A Virtual Home for Poland’s Vanished Jews

By Gal Beckerman

Published September 30, 2009, issue of October 09, 2009.
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In the Virtual Shtetl, there is no Tevye the Milkman. Gimpel the Fool doesn’t live there, either. And you won’t find Marc Chagall’s floating goats and violins.

At Home on the Web: The Virtual Shtetl Web site is a project of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Click to view larger.
At Home on the Web: The Virtual Shtetl Web site is a project of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Click to view larger.

There is no nostalgia to speak of — just facts. Google maps, detailed photos of dilapidated tombstones poking through the earth of forgotten cemeteries, scanned birth certificates, sepia-toned family photos of long ago weddings and sports matches.

An online project of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews — whose physical site will open in Warsaw in 2012 on ground where the ghetto once stood — Virtual Shtetl is an effort to collect this documentation and contribute to what the $150 million Polish initiative calls a “museum without barriers.” Using the participatory power of Web 2.0 technology, the descendants of Polish Jews, together with today’s Poles, will work together on excavating the past of hundreds of communities where a rich Jewish life once existed.

The Web site, started last June and so far used mostly by Polish history buffs, has, according to its organizers, much the same goals as the museum, a glass-cubed structure designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki that will be filled with multimedia exhibits and will be a destination for 450,000 visitors a year, 70% of them Polish and 30% foreign tourists. The museum and Web site are an effort to paint a picture of the Jewish experience in Poland that is broader than the single fact that has come, over the past 60 years, to dominate — namely, the Holocaust. The organizers instead want to animate the story of Jewish life in Poland for the 1,000 years before the war, a narrative whose time they feel has arrived.

“What we have today, this ‘March of the Living,’ is really a march of death,” said Sigmund Rolat, chairman of the North American organization supporting the museum, referring to the annual march that brings thousands of young Jews to Poland to commemorate the Holocaust. “Kids come to Poland for three days, and they see the triangle of death: Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek. That’s not enough. It’s important. But that’s only one chapter of the history. They should also find out where Jews lived, where they thrived, where they accomplished so much.”

The idea for Virtual Shtetl (www.shtetl.org.pl) was first proposed by Albert Stankowski, a Polish historian who had spent four years traveling around Poland from one Jewish site to another as part of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage. He wanted to bridge what was a growing interest among Poles about the Jewish history of their towns with the desire of descendants of Jews from those towns to understand where their families came from. Throw in the Wikipedia-like innovation of user-generated content, and the site was born.

“This is a dynamic, interactive way of doing history,” Stankowski said, speaking through a translator while on a recent trip to New York. “History is not the private domain of an exclusive group of historians and archivists, but everyone can participate, because everyone’s past connects up with history.”

A user visiting Virtual Shtetl can now type in the name of a town or city where a Jewish community existed; more than 900 are now listed. A Google map will appear, along with any material that has been uploaded to the site by its users — from photographs of streets to city documents relating to Jewish life — along with various entries about the Jewish history of the place. Stankowski has even more high-tech plans for the future. Eventually the site will be synchronized with GPS so that visitors to Poland can use it to discover their ancestral villages and towns on their own. Stankowski also has a vision of the Web site as an online community, a resource for sharing and updating information on hundreds of sites.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor of Performance Studies and Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University who headed the team planning the museum’s exhibition, described Jews and Poles as living until now in “parallel universes.” Jews perceive Poland as a giant graveyard, she said, and this Web site could potentially be “transformative” both for the relationship of Jews and Poles and for returning their shared history to its proper context.

“It is more than an archive, more than a place to deposit and preserve material,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “It is raising consciousness and creating an ongoing, active engagement with the Jewish past. It’s not passive. It’s not a monument.”

In its first three months of life, 80% of the users of the site have been Polish, Stankowski said. Already, 3,000 photos have been uploaded. Stankowski hopes that Virtual Shtetl will fill out even more with contributions from Jews who have researched their family histories or taken their own trips to Poland. He doesn’t even mind if the photos posted to the site show antisemitic graffiti left on tombstones or signs of neglect and abandonment. As he sees it, this is all part of building the online community. He wants it to reflect the full measure of the Jewish world in Poland, as it was and as it is now.

“The term ‘shtetl’ is used here metaphorically, to mean ‘community,’” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “It’s the community of likeminded souls, Jews and non-Jews, who really deeply care about the Jewish past in Poland and want to work together to recover it. And in the process, to actually form new relationships.”

Contact Gal Beckerman at beckerman@forward.com

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