewish life. A set of rituals, characteristic for Polish Jews and new religious forms emerged, ones that existed no where else. And, what is important for the museum and the historical message – they still exist and are a big part of Judaism, not only for Hasidic Jews but also for secular Jews for whom the Jewish past is identified with Hasidism. When they imagine a traditional Jews, the majority of the people in the world imagine a Hasidic Jew – underscores Professor Wodziński.
Diaries written by Jews are integrated into the story of the 19th century.
Jews wrote them because, seeing the exorbitant transformations of the time, they felt the need to describe the world that was withering away in front of their eyes or had already disappeared. Most diaries were written in Hebrew and Yiddish, but also in German, Russian and Polish. One of the diaries is called About a world that no longer exists – explains Marcin Wodziński.
In this part of the museum a typical Jewish Street from the interwar period is brought to life. This remarkable gallery is built around the visualisation of a "Yiddishe gas", that is, Jewish Street. The street is 20 metres long, 4 metres wide and 7 metres tall and is located on the exact spot where the centre of the Jewish quarter of Warsaw once ran – Zamenhof street. But the fictive road isn't a replica of any actual street. The projected townhouses are from different Polish cities: Warsaw, Vilnius, Poznan and Krakow.
From the street the visitor can peek behind the facade of the Jewish street. One side of the road tells of Jewish politics in the inter-war period and its many facets. For clarity, the currents are categorised under three world views: Zionism, Orthodox and socialism.
The other side puts the wealth and diversity of Jewish culture in a prominent place. It reflects the political and identity choices of its creators. The gallery represents a pre-war café which looks like the one dominated by writers from the circle of Skamander. The coffee tables are replete with books in Polish and Yiddish, written by authors like Maurycy Szymel, whose identification with Jewish identity was much stronger. The Kinoteatr cinema room screens classics of cinematography and theatre in Yiddish and Polish.
The top floor of the houses of the Jewish street is a window into the everyday life of Jews at that time. Museum visitors are taken on a journey with the Jewish National Sightseeing Society. The journey leads through a dozen or so places, each with a different narrative. Kolbuszowa touches economic issues, Szczuczyna – anti-Semitism, Działoszyna – the choices faced by a young person entering adult life. The visit to Nowogródek expounds the contacts between the local community and Jewish communities in the U.S. which gave financial support to their counterpart in Poland.
Numerous interactive presentations show phenomena of Jewish life in the interwar period, such as the literary talent of Bruno Schulz or the Small Review – a newspaper created by Polish-speaking children under the guidance of Janusz Korczak.
The primary role of the museum is to commemorate and celebrate the history of Jewish life in Poland, as the Polin Museum creators underline, and not to create a Holocaust Museum. Nevertheless, the gallery dedicated to the Holocaust is one of the most suggestive and striking moments of narration.
The Holocaust gallery shows the visitors what happened to the Jewish nation and causes them to feel the horror of the crime. – says Jacek Leociak, who together with Barbara Engelking, planned out the gallery.
One of the main premises in the way of telling and showing the war and the Holocaust in the Holocaust gallery is a "suspension of knowledge of the end". In this part of the exposition, the history of the Holocaust is shown in a way that the visitors, like the Jews at that time, don't know its end – clarifies Jacek Leociak.
It's the perspective of the victim who doesn't yet know what awaits him. We follow in the footsteps of the victims. This has never been done in any Holocaust museum – at the start of the gallery, the visitor is put in a similar situation to the victims. It's about the state of consciousness – said Leociak.
First the outbreak of the 1939 war is shown – the September campaign, the entrance of the Soviets, the September defeat, for example, through the parade of the German army watched by Adolf Hitler on the 5th of October. There, the visitor is informed of two occupations: German and Soviet.
The rest of the exhibition only deals with the German occupation. This part of the gallery is named Separation and Isolation, referring to German laws that aimed at separating the Jewish people from Poles. The visitor can observe intensifying repressions, persecutions. The separation process ends with isolation and finally Jews being thrown in ghettos. This segment of the exhibition ends on the 16th of November ,1940 – the date of the closing of the Warsaw Ghetto.
