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.