Much has been written about the recent opening of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Several have commented that this museum and the fact that many more people attended the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising signifies a greater bridging of the gap between past and present that hasn’t been as successful before; that there is a greater hope of reconciliation and appreciation of the intertwined and complex history of Polish Jews.
This also coincides with a sense of nostalgia and pathos for pre-war times when Jews and Poles did peacefully coexist; when Warsaw’s population was one-third Jewish, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories were alive and real, and the Holocaust was one less thing to negatively affect Polish-Jewish relations. This nostalgia is not just related to the opening of the museum, but is also representative in the recent beautiful but sadly overlooked film Warsaw 1935.
In the heart of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto, it is in the middle of a relatively quiet residential neighbourhood, just around the corner from the trendy Muranow Kino and a monument commemorating those who perished in the Warsaw Uprising. The modern building, designed by Rainer Mahlamaeki and Ilmari Lahdelma, is squarish from the outside, and faintly resembles the Guggenheim Museum interior-wise.
To enter the museum is to metaphorically walk through the “parting of the red sea”, a triangular “opening” which is also supposed to represent the “rupture caused by the Holocaust”. Once inside, one might feel overwhelmed by the “undulating walls”which point to what many take as the “fractured history” of Jews in Poland. Walking inside, it is easy to feel immediately overwhelmed by the swooping concave of the interior. It is as if the building is coming down on you; and instead of walking into a deceivingly open space from the outside, most of the ground floor interior is dominated by what appears to be a round object. Lining the walls on the way to purchase your ticket are displayed twigs and branches bound together, supposedly representing the interconnectedness of Polish and Jewish history.
The core exhibition, curated and organised by scholars under the auspices of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett from New York University, explores the 1000-plus year “journey” of Polish Jewish history. Artefacts from times past – ranging from a reconstructed wooden synagogue roof reminiscent of the biblical tree of life, to an interactive street from the interwar period – help the viewer to relive or re-imagine history. Each of the exhibition’s eight galleries (due to be opened later this year – editor's note) will theatrically host a different period in history.
During this “journey” back through time, the visitor starts in Medieval times, strolls through the golden age of Kazimierz the Great, contemplates the complexities of Jewish identity and citizenship in the late 18th century, learns about the literary personalities in the interwar period, and witnesses the aftermath of the Second World War; and it comes as no surprise that there is a “luminous space of reflection” after the destructive landscape which is discussed in the Postwar Years. The exhibition won't open in its entirety until next year, but it is possible to “preview” the exhibition in a guided tour in Polish or attend a “Discover the Zoom” info session. There is also a well equipped auditorium which will be a rich resource for future debates, performances, and talks.
Since the opening of the museum on April 19th, and throughout the month of May, there are a selection of programmes ranging from “Zoom into the Museum” workshops, walking tours of the Warsaw Ghetto and Muranow District, and specially tailored activities for adults and children, as well as performances, film screenings, and art and culture workshops.
In one such debate titled, Do Poles still look at the Ghetto poorly? From moral testimony towards an ethics of memory, volunteers handed out an essay called Poor Poles look at the Ghetto by Jan Błoński, originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny in January 1987. Błoński, along with other more recent authors, most notably, Jan Gross, in his book Neighbours, examine and discuss Polish reactions towards the idea of how much collective responsibility is placed on the Polish “people” or “narod”, by the fact that the Holocaust happened on “Polish soil”.
Błoński also reiterates, from his personal experience and observations, that the “agonizing over a poem may perhaps help us to understand why we are still unable to come to terms with the whole of the Polish-Jewish past”. The poem he refers to is Czesław Miłosz’s Campo di Fiori which describes the presence of a merry-go-round right outside the Warsaw Ghetto, symbolising the fact that despite the infamous events, people outside the Ghetto continued living their lives, almost behaving indifferently to the sombre history of what had happened around them. Błoński also continues to lament the lack of impartial scholarly discourse and works on the Holocaust, and instead bemoans that most discourses were “partisan”, and dialogues about the past difficult and predictable. One can not help but come away with a feeling of despair and lack of hope towards the future of Polish-Jewish relations.
Błoński also attempts to explain why it is difficult for Polish society to come to terms with the past; that acknowledging any sort of responsibility or guilt would take away from the very idea that Poles, too, were victims. He wrote, “After all, we did not stand by the side of the murderers. After all, we were next in line for the gas chambers. After all, even if not in the best way possible, we did live together with the Jews; if our relations were less than perfect, they themselves were also not entirely without blame.” Błoński concludes that the only way towards “expiation” is by looking at the past truthfully, in other words, to muster up the courage to examine history in order to best learn from it in order to build a better future.
Although Błoński’s piece was written 25 years ago, much has been done in the past two decades in Poland towards rebuilding a more European future, and coming to terms with the past. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a physical reminder of the progress that has been made towards the reconstruction of the Jewish presence in Warsaw and Poland. Jan Gross' books, albeit initially controversial upon publication in Poland, are now highly respected tomes in academia, and he has not only become a household name, but forced another “difficult dialogue” about the past. Loosely inspired by his book Neighbours, the film Pokłosie also received a similar reaction, as well as high praise.
While we only were allowed to see a preview until the museum fully opens in the autumn, the future towards an ameliorated understanding and appreciation of Jewish culture is bright, and one that many are excited about exploring and discovering.
Maia Lazar is a student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe.
For more information on the Museum of History of Polish Jews visit: www.jewishmuseum.org.pl/en/cms/home-page/