This part of the gallery speaks specifically of the Warsaw Ghetto. Once again, it is shown – the gallery creators underline – in harmony with the grand concept of the museum – "life in the shadow of death", thus through different aspects of the life in the ghetto: social support, the health system, cultural life, spiritual life, conspiracy, Jewish collaboration with Germans, Jewish police, political parties.
The visitor is symbolically led through the ghetto by Emanuel Ringelblum and Adam Czerniaków. As the President of the Judenrat, Czerniaków represents the officials; Ringelblum represents the independent and social movement, and conspiracy. They both left testimonies in the form of journals. Czerniaków wrote in Polish, Ringelblum – in Yiddish.
A spacial metaphor awaits the visitors on the top floor gallery. There's a bridge modelled on the one over Chłodna street. Below the bridge is Aryan street. The visitor is put in the shoes of a Jew walking between the big and the small ghetto. For one moment, instead of the nightmare, they saw a different city where life seemed to be normal.
The Polish context – the story of the Polish Underground State, its structures and institutions; the Polish Council to Aid Jews (Żegota), the Warsaw Uprising, about the different stances Poles had towards Jews, is told on Aryan Street. "And this is another important novelty. No other Holocaust museum in the world shows Poland under occupation as deeply" elucidates Leociak.
Next comes Hiding. It sheds light on relations between the Poles who hid Jews and those in hiding; not all stories end optimistically. Only a few experienced such concealment. There are testimonies about methods of survival: either on the surface – using forged papers, or in a cellar, behind a closet, under tables, under barns.
The passage from one gallery to the next leads through different Ghetto streets: Karmelicka, Ogrodowa, Krochmalna, Orla, Leszno. They led to the Umschlagplatz. What is surprising is the small size dedicated to this place in the gallery.
We wanted to show the claustrophobia caused by the crowds of Jews driven from this square to the camps.
A separate part of the exhibition is dedicated to the Ghetto Uprising; the Stroop Report is shown and the reaction of the Warsaw streets to what is happening behind the walls – from "the Ghetto is on fire", "our friends are dying there" to "the Germans are cleansing Poland of the Jews"; there's also a quote from Iwaszkiewicz about the merry-go-round on Krasińskich square.
Just as important and extensively covered episode is the subgallery East – the Holocaust of Polish Jews – the Holocaust of European Jews. It distinguishes two phases of the Holocaust. The first started with the war with Russia when German units walking behind the army began the mass extermination of Jews and communists in the East; up to August 1941 they executed only men, after August they murdered everyone – women and children. And the second phase, when Germany introduced the Holocaust's new technologies – mass gassings.
In a grey corner an archival German documentary film about the Pelura pogrom of 1941 is screened. "It's strength is striking, therefore we show it in a way so as to not stun with tragedy", explain the curators.
Standing in contrast to the Holocaust is an exposition about the Wannsee conference. The meeting called for the mobilisation of the entire bureaucratic machinery of the 3rd Reich with the goal of introducing the most effective technologies to exterminate the Jews, not just by shooting victims but through gas and the chamber. The museum lists the perpetrators – the main participants of the Wannsee conference by name, with picture and biography.
The gallery also identifies Operation Reinhardt, under which the Jewish population on the territory of the General Government was exterminated, and the beginning of the extermination of European Jews.
In the following part, named Shoah, the gallery authors say that "visitors know everything, they know that something unimaginable is taking place". Polish Jews are taken among others to Treblinka, European Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A map of Europe draws the journeys between different places and the extermination camps. The Shoah hall leads visitors to the end, where they will come even closer to the victims. In this place of absolute Holocaust, on the doorstep of a gas chamber, we have to say goodbye to the victims.
Leading the viewer from the Holocaust gallery we try to follow the footsteps of the victims, to show them solidarity. The last point which we can approach are four pictures taken secretly with a smuggled camera by the members of Sondercommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau; these are some of the most important pictures of the Holocaust, known everywhere in the world, shown in every museum. They are most often exhibited in a scandalous manner: enlarged, cropped, taken out of context. The originals are blurry, crooked. They cannot be photoshopped. These pictures are relics – underscores Leociak.
