In the Unlikeliest of Places, a Museum Dedicated to Jewish Life

In the Unlikeliest of Places, a Museum Dedicated to Jewish Life

In the Unlikeliest of Places, a Museum Dedicated to Jewish Life

On the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews celebrates a thousand years of tradition and culture.


A dark monument rises from the flat, empty space where the Jewish ghetto used to be located in Warsaw, Poland, a cenotaph marking its heroic, doomed resistance against Nazi barbarism. A group of Israeli students play and laugh around the somber statue, waving the flags and flowers they are about to deposit at the feet of the stone martyrs.

When I turn around, I perceive a giant, shimmering building of exquisite, albeit austere, architecture. It’s the brand new, recently opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews. I enter the building through a huge canyon of sand-colored stone, which is supposed to remind visitors of the Sinai desert and of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. After descending a marble staircase, I find myself submerged in a stunning multimedia exhibition, which takes me on a journey through a thousand years of the lives of Jews in Poland, ever since the Polish kings, in the Middle Ages, invited them to their land. Ancient coins and drawings are on show here, tombstones and carved objects, old books in Yiddish and Hebrew, paintings by Jewish artists, and even two fully reproduced synagogues from different parts of Poland, one of them lavishly painted. I periodically come across drawings and documents that describe massacres of Jews perpetrated throughout the millennium. Jews were targeted because they often served the nobility as estate leaseholders and managers; some were also victims of attacks by Polish forces loyal to the kings; those who weren’t killed fled or were captured for ransom or sale as slaves.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a Canadian scholar specializing in Jewish studies and the program director of the museum, gives me a tour through several of the many spaces the building offers. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett repeatedly insists: “There are several Holocaust memorials in the world focused on the Shoah. However, this museum is different—it’s about life. About Jewish life in Poland, about the Jewish tradition and culture that have been enriching Polish life for a thousand years. It’s a celebration of the important role the Jews played in the development of Polish cities.”

I notice that the galleries devoted to the 20th century are the most visited. Several huge spaces reproduce city life during the inter-war period. I walk through a street full of picturesque little shops, sit in a literary cafe and read poems written by the great Jewish literati of that period so full of paradoxes: Despite the growing anti-Semitism and decreasing assimilation, despite the fact that most Jews spoke Polish as their first language, Yiddish literature and Yiddish theater flourished. Polish Jews of that period developed a culture that was multilingual, marked by an interplay of Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. What Polish Jews feared most, it seems, was living in a cultural ghetto.

Several of the nearly 700 pogroms that swept through Poland at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the ones perpetrated by Poles during and immediately after World War II, are well documented here in graphic reportage. Jedwabne, where in 1941 Poles, observed by the Germans, burned the Jewish inhabitants of the village to death in a barn, is one of them. More than 12,000 Jews were killed in pogroms during the first weeks of the German occupation of the Eastern Borderlands.

From the beginning of the war, the Nazi use of terror victimized both Poles—primarily the intelligentsia and political leadership—and, of course, Jews. Already by the beginning of 1941, about 200 forced-labor camps for Jews were in operation, and more were being established. The Judenräte (Jewish Councils) were created to organize Jewish communal life in the ghettos in the final stages of Jewish isolation during the war. Poland was the epicenter of the Jewish genocide, and this fact is documented in the museum mainly by personal objects: pictures, drawings, and notes describing the camps. The jacket of Jan Karski’s book Story of a Secret State is displayed in a prominent place. In 1942, Karski, a courier for the Polish Underground State, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto. After he left, Karski met with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, US President Franklin Roosevelt, the papal legate, and representatives of the American and World Jewish Congresses, reporting on what he had seen and heard in the ghetto. Nobody believed him. News of the genocide was lost on all of them, while calls for help fell on deaf ears.

More than any other nation, Poland has become a symbol for and a synonym of anti-Semitism. The historian Timothy Garton Ash jokes in one of his columns that if he was given a dollar for every time a casual conversation in the West about Poland has turned within minutes to Polish anti-Semitism, he would be a millionaire, and he adds that, equally, if he was given a euro for every time he has heard or read in Poland some piece of contorted, resentful denial about the true extent of Polish anti-Semitism, before, during, and after World War II, he would also be a rich man. The furious polemics sparked by Jan Gross’ account of the Jedwabne atrocity in his 2001 book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, is a good example of how skittish many Poles still are about admitting the historical facts that don’t show them in the best light. But then, there are many other Poles—and not only artists and intellectuals—who want to cultivate historical memory and historical truth, no matter how bad it makes them look.

I walk out of the building thinking about the paradoxes of Poland, where victimizers are often victims, and vice versa. In this context, I remember what Adam Michnik, a prominent intellectual and editor-in-chief of the leading Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, told me the night before: “The Polish legacy is composed, on the one hand, of the greatness of the people who helped the Jews during the war, and, on the other hand, of the evil of the anti-Semites. Yet this legacy is full of contradictions because in the first group were future glorifiers of Stalin’s terror, whereas in the second group were heroes who struggled in the resistance against the Nazis, and were victims of Stalin’s persecution.”

In the golden sparks of the Warsaw late spring light, I watch the Israeli students deposit flowers at the monument, singing a song in Hebrew. It’s like a metaphor of a “before”—the worn out and mistreated Jews depicted on the monument, dragging themselves like shadows from the underworld—and an “after,” a new generation of Jews waving Israeli and Polish flags. While the students are celebrating the newly acquired place of the Jews in Polish history, they are turning the page, trying to forget about hostility and wanting to begin a different story, in which good will and rigorous historical investigation will be the protagonists.

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