Hadassah Magazine has published a lengthy article on the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews by Jewish Heritage Europe’s coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber.
In it, she sets this ambitious new museum, whose doors opened in April but whose core exhibition may not open to the public until next fall, in the context of other Jewish-themed museums and exhibits in Poland as well as in the broader context of other institutions in Poland’s growing museum landscape.
The museum is not an isolated institution, nor is its mission totally unique. Though its scope and prominence far surpass other initiatives, it is representative of a new crop of Jewish exhibits and venues that focus not on static displays of Judaica and not on the Shoah but on the living Jewish world that was destroyed.
This trend has been exemplified most recently by the new permanent installation “Shoah,” curated by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and opened in the Block 27 barracks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This, like “Letters to Afar,” employs a variety of prewar film clips showing Jews carrying out all sorts of activities. Its soundtrack merges spritely music with sounds of celebrations, street life and snippets of conversation.
Nearby, in Oswiecim, the town where the Auschwitz camp was built, a small museum at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, located in the town’s one surviving synagogue, presents prewar Jewish life in a town that before the Holocaust had a predominantly Jewish population. “No one knows that there were Jews here before the war—they only know the death camp,” noted Shlomi Shaked, a volunteer at the center. His mother, born in Oswiecim in 1949 and a resident there until her family immigrated to Israel in 1962, is featured in the exhibit. “I think people who visit Auschwitz should come here first to see the life before they visit the camp,” he said.
A new Jewish museum housed in a restored synagogue in the small town of Chmielnik, north of Krakow, also showcases prewar Jewish life: After all, noted local historian Piotr Krawczyk, before the Holocaust, 80 percent of Chmielnik’s population was Jewish. That means, “local history is Jewish history,” he said.
One of the key roles of the Warsaw museum will be to support local initiatives. “Until our museum was established there were no proper models in Poland for what to do,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “We can open a new perspective on how Jewish history and heritage can be presented to the public.”
She notes that the Museum is expected to form part of a network of museums offering different perspectives on Polish history. These include the Warsaw Rising Museum, which opened in 2004; a World War II museum; a museum dedicated to Polish-born Pope John Paul II; and one dedicated to Poland’s interwar leader, Marshal Józef Piłsudski.
“There’s a search for a national as well as a more clearly formulated local identity that’s based on history,” said Krzysztof Jaraczewski, grandson of Pilsudski and director of the forthcoming Pilsudski museum. “It’s something that’s got to be part of our daily lives, rubbing shoulders with our heritage.” Jaraczewski, an architect, was an adviser during the competition that selected the design of the Jewish museum.
But heritage and history are different, he noted. “Heritage is a choice we make of those things and values we want to hand down to the next generation,” he said. “It’s a selection, and that selection is a process about creating our own identity. And the history is the background to it.”