Dissecting Warsaw’s new museum of Polish Jewish history
‘It took an army to make this exhibition’, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett told her audience and ‘having scholars in charge of each section had been the key to the Museum’s success’. In May I attended a conference seven months after the opening of the core exhibition of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. At the conclusion of the eight- year project, those involved in the Museum’s creation were keen to open debate on what had worked well and what less so, and to identify the gaps in Polish Jewish history requiring further historical effort. The core exhibition offered a starting point for that discussion.
The Museum opened in October last year. A Finnish architect designed the building, a vast glass, concrete and copper structure, which faces the Nathan Rapoport 1948 monument commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Visitors – there were 300,000 in the first six months – go on a journey through the story of Jews in Poland, from medieval times to the present. Set pieces along the route allow the visitor to absorb something of the texture of this history, which ended so abruptly and violently with the Nazi occupation under which nearly the whole Jewish population of Poland was destroyed. The team had been determined that the vibrancy and richness of Jewish culture from the middle ages to the 1930s should be brought to life, and that the Museum should exude a positive mood, despite the presence of the Holocaust story towards the end. The architecture is all soft curves and vistas out onto the surrounding park. A wealth of images, testimony and quotes means that visitors are likely to spend at least three hours taking it all in
The masterplan was drawn up by Event Communications and completed by Nizio Design International. The academic team refined the masterplan, suggesting for example, in the gallery dedicated to the seventeenth- eighteenth century Jewish Town, that there be two ‘centres of gravity’ of Jewish life – the market place and the synagogue. Above all visitors were to be kept ‘in the moment’ of the story.
The historical team felt it was their moral responsibility to create a ‘trusted zone’ for examining the subject and in particular for tackling difficult subjects, based on the best and most recent scholarship. Two factors helped create a particularly open climate for investigation. First, the fall of Communism and the subsequent opening of archives has meant that fresh insights have been gained. Newly-revealed German documents, for example, have provided evidence of the dynamic between the Nazi high command and the occupation authorities. Secondly, the inclusion of former Eastern Bloc countries in the European Union has allowed a fuller exchange of views between academics of different nationalities. There have been agonising moments of truth: Jan Gross’s book Neighbours about the 1941 Jedwabne massacre produced a ‘rupture’, as Poles confronted the ugly fact that some Poles brutally killed their Jewish countrymen. The response was a surge in ‘righteous initiatives’ and efforts to identify individuals and groups who had helped Jewish families under threat.
Despite the museum’s clear success, the conference saw a lot of soul-searching. Jacek Leociak, one of two lead scholars on the Holocaust gallery, had a number of regrets . The museum had lost an opportunity, he felt, in not making a stronger connection with the surrounding historic site. Another scholar felt that the intensity of the Stalin period had been under-represented: but how do you get people to experience being inside a prison cell?
Particularly moving was the account by Alina Skibińska of her work on exhumations in the post-Second World War period. Her presentation of photographs of funerals showed the searing atmosphere of the late 1940s as – in small towns and rural areas of Poland – the scale of the mass murder of Jews was laid bare. In one instance, she said, the wind had blown away a layer of sand to reveal an unmarked mass grave of 1600 bodies.
The conference lasted four days, with each historical period scrutinised both from the perspective of how it had been delivered in the Museum and to highlight research gaps. Few museums can have been built in the wake of so much grappling with new and raw evidence. Not surprising then that the whole place buzzed with Polish engagement with Jewish history – whether as contributors to the Museum or as visitors clustered round guides, finding out about the people who lived alongside them for 1000 years.