For many Jews around the world, Poland is often referred to as a Jewish graveyard. If that narrative is to change, it will be in no small part because of the remarkable impact of the new Jewish museum in Warsaw.
The museum, whose full name is POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, is now in its third year of operation. It is not a Holocaust museum, but rather has a mandate to tell the 1000-year old history of Poland’s Jews.
“This is a narrative historical museum about Polish Jews,” says Dariusz Stola, the Director of the museum. “We were entrusted to tell that story, with all its complexities, accomplishment and tragedies”
And tell the story it does. With immense sensitivity and imagination, using high and low technology, and an enormous amount of space. A huge cubic structure with eight sprawling galleries – it takes a mile of walking to get through the entire building – the core exhibit captures many elements of Polish Jewish history since its inception in the early Middle Ages to the present. The visual narrative includes world traders and the growth of chasidism, the flowering of Yiddish culture, the 16 and 17th century, the “golden age“ and other elements of a lost civilization, arguably once the center of the Jewish world.
It is almost overwhelming, with multi-media exhibits, replicas, and countless artifacts. And yet there is a very human quality to the permanent exhibit. Children are drawn to a Middle Ages printing press, where they can manually publish a broadsheet. Many visitors stop to reflect in a theater or interactive station.
In the short time since its opening, the museum has drawn extraordinary numbers of visitors. “In less than three years, about 1 million people have toured the core exhibition, nearly a third of whom are not from Poland,” says Stola.
The museum has also garnered notable awards, including European Museum of the Year in 2016, the first time an award gas gone to a Jewish museum. One gallery recreates the Jewish street and town life in early 20th Century, with its vibrant Yiddish culture and community. There is a large, multi-media scale model of Krakow and nearby Kazierz, the renowned center of Jewish scholarship and culture. Another gallery houses an entire reconstruction of a wooden synagogue, the Gwozdziec shul, built around 1650. Other galleries cover the Holocaust and Polish Jewish life after World War II. There is no sidestepping the horrors of persecution and destruction the Holocaust wrought (over 3 million Polish Jewish were killed in the Holocaust,) yet the dominant motif is life, learning and civilization.
“The design is to present facts, images and let the viewer draw their own conclusion,” he adds.The massive yet modest building, designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, has a façade of glass panels that fill the museum with light, already suggesting the narrative of life. “The structure is like a box, inside is one jewel, the lobby, which opens to another jewel, the core exhibit,” says Stola with much pride. “The beauty is what’s inside, not about the building.”
Those conclusions are overwhelmingly positive, according to surveys. In addition to the visitors, there is an online presence that reaches tens of thousands of students in the country.
“We are an educational institution,” says Stola, a noted historian of post-War Jewish history. “Our most important target audience are teachers” To that end, there are year-round seminars, lectures and public events, both at the museum and available online.
“Most Poles know little about the country’s Jewish history, a vital part of our heritage”, explains the museum director. “During the Communist era, it was a non-topic.” There are also, he notes, less than 30,000 Jews in Poland today, a fraction of its pre-Holocaust population.
The museum was two decades in the planning and building. It is the visionary result of a partnership between government and donors, within Poland and international. Located where the Warsaw ghetto once stood, it shares the large plaza with a large sculpture, the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes.
Until the museum opened, there was not much that Jewish or other visitors from abroad would find in Poland of their heritage, other than Auschwitz and a tour of Kazierz, the Jewish section of Krakow with its quaint synagogues still intact. But POLIN, the Jewish museum, has already proven itself transformative and helping to broaden the narrative about Poland’s Jewish history to be one about life and not only destruction.
Harry D. Wall has a long career in journalism, advocacy and consulting. Most recently, he has taken a late-career move and began making documentary films about Jewish heritage and communities around the globe. His blog, Jewish Discoveries, is a travelogue of Jewish heritage and contemporary life around the world. You can keep up to date with his travels on the blog or Facebook.com/JDiscoveries.