Revisiting Poland

The core exhibition at Warsaw’s Museum of the History of the Polish Jews; photo courtesy.
The core exhibition at Warsaw’s Museum of the History of the Polish Jews; photo courtesy.

By Liam Hoare

In collective historical memory, and especially Jewish historical memory, Poland as a nation and a landscape is recalled as a killing field. It is forever wedded to and is inseparable from the midnight of the century, occupation, collaboration, resistance, and the great catastrophe of Jewish history.

How we engage with Poland today is a reflection of this historical memory. For thousands of visitors every year, and increasingly as we come to recognise the importance of remembrance, Poland is Auschwitz. Poland is Majdanek and Chelmno; it is Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Poland is the Warsaw Ghetto, the Schindler Factory, and countless synagogues in towns and villages with nobody left to use them.

These metropolises of death, as Otto Dov Kulka termed Auschwitz-Birkenau, constellate and become points on a tour of Poland that witnesses the country purely through the prism of the Holocaust. It is to experience Poland as a place of loss, not only the loss of the six million but a committed attempt to destroy a thousand-year civilisation in only six. It is to see Poland not as present but as past, not as life but as death.

When it opens in October this year, however, the core exhibition at Warsaw’s Museum of the History of the Polish Jews hopes to become a new point on the Jewish tour of Poland, one that shall offer a narrative that encompasses the entire thousand-year narrative of Jewish history in Poland. This includes not only the years prior to the Shoah – the development of a civilisation when Poland was along with Germany the centre of the Ashkenazi world – but the postwar period too: the attempt to preserve Judaism under communism and the ongoing Jewish revival in the era of free Poland.

Moshe Rosman, Associate Professor of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, has outlined that in electing not to end the museum’s narrative in 1945, the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews will “underscore that the Shoah does not encapsulate the Jewish experience in Poland. Of supreme importance in Polish-Jewish history, it was not the quintessential, nor the climatic, nor the final chapter. As tragic, traumatic and catastrophic as the Shoah was, Jewish life was not totally snuffed out and has been undergoing a renewal.”

The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews has the potential to become, therefore, a point of light that has to encompass so many points of darkness. It will become a space where the Polish Jewish past, present, and future can be engaged with in all its scope and breadth. As Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Professor of Performance Studies at New York University and lead designer of the core exhibition, explained to me in a previous conversation when I visited the museum last year, Polish Jewish history will not be presented teleologically with the Holocaust as the end point – the Shoah will be neither beginning nor end, a significant, important, but not conclusive chapter in the narrative.

Reconfiguring how visitors perceive or engage with Jewish history and Jewish life in Poland is also a matter of concern for the Jewish community itself. “It must be understood that the Jewish community in Warsaw is not the past,” Anna Chipczynska, President of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, told me when we spoke in June. “What we do is not only preserve the heritage but provide the basis for Jewish life today. When people come from abroad and see us, they should not look at us as if we are a museum. Sometimes, when I talk to members of the community, I feel they are very disappointed with the fact that they are being regarded as non-existent.”

Changing the perceptions foreign visitors have of the Jewish community and Jewish life in Warsaw requires engagement. “We have to somehow reach out to them, catch them, and bring them to the community here in Warsaw, whether that be for Shabbat dinner or joining in the celebrations for the holidays or meeting with members of the Jewish community,” Chipczynska said. “We would like, sooner rather than later, that a visit to the synagogue and with members of the Jewish community to be points on people’s visits to Poland, to learn about the Jewish community.”

The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews and a Shabbat dinner with members of the community are but two suggestions. Warsaw and Krakow both have Jewish community centres that will in structure and programming be recognisable to American visitors, while both cities today have liberal, Reform, and Orthodox congregations that are open and welcoming. This is to say nothing of annual events like 7@Nite and the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow that open up Jewish life to everyone, signals of a Jewish revival not just among Jews about non-Jews, too.

The purpose of revisiting Poland in this way is not to diminish the significance of the Holocaust or its place in collective historical memory – the points of death will continue to be visited and indeed must be visited, must be faced, confronted, and remembered. But it is also necessary to see that not everything is past – that there is a real, existing, and vibrant Jewish community in Poland that is not a relic or a residue but one that is alive and growing, with advantages and disadvantages, divisions and disputation, just like any other.

“We have to show to people that to be Jewish in Poland is, to a large extent, our choice. You are and are able to be Jewish because it is your choice. It’s not a must and nobody will persecute you in Poland for being Jewish. It’s your choice what you do with your identity,” Chipczynska said. “Our role is to convince people here in Poland that it is good to be Jewish,” and, by implication, to convince Jewish visitors of much the same.