Shoah is the title of one the eight galleries comprising the main exhibit of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The Warsaw exhibition stands out in comparison to any other places commemorating the Holocaust. Professor Barbara Engelking, who is the co-author of the Shoah Gallery concept and script together with professor Jacek Leociak, explained in a talk with the Polish Press Agency:
"Our museum is not just a museum of the Shoah. We speak about the Shoah in the context of the 800 years of Jewish presence in Poland. The important task, and also a chance for our museum, lies in the goal of depicting how, for centuries, Jewish history was intertwined with Polish history, and how the two cultures influenced each other".
According to Prof. Engelking, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews owes its distinct character first and foremost to its location. She said:
"The Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. is located on completely neutral ground, and this is also the case with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. None of them are located in the site of a former ghetto, unlike the Warsaw Museum of the History of Polish Jews. This makes it unique – it has been raised in exactly the same place, under the same sky, and the same address. What we speak about and what we show in the Shoah Gallery pertains to the events that took place under Nazi occupation on the same streets which are in the direct neighbourhood of the museum: the Karmelicka, Gęsia, and Nalewki streets. The pre-war location of Zamehof street is in line with a fragment of the street that will be marked within the museum. The exit from its headquarters leads straight onto the Monument of the Heroes of the Ghetto, which is one of the most recognisable icons of the Holocaust in the world. This creates an additional emotional charge, but this was precisely the kind of way of depicting history that we were seeking in the Shoah Gallery, although we naturally also strive for an objective historic narrative."
Prof. Engelking also noticed one of the difficulties in constructing the gallery. It had to do with showing the Shoah within a historic context, something that had never taken place before.
"Together with Jacek Leociak, we took on the assumption that the story of this gallery is meant to be told from the perspective of people who do not yet know what awaits them. We decided to do something which has thus far never been done in any Holocaust museum – the viewer who starts his visit in our gallery is placed in a similar situation to that of the Jews of the period. We called this a 'suspension of the knowledge of the end'."
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The history depicted in the Shoah Gallery begins with the outbreak of war in 1939. It then depicts the September Campaign, the Soviet invasion, and the defeat of the army (including the German troops' parade, received by Adolf Hitler on the 5th of October). The viewers are also provided with information about the two occupations: German and Soviet. Then, the next part of the exhibition concentrates on the German occupation.
"We decided to name this part 'Separation and Isolation', because it depicts the way the Germans separated Jewish civilians from Poles through a series of decrees. The viewer will see increasing repression and persecution. The process of separation ends with isolation, through the enclosing of Jews within ghettos. This fragment of the exhibit ends with the date of November 16th, 1940, because it was then that the Warsaw ghetto was closed. The viewers then proceed into the part called 'Ghetto 1'. The story in this part of the gallery pertains to the Warsaw Ghetto."
Different aspects of everyday life in ghetto will be shown in this place: social welfare, medical service, cultural life, spiritual and religious life, conspiratorial activities, the collaboration between Jews and Germans, Jewish police, and political parties.
According to the authors' idea, viewers are symbolically lead through the ghetto by Adam Czerniaków and Emanuel Ringelblum. Czerniaków, as the president of the Judenrat in the ghetto, presents the official side. Ringelblum, the creator of Oneg Szabat, the ghetto's underground archives, presents the independent, conspiratorial, and social aspects. Both have left behind testimonies in the form of diaries. Czerniaków wrote his in Polish, while Ringelblum wrote in Yiddish. The gallery also presents the Polish context, the story of the Polish Underground State, and its structures and institutions. It depicts Żegota, the terror against Poles, the Warsaw Uprising, and the stances taken by Polish people towards Jews – from indifference, through violence, to extortionists [the so-called szmalcownicy].
"And this is yet another characteristic trait of our museum. There is no other Holocaust museum in the world which has gone into the topic of an occupied Poland in so much depth. We depict the relationship between Poles who helped to hide Jews and those in hiding in a way that is much broader than in other countries. We have testimonies of ways of surviving both 'above ground' – with fake documents – and 'underground' – in cellars, behind closets, under barns and sties. The theme of hiding, of help, and of salvation is an extraordinarily significant one in Polish-Jewish relations. And this is what we show."
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The last part of the gallery is called 'Shoah', employing the Hebrew word for complete annihilation and destruction. There is a map of Europe, showing different parts of the continent from where people were brought to the Nazi death camps. Polish Jews were taken, among other places, to Treblinka, and European Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
"The corridor in the ‘Shoah’ [part] leads the viewer towards a finale, in which there will be the closest proximity to the victims; in this place of complete destruction, on the threshold of a gas chamber, we have to part with the victims. And this is not the end, not the closing of this gallery, but not everything has to be spoken out, let there be room for an intimate experience and personal reflection."
The lecture of Prof. Barbara Engelking from the Centre for Research on the Shoah of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences took place on the 15th of April, 2014, as part of the lecture series entitled Revealing the Main Exhibit. The main exhibit of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is scheduled to open in October, 2014.
Source: PAP Polish Press Agency, edited by Natalia Zuch, April, 2014
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 16/04/2014