Filling Up the Great Emptiness: An Interview with Marian Turski
The reactions were positive, but raising the funds was a battle - says Marian Turski of the Jewish Historical Institute.
Danuta Starzyńska-Rosiecka: Where did the idea of creating a museum of the history of Polish Jews come from?
Marian Turski: If we take Władysław Kopaliński’s Book of Quotations from Polish Belles-Lettres and look up the entries under ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish question’, it occurs that this theme is present in the writings of almost half of the authors. Sometimes it appears positively, sometimes negatively, sometimes indifferently, but it appears. Jews were a part of the Polish landscape for many, many hundreds of years. Thus they appear in Polish literature, but also in paintings, on many historical maps, it is only now that they are practically absent from Polish lands. They used to make up 10% of the population, now only a thousandth. There is a great emptiness where they used to be.
If we were to search for the idea of setting up a museum, that’s where it came from. Because when we have a great black hole, an emptiness in the history of Poland which can be seen and felt, then comes the idea to do something to fill up this emptiness, and if it’s impossible, to create some substitute which will fill it.
Here at the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, the person who first presented this idea was Grażyna Pawlak, then executive director of the association. Golda Tencer - current head of the Shalom Foundation, deputy director of the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, and Yiddish language actress – had the same idea simultaneously.
I remember that Ms Pawlak and Ms Tencer’s idea became clearer when – and this was over 20 years ago, when Michał Friedman was head of the Association – we met the creator of the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel-Aviv, along with one of the initiators and implementors of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Jeshajahu Weinberg. He told us back then that he was available to work, that he had finished his work in Tel-Aviv, finished his work in Washington, and that he would willingly do something in Warsaw. And thus those initiatives came together.
We were profoundly convinced back then that this was a wise initiative, that we will conquer the entire world right away, get the money and build a museum. We thought that Weinberg, as a very esteemed personality in the post-holocaust Jewish world both in the USA and in Israel, would arrange it for us.
The reaction to our idea – which surprised us - was positive but restrained, meaning if you want to build a museum that’s great, build it. On the other hand, when it comes to raising money it was a battle. I won’t deny that our arguments mostly consisted of something along the lines of: the Jews who perished left such a large fortune in Poland that it is the obligation of those who took it to give some to the museum.
Reaching out to donors, even if they were Polish emigrants themselves or their descendants, was not easy. Weinberg's unexpected death very much complicated matters. He was a man who inspired trust that the donated funds will not be wasted.
Did someone replace him?
Before Weinberg died, he recommended naming Jerzy Halberstadt, who was the director of the Polish representation of the Washington Holocaust Museum, as head of our enterprise. Halberstadt got to work with great energy and care. Academics, scientists and researchers began to gather around him, developing the concept of the permanent exhibition - the heart of the museum. He also later designated - as it turned out, very happily - professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, chair of the Performing Arts at New York University, as Director of the permanent exhibition.
The idea of the museum took flight when it was raised on the international scene by President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, at a conference on the Holocaust in Stockholm back in 2000, where several heads of states attended at Prime Minister Goeran Persson’s request. We should also honor and show gratitude to President Lech Kaczyński’s memory. He also showed great sympathy to the idea of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Where did you get the idea that the Museum of the History of Polish Jews has to be a museum of life rather than a museum of destruction?
We got this idea successively after seeing the Tel-Aviv Museum of Diaspora. They show there the history of Polish Jews, among other things. We thought that if it can be shown there, then why not show it at home, where there is a need to fill the crater left by the Holocaust.
Anyways, what other museum would make sense here? After all, everything else is authentic, German concentration camps are authentic: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Gross-Rosen, Stutthof, Treblinka, Sobibór. Extermination takes place here. The enormous blow dealt by the Holocaust can be understood when one gets acquainted with the thousand years of history which have taken place before, when one gets acquainted with the ideas and thoughts that were born here. Then one can understand how many centuries of work, thought, emotion, ideas and human activity perished.This is important. Only then can one understand the final stops of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chełmno...
Is the upcoming opening of the permanent exhibition the realization of a dream of restoring the memories of those who are no longer there?
Yes, it certainly is. The realization of this enterprise is, in my opinion, not courtesy or politeness or political corectness, it is indeed the realization of a dream, a dream that also belongs to people who do not have Jewish origins.
Sources: PAP, interview by Danuta Starzyńska-Rosiecka, translated by LB, October 2014