In August 1942, as Jews were being deported from the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish artist Gela Seksztajn wrote her last will and testament. “I donate my work to the Jewish Museum to be founded in the future to restore pre-war Jewish cultural life and to study the terrible tragedy of the Jewish community in Poland during the war,” it read.
Seksztajn’s words were invoked by Dariusz Stola, the director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews on Tuesday during the inauguration of the museum’s permanent collection, a long-awaited “core exhibition” put together by an international team of 120 scholars and curators. Nearly a decade in the making, it narrates the millennium-long history of Jews in Poland, which was the center of Ashkenazi Jewish life for over 400 years.
On the eve of World War II, 3,300,000 Jews lived in Poland; Polish Jews accounted for half of the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, and today, 70% of the world’s Jewish population has Polish ancestry. Looking at such figures, it should be clear why a National Jewish Museum in Poland — and specifically in Warsaw, once home to the world’s second largest urban Jewish population after New York — represents such a significant, symbolic and potentially contentious project, much more even than for Berlin, Munich or Vienna, to name other European capitals with high-profile Jewish museums.
“When you are a Jew, even if you were not born in Poland, the very name ‘Poland’ stirs up trembling and longing in your heart,” said Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, a guest of honor at the opening ceremony, held next to the monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising adjacent to the museum. “This country has become a place of creating the spirit of the Jewish nation and — alas! — also the largest Jewish cemetery.
Here, the Jewish town (shtetl) was born and here it was also dying… And although Jews were torn away from Poland, it is difficult, or even impossible to tear Poland away from Jews. It is impossible to erase history so rich, so full, and so extremely painful.”
Such is the complex and layered experience that the permanent exhibit seeks to convey, by inviting visitors inside a “theater of history,” to use a term favored by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the New York University professor who is the exhibition’s director, to describe the immersive, interactive, often multimedia approach the museum has chosen. This approach has its pluses and minuses, to be sure, but considering how high the risks were and how much could actually have gone wrong, it’s quite gratifying to see how well it works.
In seven handsome galleries, the various epochs of Jewish history in Poland unfurl over an expanse of more than 40,000 square feet. The sheer size of the exhibition makes it something like the Louvre of Jewish museums, and the five hours I spent touring the galleries — over two separate visits — was barely enough time to just get a glance at everything.
Particularly in the pre-18th century galleries, the exhibition often seems like a cross between a history museum and an ethnographic museum along the lines of what one finds — in much smaller forms — devoted to the practices and folklore of minorities in certain parts of Europe.
One of the exhibit’s biggest gambles — and one that meets with limited success — is that it tells the story of Polish Jews in their own words, which means that most of the wall texts are quotations from historical figures, including rabbis, chroniclers and other writers. While this can ideally have the effect of situating you into a given historical moment, all too often the context is either missing or you need to go hunting to find it among the myriad other quotations that surround you. On more than one occasion, I found myself wishing for a simple sign to tell me what I was looking at, or whose text was being read out loud in the background.
When viewed alongside other Jewish museums all over the world — but especially in Europe – the exhibition immediately stands out for having decided against a “Let’s look at some Kiddush cups” approach. In fact, the exhibit never once provides basic information about Jewish practices and beliefs on a central display. (Though the omnipresent touchscreens provide information on topics from chevra kadisha to agunot).
I’m sure some will object to this, especially from a museum designed for a primarily non-Jewish audience, but the blessed lack of Judaism 101 facts and gift-shop Judaica indicates how the museum, unlike many others, has understood something crucial. This is not a museum of Judaism; it’s a museum about the Jews of a specific place during a particular period of time. As such, it’s much more important for the museum to evoke both time and place. And it does with considerable skill, even if the immersive approach is sometimes entertaining and interactive to a fault.
Each of the seven main galleries has its own unique design (the magnificent work of Nizio Design International) to complement the historical epoch. Fresco-like illustrations and script on wavy banners grace the walls of the medieval gallery, “First Encounters,” producing a patently artificial yet nonetheless striking impression oddly akin to wandering through Warsaw’s completely reconstructed Old Town. That first gallery covers the first 500 years of Polish Jewish history, and like the ones that follow it, tells its story using surprisingly few artifacts. The great majority of the objects, texts and paintings on display here and elsewhere are reproductions and replicas.
