Beyond the Holocaust – POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

 Jan Ladzinski discusses how POLIN’s attempt to place the Holocaust and subsequent emigration of Polish Jews in the wider context of the one thousand years of shared Polish-Jewish history is not only useful politically but also potentially subversive

POLIN facing the Ghetto Uprising monument (image via wikimedia)
POLIN facing the Ghetto Uprising monument (image via wikimedia)

The ideas behind the project

POLIN, meaning both “Poland” and “rest here” in Hebrew, opened its core exhibition in October 2014, completing a project initiated in 1995 by the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland. The museum stands in the centre of what had been Warsaw’s old Jewish quarter until it was made into the closed Jewish Ghetto by the Nazi occupiers and then systematically destroyed. POLIN faces the monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, where the victims of the Holocaust have been commemorated since 1946. Despite the historical significance of the surroundings, POLIN was never meant to be another Holocaust museum with the remnants of camps in Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek already fulfilling that role. Instead, the museum examines the common Polish-Jewish history from the 10th century until 1989 with only a minor section devoted to the Second World War.

This wide focus was meant as a counterweight to the common association of Poland with the mass murder of the Jews and the resultant image of the country as an antisemitic heart of darkness. In that respect, the museum certainly does justice to the land where, prior to the Nazi invasion, Jewish culture, religion and languages flourished for centuries. It is portrayed not as a graveyard, but a Jewish homeland, full of life. On a more practical level, the museum was thought of as an important site for Israeli school trips which regularly come to Poland to visit the former death camps. Academics and politicians worried that the Israeli youth visiting Auschwitz and Treblinka alone were likely to acquire a skewed image of the country where many of their family members were born. With such considerations in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that the creation of the museum was supported by virtually all political groups in Poland including president Kwaśniewski from post-communist SLD and president Kaczyński from nationalist PiS.

However, POLIN can do more than simply provide field trip opportunities for Polish and Jewish youth. Looking at the totality of Jewish history in Poland and the diversity of Jewish responses to antisemitism in Europe carries a potential to undermine some of the myths that strengthen zionism today. One of such myths is that creation of a Jewish state was the only way to defend the Jewish people from the dangers of European antisemitism. POLIN makes it clear that many groups and individuals chose to resist oppression, in the case of Bund in alliance with the local working class, while others preferred assimilation and chose to become “Poles of the Jewish religion”. Those who emigrated usually chose the USA, Latin America or Western Europe as their destinations, even as late as the 1940s. In fact, if it wasn’t for Truman’s racist immigration policy, the majority of Jewish refugees in 1940s would have likely ended up in the US.

The museum does a good job at presenting this wide range of Jewish reactions to discrimination and makes it clear that zionist ideas have been accepted by only a minority of all East European Jews until fairly recently. Another claim that reinforces zionism is that the Jewish people are a nation of the biblical lands of Israel. POLIN shows that if we accept the modernist view (be it Hobsbawm’s or Anderson’s) on the origin of nations, then the Jews are, or at least had been until recently, an Eastern European ‘nation’. Jewish printing industry, literature in vernacular, education and first political institutions all originated in lands now claimed by several East European states and the historical context of Eastern Europe was crucial in bringing about those developments.

Is the potential to undermine the zionist narratives fully realised in POLIN? Certainly not. Nevertheless, the comprehensive overview of the Jewish history in the Eastern Europe is a step in the right direction and an opportunity for numerous discussions about the Jewish and Polish heritage and identity.

Core exhibition

POLIN is designed as a narrative museum but the question of who should write this narrative remains.

Perhaps the most striking feature of POLIN is that much of the museum’s narrative is constructed from primary sources of mainly Jewish origin. Letters written by merchants, travellers and rabbis, together with extracts from various books, chronicles and later accounts of ordinary Jews, form the backbone of the museum’s story. Any present-day evaluations, analysis or even descriptions are limited to bare minimum. Such an approach allows for a greater freedom of interpretation and seems to be a perfect way to demonstrate the incredible diversity of the Jewish communities. On the other hand, this narrative leaves many important questions unanswered and a lack of any historical analysis of events and historical trends discussed might leave many visitors lost.

The first part of the core exhibition focuses on the earliest part of the common Polish-Jewish history. It begins with historical accounts of the Polish state left by merchants and travellers such as Abraham ben Jacob in the 10th century, and the first waves of Jewish settlers who arrived in Poland in the 11th century escaping persecution in the West. The central piece of this section is the Statute of Kalisz, issued in 1264 and confirmed by all subsequent rulers, which guaranteed the rights of Jewish population and granted them royal protection. By that time, Jewish quarters appeared in all major towns of the Polish Kingdom, as Jewish merchants and moneylenders played an increasingly important role in the local economy. The role of the Church in encouraging anti-Jewish sentiments is mentioned on a few occasions, however without much analysis of the nature and effects of these early and religiously-motivated forms of antisemitism.

Part of the exhibition devoted to the early Jewish settlement in Poland
Part of the exhibition devoted to the early Jewish settlement in Poland 

The problems arising from the lack of historical explanations become apparent in the second part of the exhibition dealing with the Jagiellonian and elective period of Polish history. The four centuries between the death of Casimir the Great in 1370 and partition of Poland in late 18th century are described as the “golden age” of the Jewish community in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The traditional opposition of the nobility to the Jews, restricted in the Middle Ages only by the monarch’s power, gave way to an unequal cooperation between the Jews and landowners. Many Jews left the towns to work on numerous landed estates collecting rents, running mills and taverns. The centre of Jewish population shifted to the East, as the Polish nobility began to colonise Ukraine and to exploit the local peasantry in order to extract grain surplus and export it to the West. Formerly independent Jewish merchants became agents of the nobles tasked with shipping grain down the Vistula river to the Baltic port of Gdansk.

