The Case for Birthright POLIN

By Lisa Pleskow Kassow

On an alternative break trip to Poland last March with a group from Trinity College Hillel, one student expressed disappointment that we did not eat traditional Ashkenazi Jewish dishes – cholent, brisket and kugel. His image of Jewish life in Poland, like that of many North American Jews, was fixed in a fictional Yiddishland, a place of romanticized nostalgia. Just as Chagall painted a mythical imaginary shtetl, it is the sentimentalized version of Jewish life in Eastern Europe that many American Jews today recognize as the accurate depiction of Jewish history and culture. Younger North American Jews are even less knowledgeable not only about the Jewish past in Poland, but its vibrant present and implications for the future.

The opening of the core exhibition of POLIN The Museum of the History of Polish Jews changes the landscape of engagement with the history and culture of Polish Jewry – past, present and future. Upon the official opening of the Museum on October 28, Israeli and Polish flags flew throughout Warsaw on main avenues and public places. The Presidents of Poland and Israel both gave speeches that were meaningful and symbolic. Polish President Bronis?aw Komorowski said that there is no Polish history without Jewish history. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin recalled that most of the members of the first Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, spoke Polish. The most poignant words were spoken by survivor and Chairman of the Council of the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, Marian Turski, repeating the refrain of the Partisan Song composed by Hersh Glick in the Vilna ghetto: Mir zaynen do. Anachnu po. We are here. Although it is a complex and often troubled history, it is also a history of a People that grew from 30,000 in 1500 to many millions by the twentieth century; a People that thrived and succeeded on every possible level; a People who created a rich Jewish culture in all its multifaceted complexity. Rabbi Moses Isserles, the Remuh, in the 16th century writes in She’elot u’tshuvot, Questions and Answers, “Better a dry crust of bread, and to live in peace in this land.” The Jews were truly at home. The vast majority of all Ashkenazi Jews today trace their roots back to the Polish lands. It is time to focus on how they lived rather than how they died.

The recipient of the Inaugural Finlandia Prize in Architecture, this landmark building faces the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters Memorial on the same plaza, the site of the former ghetto. It provides a portal that leads the viewer into the depth and breadth of Polish Jewish experience. Chief curator Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls the core exhibition a “Theater of History”- interactive, visually compelling, deeply engaging. It conveys the grand narrative arc of Jewish life as lived by generation after generation of Polish Jews.

The museum will be a game changer for all those who go to Poland under the assumption that the Jewish story is over. Students on the Trinity Hillel trip, supported by the Polish Adam Mickiewicz Institute and the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland Foundation, learned that the interest in contemporary Jewish engagement and renewal there is profound, with a packed Jewish day school, orthodox, conservative and progressive congregations, a JCC in Warsaw busting out of its building after just one year, and much more. These places are filled with young Jews who are choosing their identity – learning about their collective history, culture, religion, values, and beliefs – identifying as contemporary Jews in their society. Inspired by their desire to maintain their links to a Jewish past and to build a vibrant future, they connect to their Jewish roots with a renewed spirit of excitement. Who could have predicted that seventy years after the destruction of Polish Jewry, this is what would be in place in Poland?

Most of North American Jewry owes its cultural heritage to the extraordinary, unique history of Ashkenazi Jewry that developed in the lands that used to be Poland. But for many college students who have not been raised in highly identified Jewish environments, the link to that heritage fades through the passing of time, dissipated and diluted until it is reduced to legends, rather than a grasp of history as an authentic, usable past. With the opening of POLIN, the moment is ripe to explore Jewish culture in the place where it grew to its fullest expression over a period of a thousand years.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, along with creative partnerships and funders, can play a major role in deepening the understanding of where we came from, where we are today, and what a renewed sense of connection to a collective Jewish presence in the place where so much of the Jewish story happened can lead to in the future. Through organized trips to Poland, including sites of the tragic Jewish past and hopeful present, students will have the opportunity to unpack their own unique connections to their cultural birthright, adding layers of resonance and meaning to their Jewish identities, not only as stewards of Jewish heritage but as agents of change and growth in our time.

Lisa Pleskow Kassow is the Executive Director of Trinity College Hillel in Hartford, CT. She is a student in HUC-JIR’s Executive MA program in Jewish Education.