Museum to Tackle Poland’s Complexities

The idea of a museum dedicated to retelling the history of Polish Jewry — a state-of-the-art institution erected on Polish soil — is moving closer to reality after more than a decade of planning, fundraising and, at times, heated debate over what exactly it should convey.

The international team of planners behind the Museum of the History of Polish Jews — which will rise on the grounds of the former Warsaw ghetto, where the city's old Jewish quarter once stood — hope the project will help redefine how museums communicate ideas and narratives. The project's backers also say it will create a new paradigm for what it means to visit the post-Holocaust, post-Communist Polish Republic, as well as provide a forum for Poles to confront their past.

The museum has received $26 million from the Polish government and the city of Warsaw, and will be built on 145,000 square feet of land donated by the city council. That parcel is adjacent to the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, designed by Nathan Rapoport in 1948, the same sculptor who fashioned the Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs in Center City. The Polish government has also agreed to pay more than 90 percent of the museum's operating costs once it opens.

That agreement added momentum to a project that until two years ago was little more than an idea. But since 2005, a team of Israeli, Polish and American historians has been assembled — including a Gratz College faculty member — to decide upon the entity's content.

In addition, a London-based museum-design firm also came on board. And, in 2005, the Finnish architectural firm of Rainer Mahlamäki and Ilmari Lahdelma was selected the winners of an international competition to design the complex.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, chair of the museum's core exhibition development team, said that groundbreaking for the museum — which is also being supported by private donors from a host of countries, including the United States, Great Britain and Israel — is slated to take place later this year, with the hope that the facility will open to the public by 2010.

"We want you to start here, and not at Auschwitz. We want you to see Polish Jewry on its own terms and not only in terms of the Holocaust," Kirshenblatt-Gimblett told an audience last month at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

"Polish history is incomplete without a history of its Jews," declared Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, whose lecture about the design process served as the keynote address of the Graduate Humanities Forum, a two-day, student-organized conference at Penn that focused on travel and academics.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor of Judaic and performance studies at New York University, argued that the museum will not serve as a Holocaust memorial; in fact, only about 15 percent of the permanent exhibition will focus on the years from 1939 to 1945.

The rest of the planned 40,000-square-foot permanent exhibition will be comprised of eight other galleries and span roughly 10 centuries. Dispensing with a lengthy introduction about the history of Jews, Judaism or Poland, the story will start with the first Jewish contact with the Polish kingdom in the 10th century, and encompass the movement of large numbers of Jews to rural market towns.

The core exhibit will also tackle the creation of Chasidism, the onset of modernity, and the birth of secular Jewish culture and literature, ultimately ending not with the Shoah but in the year 2000, focusing on the estimated 5,000 Jews who reside in Poland today, in a country once home to 3 million of them.

"It's a mode of Holocaust memory that celebrates life, and not death," attested Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.

The idea for the museum was first proposed in 1996 by Yeshayahu Weinberg — the founding director of the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv and director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1988 to 1994 — who died in 2000. Weinberg created an international commission dedicated to designing and creating the Polish museum. His philosophy de-emphasized the traditional focus of most museums, which is generally displaying objects and artifacts; Weinberg insisted that instead, they should convey a narrative.

"A museum is a story in three-dimensional space," said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, quoting Weinberg. She explained that the core exhibit in Poland will utilize everything from computer-generated holograms, old-fashioned scale models and a recreated wooden synagogue to bring the world of Ashkenazi Jewry to life once again.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was recruited for the project by Michael Steinlauf, a professor at Gratz College who's been involved in the planning since the outset. The 60-year-old Mount Airy resident and author of Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust said that the museum will serve as a center of education and shape how Jews understand their past in a way that no book can.

Two generations of Jews have largely tried to forget about Eastern Europe, and focus more positively on America and Israel, said Steinlauf. But, argued the scholar, who is fluent in Polish and Yiddish, in order to understand their heritage, Ashkenazi Jews must find ways to reconnect with their ancestral homes in Eastern Europe.

Deciding What (and What Not) to Cover
Steinlauf explained that one of the biggest challenges in deciding what to include was figuring out exactly which geographic areas to cover. After all, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania covered much of Eastern Europe. But by the end of the 18th century, it ceased to exist as an independent entity, and was carved up among three different powers — the Austrian, Prussian and Russian empires. Ultimately, the team designing the core exhibit decided to include the histories of Jews from what is now modern-day Poland, the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine, Slovakia, and parts of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania.

They also decided not to include the story of Jews who lived in the Soviet Union.

Another tricky area was how to cover the postwar period. Representatives of Poland's contemporary Jewish community are overseeing that effort.

With the fall of communism, the opening of state records and the spread of Internet research, interest in Jewish genealogy has proliferated in recent years. Steinlauf envisions the museum as a first stop for Ashkenazi Jews seeking to learn more about their family histories.

Still, in the minds of many Jews, if Poland is worth visiting at all, it's to see the concentration camps. Steinlauf and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett insist they are not trying to downplay the Holocaust, but to broaden people's views about a place and an intertwined history.

"Poland may be a graveyard. It is a place where millions of Jews were murdered," admitted Steinlauf, a member of Germantown Jewish Centre. "If you draw the consequence that therefore 1,000 years of Jewish history should be forgotten and written off, then I would say you are totally impoverishing who we can be. Do we need a past, or do we not need a past? That's the issue."

But don't American Jews already have a country to visit in order to connect more deeply with their heritage?

"The need for Israel to answer all Jewish questions is detrimental to Israel itself," replied Steinlauf, adding that most American Jews can trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe. "If you want to understand who Jews are in the 21st century, you can't omit where we came from."

Jews, however, will certainly be in the minority of visitors to the center, according to Krzysztof W. Kasprzyk, consul general of the Republic of Poland in New York. Generations of Polish schoolchildren and foreign visitors will experience the museum, said the 59-year-old diplomat, who explained that it wasn't until the fall of communism that Poles could broach the subject of what the Holocaust and the loss of its vibrant Jewish minority have meant to Polish society.

Yes, there's still anti-Semitism in Poland, but there's also a heightened interest in Jews and Judaism, especially among the young, argued Kasprzyk.

In the end, he explained that Poland's primary reason for supporting the project is not to bring in tourist dollars — though that is admittedly a goal — but to provide a place for Poles to grapple with their complex history. "We need this," he stressed, "like we need water." 



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