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‘Beyond Camps and Forced Labour: current International Research on Survivors of Nazi Persecution’, 7 – 9 January 2015

Commentary on Day One

The opening plenary session of this conference focused on the world’s newest Jewish Museum – Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw.

Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, New York University presenting (right). Chair Suzanne Bardgett (left). The slide shows Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw.

Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Professor of Performance Studies at New York University, gave an illustrated presentation:  ‘An architecture of hope on a site of tragedy: The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews’.

This ambitious new museum, many years in the planning, opened in 2013 on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, on the seventieth anniversary of the Uprising of April 1943, following which the Ghetto, from which so many Jews had already been deported to their deaths, was completely destroyed.

As Program Director of the Core Exhibition, Professor Kirschenblatt-Gimblett  gave her own insights into the distinctive vision for the museum, the architectural rationale of the new building (designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki) and its relation to the surrounding historic space, and the conceptualisation of the historical displays.

Sited directly opposite the iconic Monument to the Ghetto Fighters established in 1948, this glass structure makes a powerful statement –  one of hope, optimism and trust.  It literally ‘illuminates’ the 1,000 years of Jewish life in the historical territories of Poland which the interior exhibitions reveal. Rather than seeing this history through the lens of the Holocaust, therefore, the displays ask visitors to reflect on each historical moment as they move through the spaces.

There were numerous questions from the audience – about whether Yiddish is featured in the exhibition (it is), about how the captions can be understood by non-Polish speaking audiences (all the texts are in English) and about the politics of memory in Warsaw today.

Of the 19 presentations given on the first day, two further papers discussed representations of Jewish history and the Holocaust in Museums, in the Czech Republic (Michael Frankl) and in Austria (Gerald Lamprecht) respectively. This strand will continue on Thursday with Doris Tausenfreund’s paper ‘Museum’s archives and record building’.

The richness of the IWM film archive was highlighted in Dr Toby Haggith’s work on the ‘Belsen Camp Evidence Film’. Made by the British Army’s legal experts and shown at the Bergen-Belsen trial in the absence of physical evidence, the film was forgotten for over 68 years.

Testimony, remembrance, Jewish displaced persons, children, repatriation and resettlement are among the subjects to be covered by 32 international speakers on the second day of this three day conference.

Visit Beyond Camps for more information.


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