In the gallery these pictures are exposed in glass cases at the end of the Shoah corridor. To be seen properly, they have to be approached, observed from up close. Small blurry pictures show the faces of victims for the last time – a group of naked women walking into the gas. This image ends the Holocaust gallery.
The last part of the gallery is called Emptiness. It's an empty space devoid of exhibition pieces, a space for reflection.
This is another novelty in comparison to other Holocaust museums – highlights Leociak. – In the Holocaust gallery we don't talk about the liberation of the camp, there is no happy ending here like in Jerusalem or Washington. Other galleries speak of that. Holocaust ends in emptiness".
The last gallery of the main exhibition demonstrates the state of the post-war life of Poland's Jewish community. The narrative starts in 1945, when those who survived the Holocaust returned from the camps or came out of hiding and then emigrated from Poland, mainly because of post-war pogroms and the state-organized anti-Semitic campaign in the People's Republic of Poland in 1968. 1989 is an important date. It marks the rebirth of a small yet very dynamic Jewish community in Poland. Another significant date is 1980, when the Solidarity movement developed and Poland began to slowly free itself from the shackles of communism.
The inscription above the entrance to the Post-war gallery reads: "Hell has ended, but now I am left alone, like thousands of other Jews who often have no one on the entire planet Earth". It's a quote by Solomon Doliński, prisoner of Majdanek, Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, Gusen.
One of the walls in the gallery is covered in tiles, and each tile has a registration card from the Central Committee of Jews in Poland. Those who signed up for the committee arrived from hiding, from the Soviet Union, from the camps. The empty tiles symbolise those who didn't register in any Committee (about 10 percent).
The gallery is divided into bright and dark areas. One of the bright areas refers to the reconstruction of a ruined city. Dark corners describe pogroms in 1945 in Kielce, Rabka, Radom, Krakow. What was most challenging to display – says Antony Polonsky, the museum's main historian – was the so-called Żydokomuna (blaming Jews for the introduction of Communism in Poland) and the role of people with Jewish origins in the building of totalitarian communism in post-war Poland.
There were also attempts at normal life after the war. More often than not that was possible in culture, in the arts. The gallery presents the works of the sculptress Alina Szapocznikow and the painter Artur Nacht-Samborski. They are both artists with Jewish origins.
The numbered presence of Jewish youth at the 5th International Youth Festival in 1955 was another attempt at normal life. But the year 1968 changed everything. Anti-Jewish feelings arose in some political parties, in the army and the militia. The events caused mass emigration of people with Jewish origins from Poland. Among them were scientists, people from the sphere of culture. As a result of the anti-Semitic campaign 1968-1972, between 15 and 20 thousand people left Poland. The gallery features megaphones which emits the voice of communist leader Gomułka and other speeches. Another understanding of the situation is given through accounts and memories of Jewish emigrants.
Originally – as the museum creators explain – the year 1968 was intended as the end of the Post-war gallery. But then came the 80s, Solidarity and the period of Martial Law. In 1987 Jan Błoński published an article in Tygodnik Powszechny titled Poor Poles Looking at the Ghetto, which played an important role in the history of the Polish-Jewish dialogue. In 1988, in a letter to Marek Edelman, Lech Wałęsa wrote "The Uprising of Jewish combatants was the most Polish of all Polish Uprisings". Both texts are exposed in the gallery. Also available is a film by Marian Marzyński, an emigrant from 1969 who visited Poland in 1980 and shot a documentary which shows his fascination with Solidarity and the changes in Poland.
The Post-War gallery and the main exhibition ends here. Right before the exit, a screen asks the visitor: "Did you always know you were a Jew?", "When did you find out you were a Jew?", "Is there a future for Jews in Poland?".
The main exhibition of the Polin Museum opens on the 28th of October, 2014. It will be open to the public two days after the opening. Online registration is required. See the programme
Sources: Polin Museum press materials, PAP
Edited by Mikolaj Glinski, translator: MJ 27/10/2014