Maps, etchings and an enormous scale model of Krakow (often overwhelmed by a dense and impenetrable web of light projections) dominate the second gallery, “Paradisus Iudeorum” which deals with nearly 100 years of social, cultural and religious vibrancy in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was a time which saw Moses Isserles’s Ashkenazi commentary on Yosef Karo’s concise code of Jewish law, “The Shulhan Arukh,” first printed in Krakow in 1578 as well as the appearance of new economic opportunities for Jews, including managing the estates of the ascending Polish nobility.
The end of this “Jewish Paradise” was a series of massacres in 1648-49, led initially by Cossacks against the landed gentry and the Jews who worked for them. This bloody episode — the greatest cataclysm for Polish Jewry until the Holocaust — is presented to the visitor as a grim “corridor of fire,” complete with sound effects of horse hooves and crackling flames. It is frankly, a bit much.
Luckily, this portion of the visit is soon over and is followed by one of the exhibit’s most immersive elements, “The Jewish Town,” a cluster of installations that form a typical Jewish village of the 18th century, including a house, a tavern and a cemetery. The centerpiece of the gallery — and arguably of the whole core exhibition — is a sumptuous reconstruction of the roof and bimah of a wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec, a city now in Ukraine. Richly and colorfully decorated with astrological signs, animals (including both unicorns and squirrels) and calligraphy, the insistently (and lovingly) handmade quality of the synagogue roof stands in contrast to the high-tech slickness of so much else here. Standing beneath the tent-shaped roof and letting your eyes unhurriedly absorb its grandeur and splendor tells you more about the Polish Jewish experience than all of the interactive touchscreen displays in the entire exhibition.
“Encounters with Modernity,” the gallery that spans the period between the partitions of Poland between Austria, Prussia and Russia and the outbreak of World War One, is the exhibit’s least focused and most jumbled. One of the best displays here is a game where you can test whether you would qualify for being a subject in one of the three kingdoms in control of the Polish lands. Another is a mock-up of a train station, which is used to discuss urbanization, industrialization and travel. One of the people we meet in the terminus — in the form of a two-dimensional cut-out — is the student David Grün, which is the given name of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. But the small rooms devoted to assimilation, the haskalah, the emergence of the modern yeshiva and Hasidism are little more than side notes in the exhibition.
The last trio of galleries deals with the 20th century; the first of these, “On the Jewish Street,” is arguably the most perfect realization of the exhibition’s combined aims of being didactic and engaging while transporting the visitor to a bygone era. The street in question is Zamenhof Street, the main artery that passes through Warsaw’s predominantly Jewish Northern District in the interwar years, here recreated with cobblestones, a streetlamp and changing video projections of the houses and shops on either side. Exhibits to the left and right deal with the explosive cultural and political climate of the era, including Warsaw café culture, the Yiddish film industry, the Bund and Zionism.
When dealing with Polish-Jewish history, the Holocaust is always the elephant in the room. The exhibit confines itself mostly to Warsaw, primarily using the words of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the ghetto’s Judenrat, and Emanuel Ringelblum, the founder of the secret ghetto archive project “Oneg Shabbes” to tell this painfully sad chapter. The Ghetto Uprising is accorded ample space, while a discussion of the death camps themselves — most of the main ones were in Poland — is confined to a rusty cattle car that is a passageway to the postwar gallery. The museum’s refusal to linger on extermination sends a strong message that it refuses to let the long narrative of Polish Jews be defined by a six-year period of mass murder.
One could find plenty to object to with the exhibit, including all the rabbinic luminaries that get short shrift, or how anti-Semitism seems often to be presented as an aberration that just happened to rear its ugly head from time to time over the course of centuries, or that the gallery about life under communism is both confusing — at least to a non-Pole like me — and, in the case of the single small room that covers 1968-1989, not terribly in-depth. But without a doubt, the museum succeeds showing that it is “impossible to understand the history of Jews without knowledge of Polish history,” to quote Polish President Bronisław Komorowski’s speech at the opening ceremony. He also said, “It is impossible to understand the history of Poland without knowledge of the history of Polish Jews.” I think it’s safe to say that the question of whether or not the museum conveys that message will depend on the Poles themselves, when in the coming days and weeks they have the opportunity to see and evaluate the exhibit for themselves. I, for one, am very curious what they’ll think.
A.J. Goldmann is a freelance writer based in Berlin. He is a frequent contributor to the Forward.