The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews occupies a shimmering, glass-walled building that faces a dramatic sculptural monument on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and Warsaw’s main downtown Jewish district.
Designed by the Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, the building itself was opened to the public in April 2013. The core exhibition, which opened Oct. 28, uses state-of-the-art interactive technology to tell the 1,000-year-history of Jewish presence in Poland in eight galleries that cover 45,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Its name, Polin, means “Poland” in Hebrew, but also derives from a legend that when the first Jews reached Polish lands they heard birds chirping the welcoming expression “Polin.” In Hebrew, Polin means “Here you should dwell.”
The core exhibit’s galleries are arranged by both chronology and theme: Forest, First Encounters (the Middle Ages), Paradisus Iudaeorum (15th and 16th centuries), Into the Country (17th and 18th centuries), Encoun-ters with Modernity (19th century), The Street, Holocaust and Postwar.
Described by its director, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, as a “theatre of history,” the exhibit contrasts the grand sweep of epochal events with intimate glimpses of individual joy, pain, fear and reflection.
Highlights of the exhibition include:
◆ The dazzling “Jewish Sistine Chapel,” the reconstructed and elaborately painted ceiling and bima of the now-destroyed wooden synagogue in Gwozdziec (now in Ukraine), built by hand using traditional tools and techniques by volunteers and students under the leadership of the Massachusetts-based Handshouse Studio.
◆ A larger-than-life-sized painted animation of 24 hours in the life of the famous yeshiva in Volozhin (now Belarus) founded at the beginning of the 19th century by a disciple of the Gaon of Vilna.
◆ A cartoon-like animation telling the story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidism.
◆ “The Jewish Street,” a multimedia mockup of a typical street in pre-World War II Jewish Warsaw with exhibits on Jewish life between the two World Wars. Its layout in the museum corresponds to the exact pre-war location of Zamenhofa Street, the heart of the prewar Jewish neighborhood of Muranow.
◆ Evocative shifting video installations of field and forest Polish landscapes where Jews settled.
◆ Hundreds of quotations by and about Jews culled from public documents, official decrees and intimate letters and diaries.
◆ Interactive installations that allow visitors to “mint” a medieval coin, “print” pages from historic books, and “trace” and translate the epitaphs of century-old Jewish gravestones.
◆ The Holocaust gallery, which narrates the story of the Shoah in the words of people who experienced it.
◆ Postwar images of the rebuilding of Poland and Jewish life.