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The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews Reclaims Jewish Memory



Photo: W. Kryński. Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
 Photo: W. Kryński. Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
I attended the October 2014 opening of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. The new museum is a work of genius from every aspect—conceptually, architecturally, programmatically, and intellectually.

The POLIN Museum stands across from and in dialogue with the monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 during World War II. Both are sited in what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Jewish resistance opposed Nazi Germany’s command to transport the remaining population to the Treblinka extermination camp.

The POLIN Museum broadens our perception of place—incorporating but reaching beyond Poland’s dark history of millennia of anti-Semitism, and its geography as the center of the Nazi killing machine known as the Final Solution. The museum’s timing could not be more urgent given the rise of anti-semitism in Europe—especially most recently in France and the UK. How might this museum address the concerns of the present?

Its rectilinear exterior references the memorial and echoes the surrounding urban residential architecture without affirming its Communist era monotony. Inscribed on the exterior facade is a word, deconstructed into an enveloping pattern—polin, meaning "rest here," which is exactly what Jews did as they migrated to what is known as the Polish Lands over a thousand years ago as they moved through the diaspora. That enveloping word signals what waits within. 

An organic interior, as if hand shaped from raw clay—swooping, warm toned walls impress the sense of entering the chambers of a human heart—a heart that has been broken many times and displays its scars in the incised pattern into stucco—but nonetheless goes on beating inside a living soul. 


Photo:W. Kryński. Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Photo: W. Kryński. Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki succeeded in creating a distinctly different kind of museum—one that tells a story of Jews in Poland from medieval times to the present. The POLIN Museum’s Core Exhibition was developed under the leadership of Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett—an NYU professor and specialist in interdisciplinary performance and Jewish studies. Great history museums tell great stories and this story flows from one gallery to another with a consistency of voice and adherence to the primary source materials—the historic evidence and documentation presented without a showbiz narration but a quiet contemplation. As each gallery unfolds, one walks through time, and symbolically into time, with the exhibition elements (image and text displays based on primary source material—exhibition furniture that literally changes in style as the centuries progress). The mood swings from panorama and drama (such as the massive recreation of the city of Warsaw with light moving across it as if the earth is turning) to the more intimate study-like environments that invite the hand to turn a page. Through digital projection a street in pre-WWII Warsaw is recreated and one walks along it. The vibrant intellectual café milieu where Jewish writers and musicians gathered is cleverly conveyed. Caricature drawings of the period come alive through animation where words are literally flung across tables. At the very core is the recreation the nineteenth century Gwozdźiec synagogue. Its hand painted ceiling explodes with color and vivid imagery. One floor above the exterior of the wooden synagogue is recreated—its frame projecting upward and defining the central main floor circulation space. Brilliantly, this wooden framework is then surrounded by the rich architectural prints of actual Polish synagogues of the period. These architectural wonders of simple geometries, refined proportions, and great craftsmanship influenced the abstractions of Russian Constructivism and later artists such as Frank Stella.


Photograph of diorama courtesy of CJM Executive Director Lori Starr.
Photograph of diorama courtesy of CJM Executive Director Lori Starr.
Photo: by M. Starowieyska, D.Golik. Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Photo: by M. Starowieyska, D.Golik. Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Photo: by M. Starowieyska, D.Golik. Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Photo: by M. Starowieyska, D.Golik. Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Moving through each gallery, I was keenly aware of histories, simultaneities, and ironies. From the get go Jews were forced to be "the other" and dress differently to stand out—and except for some moments in time—largely lived as “the other” within a polyglot society as land borders morphed depending on who was in power. The roots and history of anti-Semitism are accessed here but not fore grounded. Instead the social, political, and communal achievements of a massive Jewish population co-existing and often thriving are called out and explained, unraveling the strands of history to proclaim the interconnectedness between Ashkenazic Jewry and the Polish lands and the Jews. 

Photo: by M. Starowieyska, D.Golik. Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Photo: by M. Starowieyska, D.Golik. Courtesy of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
The section on the Holocaust was somewhat disappointing as it relies upon the iconic images we have come to know—one example being the little boy of the Warsaw Ghetto with his hands up in submission; an image art-directed by the Nazis. I wished for an alternative view—a photograph taken perhaps by a Jewish person—a partisan perhaps; or a photograph that somehow was hidden and survived. The claustrophobic experience of the recreation of the bridge that Jews were forced to use—the bridge that connected the large to the small Jewish ghetto (Jews’ feet would not touch the ground)—was a visceral experience of being, for a few moments, inhuman in the eyes of others—humiliating, painful, and resonant with today.

This is a cultural history museum that compels us all to think of history as something deeply complex and nuanced, neither linear nor logical, a product of chance, and political expediency. The POLIN Museum is a game changer in how the world understands history. It reclaims Jewish memory. It will inspire the next generations of Jews and non-Jews in understanding and gaining new insight into the inseparable relationship between Jews and Poland and Poland and Jews.

The Council of American Jewish Museums has its annual conference in the Bay Area March 8–10, 2015. Two days of the conference will take place at The CJM. Executive Director Lori Starr moderates the plenary session on Sunday, March 8 and Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett (BKG—as she is known to friends and colleagues) participates via skype. BKG will serve on the panel for the session titled The Anticipatory Museum and will discuss how the new POLIN Museum not only anticipates social change but also serves as an instrument for change. Much audience research was done in the development of the museum and the plans for evolving programming serving diverse audiences, but it also serves as an instrument for change. By creating such a museum in Warsaw, its creators and funders assert the historic and contemporary interconnectedness between Poland and Jews/Jews and Poland. In doing so, a new generation of Poles are creating Jewish culture anew.




About the Author
Lori Starr is the Executive Director of The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) in San Francisco. Starr came to the CJM from the Koffler Centre of the Arts, Canada's only multidisciplinary, contemporary Jewish cultural institution. Starr also served as Vice President for Culture for the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Prior to her time at the Koffler, Starr served as Senior Vice President and Museum Director of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles; Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the J. Paul Getty Trust and J. Paul Getty Museum; and has held key management and education positions in the School of Fine Arts, University of Southern California and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She was also a Rockefeller Fellow in Museum Education and Community Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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