The museum presents these facts in a clear and accessible manner but fails to connect them to the unprecedented wave of antisemitic violence carried out by Cossack insurgents during the Khmelnytsky uprising in Ukraine in mid-17th century. The Cossacks are presented, in the “best” Polish historiographical tradition, as savages obsessed with destruction, while the Polish landlords tried to “selflessly” protect their Jewish subjects. Nevertheless, the section dealing with the golden age of Jewish life in Poland is impressive in its wide choice of topics. The flourishing of Jewish printing houses publishing everything from Talmudic studies to political treaties is discussed in great detail. The reconstruction of Gwoździec wooden synagogue, one of hundreds of such building that did not survive the 20th century, is simply breath-taking. Some, although certainly not enough, space is devoted to the plight of the poorest sections of the Jewish populace and Jewish women.

Reconstruction of the Gwozdziec synagogue (image via wikimedia)
Reconstruction of the Gwozdziec synagogue (image via wikimedia)

The next section deals with the so-called long 19th century – the period in which Poland disappeared from the maps of Europe, partitioned between the three great powers of Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy. The period marked the shift away from the communal rights embodied in the Statute of Kalisz to individual rights (or lack thereof) of Jews as subjects of the empires.

The numerous responses to the “Jewish question” are discussed in POLIN, including religious orthodoxy, zionism, bundism, integrationism, revolutionary socialism and Zemenhof’s universalism. Sadly, the story of industrialisation is told predominantly from the perspective of few Jewish industrialists such as Izrael PoznaÅ„ski, rather than the growing masses of the Jewish proletariat. When the working class is mentioned, it is usually done through presenting their leaders, such as Rosa Luxemburg. The revolution of 1905 gets only a brief mention despite its historical significance for the Polish and Jewish proletariat. Finally, the First World War is mentioned mainly as an opportunity for the rebirth of the Polish state. The pogroms of the First World War (conducted both by the Russian military and local population, as in Lviv in November 1918) are alluded to in the next section as a reference point for the Jewish political movements but get no separate subsection.

The interwar section is perhaps the best of the core exhibition. It is built around a reconstruction of a Jewish street in an interwar Polish city. Three main themes are Jewish culture, politics and education. The latter two are split evenly between three main groups of zionists, bundists and religious orthodoxy. A lot of space is devoted to Jewish children and the wide variety of schools and youth groups that they could participate in. A multitude of Jewish newspapers and magazines are presented. There are also many examples of Polish interwar antisemitism, from anti-Jewish publications and leaflets, to actual measures enforced by the Polish fascists, including restrictions on numbers of Jewish students and racial separation at some universities.

It is in this context that the Jewish political programmes are introduced as possible solutions to the threat of antisemitism. The corner devoted to Bund is particularly impressive visually, but unfortunately lacks concrete examples of how Bundists attempted to resist the far-right rhetoric and capitalism by building working class solidarity, for instance during the series of strikes in 1936. Similarly, the part devoted to zionism could have introduced a discussion on the effects of their policy on the situation in Palestine and international relations, with the examples of the 1936 Arab revolt and the White Paper of 1939. The subsection on electoral politics would certainly benefit from a breakdown of Jewish votes in the interwar elections. On the other hand, a short political test allows all visitors to find the Jewish party that was the most representative of their views in the interwar Poland, making the most controversial debates of the period both accessible and personal.

A corner devoted to the Bund
A corner devoted to the Bund


Finally, there are the last two sections on the Second World War and the post-war Stalinist regime. The section on the Holocaust focuses primarily on the life in the ghettos set up by the Nazis in the run up to the mass extermination. Much of the story is told through the notes by Ringelblum who became a historian of the Warsaw ghetto and buried his records on the eve of the ghetto’s destruction. The system of Judenrats, German-sponsored Jewish governing bodies in the ghettos, is comprehensively explained through the story of Adam Czerniaków – the head of the Warsaw Judenrat who committed suicide once he learnt of the mass deportations. Sadly, Judenrat figures from other cities, such as controversial Chaim Rumkowski – the self-proclaimed “king of the Jews” from the Lodz ghetto, are barely mentioned. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising gets all the focus it deserves but perhaps more attention could have been given to the debate over the extent of help given to the Jewish resistance by the Polish underground.

The section dealing with the post-war events is a particularly good way to end the core exhibition of POLIN. The cooperation between the nominally communist regime and the nationalist far-right is highlighted in the context of the 1968 antisemitic campaign and the Grunwald group from the 1980s. The Kielce pogrom of 1946 has its own subsection but there is little explanation of the exact nature of the events. Nevertheless, the section provides a good overview of the post-war Polish-Jewish relations.

POLIN should be one of the key destinations for everybody visiting Warsaw in the coming year. It is much less nationalist than the visually-similar Warsaw Uprising Museum and much more open to interpretations and debate. Hopefully, its shortcomings will be improved upon in the future and the conference centre will become a lively meeting point for academics willing to discuss and re-examine the Polish-Jewish history.



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