(JTA) — Crowds have been streaming to Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews since its core exhibition opened Oct. 28 at a high-profile ceremony led by the presidents of Poland and Israel.
Thousands of visitors have toured the museum’s eight interactive galleries that tell the 1,000-year story of Jewish life in Poland and have flocked to events like the recent Warsaw Jewish Film Festival, some of whose screenings took place at the museum. Some 7,000 people visited the museum on a single Monday when admission was free.
But POLIN is not the only Jewish-related museum in Poland to win recent recognition. At the end of October the Polish version of TripAdvisor listed the much more modest Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow as one of Poland’s 2014 top 10 museums. The Holocaust memorial museums at the former Nazi camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, as well as the Auschwitz Jewish Center — a museum, study and prayer center in Oswiecim — also made the roster.
The TripAdvisor list is based on user reviews and is by no means a scientific study. But it reflects the widespread interest in Jewish heritage, culture and history that has been growing in Poland since before the fall of communism. In many ways, POLIN is the high-profile tip of a very big iceberg.
“It is a symbolic representation of all the changes that have taken place,” said Galicia Jewish Museum Director Jakub Nowakowski. “It could not have been created if not for this. There is a genuine interest in Jewish culture and Polish-Jewish relations in Poland.”
The Galicia museum is one of more than a half-dozen Jewish cultural and educational institutions and initiatives in Krakow alone, a city that is home today to only a few hundred Jews. Established 10 years ago, it showcases photographs of Polish Jewish heritage sites taken by its founder, the late British photographer Chris Schwarz. It also hosts temporary exhibits and other events that celebrate Jewish culture from a contemporary viewpoint.
Other Jewish institutions in Krakow include the Jewish studies program at the city’s Jagiellonian University, the Judaica Foundation Center for Jewish Culture and the annual Krakow Jewish Festival, a nine-day event founded in 1988 that draws tens of thousands to concerts, workshops and exhibits.
The city also has three Jewish bookstores, a Jewish publishing house and a Jewish branch of the Krakow History Museum. A modern Jewish community center opened in 2008 and attracts local Jews, non-Jews and tourists alike to classes, courses, holiday events and kosher Shabbat dinners. Most of the dozens of young volunteers who staff the reception desk and help run JCC activities are not Jewish.
“The huge amount of interest in Jewish topics has created an incredibly pro-Jewish environment where people feel comfortable taking steps to explore their Jewish roots,” said JCC Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein.
Nationwide, there are various academic Jewish studies programs, new or revamped Jewish museums and permanent exhibits, and hundreds of grassroots initiatives ranging from Jewish cemetery cleanups to more than 40 annual Jewish culture festivals. Given that only 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Poland today, most of these are run by non-Jews — about 200 of whom have been honored by the Israeli Embassy since 1998 for their role in preserving Jewish culture and heritage.
“The number of these initiatives is really impressive,” said Edyta Gawron, a Jewish studies professor at Jagiellonian University who said about 95 percent of her students are not Jewish. “It is not just in the big cities, but also in small towns, where people are trying to build the future of Jewish heritage. And it is important and unusual that most of the people behind these initiatives are not Jewish.”
The more than $100 million POLIN museum, which draws about 60 percent of its funding from the city of Warsaw and the Polish government, is dramatically larger than the other Jewish projects around the country. It aims now to use its clout to reach out far beyond its walls to lead the process of integrating Jewish history into Polish history.
“With its very public and very prominent place in Poland, the POLIN museum validates local initiatives,” said Brandeis professor Antony Polonsky, the museum’s chief historian. “We want to find out what’s going on and give them encouragement and expertise.”
In early November, the museum convened more than 100 local Jewish heritage and culture activists from around the country to exchange experiences, network and meet with museum experts. And POLIN’s Museum on Wheels project takes material, information and educational programs prepared by the museum curators to far-flung communities all over the country.
“It is very important. It goes everywhere — to towns where people never saw a Jew, or that they didn’t know that they did,” said Krzysztof Bielawski, director of POLIN’s interactive web portal Virtual Shtetl. The site posts news and information about Jewish heritage and history in more than 2,300 towns, cities and villages — and attracts 5,000 unique visitors a day.
“There are many myths about Jews,” Bielawski said.
“If you don’t know about something, you can be afraid of it. The first step is knowledge, and we are providing knowledge. Our museum shows that Jews are normal people,” he added. “It demystifies Jews.”