Polish Museum Set To Open Spectacular Window on Jewish Past

Meticulous Recreation of Forgotten World of Shtetl and Ghetto

Intricate Recreation: Boaz Pash, chief rabbi of Krakow, explains the symbols on the reconstructed roof of a 18th century wooden synagogue that once stood in the town of Gwozdziec. The meticulous model is a centerpiece of the new Jewish museum in Warsaw.
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Intricate Recreation: Boaz Pash, chief rabbi of Krakow, explains the symbols on the reconstructed roof of a 18th century wooden synagogue that once stood in the town of Gwozdziec. The meticulous model is a centerpiece of the new Jewish museum in Warsaw.

By A.J. Goldmann

Published April 01, 2013, issue of April 05, 2013.
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“We want to show that Jews are not a footnote to Polish history,” added Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the New York University professor who oversaw the development of the permanent exhibition.

Her involvement with the museum dates back to 2002. That year she was asked to review the exhibition’s provisional plan, which had been drafted two years earlier. Since then she has headed a team of 120 curators, scholars and experts from the United States, Poland and Israel who have worked together to generate the contents of the exhibition’s eight galleries.

Calling the approach that they’ve taken “chronothematic” — meaning the galleries treat themes that don’t always fit neatly into a fixed timeline — she stressed that she didn’t want the exhibit to be a “march through time.”

“It’s about historical process rather than a sequence of events,” she said. One of the curators’ keys decisions was to integrate the Jewish and Polish narratives as much as possible, rather than to explain them as parallel yet separate developments. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said she expects that Poles will be surprised to view their own past through a new lens.

“Polish visitors who come are going to recognize their history,” she predicted.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett compared the Warsaw museum with the Jewish Museum Berlin, which, she suggested, has given the Germans a way of connecting to Jewish history other than the overwhelming public grappling over the Holocaust. A central goal of the Warsaw museum, she suggested, was to show that the destruction of Polish Jewry was not inevitable.

“The stigma of anti-Semitism and the death camps is so overwhelming, but there’s no teleology to this 1,000-year history,” she said. “It didn’t need to end this way.”

While the monument to the heroes of the ghetto uprising commemorates the dead, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett suggested that the museum would be more life affirming than eulogizing. “When you sit shiva, you console the mourner by celebrating the life of the deceased,” she said.

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