Academia: What was the underlying idea of setting up the Museum of the History of Polish Jews?
Prof. Dariusz Stola: The idea of creating this museum goes back 20 years to when historians from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which had just opened in Washington D.C. They were very impressed with this great museum, but also disturbed: the agents of the history told there were the perpetrators, while the Jews were primarily portrayed as objects of persecution. Many of the Jewish museums built in the last 25 years focus on the Holocaust. There has been a worrying tendency to reduce the history of Polish Jews to the Holocaust; the six-year period of Nazi occupation has overshadowed almost a thousand years of Jewish life in Polish lands. POLIN Museum’s core exhibition depicts those thousand years of history in their entirety. The gallery dealing with the Holocaust is the biggest one, and very powerful, but it is neither the first chapter, nor the last chapter in the story. The final part of the last gallery – “Postwar Years” – presents interviews with Polish Jews today. The history we tell did not come to an end in 1945; it continues.
The other idea underpinning the creation of this museum is the conviction that there can be no accurate history of Poland without the history of Polish Jews. The role that Jews played in our social and economic history, in our culture, cannot be neglected. Any narrative that omits this fact makes poor, flawed history. Likewise, the history of Jews, of the Jewish diaspora, cannot be understood without its Polish chapter. Because at a certain point probably most Jews in the world lived within Poland’s borders, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; those Jews created a truly unique culture, and a significant proportion of the Jews living in the world today are descendants of Polish Jews.
Thirdly, this really is an amazing story. I have studied the history of Polish-Jewish relations for 25 years, but I was never a specialist on the Middle Ages or the early modern period. It was only here that I discovered certain things, and the more I learn the more impressed I am. And I hope that visitors to the museum will have a similar experience.
In an interview for Academia, Prof. Marcin Kula talked about how a gulf can emerge even between closely knit communities. Do you want to discuss that as well?
There were a great many interdependencies and mutual influences between Jews and Poles. There was also a very high level of ignorance, prejudice and separation, on both sides. But as a rule, a minority knows a lot more about the majority than vice versa – a minority, especially one that can exist only thanks to good relations with the majority, has to know much more about the majority’s customs. I no longer remember which Polish writer it was who said that the Poles were standing on a brightly lit stage, with the Jews watching them from the shadows. Enlightened strata of Polish society, those that shaped the history we know from textbooks, had very limited knowledge of Judaism, but on the other hand there were very close, even intimate ties between Christian Poles and Jews that lasted for centuries, stemming from everyday interactions.
Did that closeness affect how one community was perceived by the other?
To the Poles, the Jews were what sociologists describe as the “significant other.” Poles have quite indifferent feelings towards Brazilians, for example. They are nice people, but they live far away and few Poles have ever met one. Yet prior to World War II, Jews made up one-third of Poland’s urban population, most of its shopkeepers, half of its doctors and lawyers. Now Poland is ethnically homogenous, but looking at our history as a whole, that appears to be quite an anomaly.
The latest surveys indicate that there is a high level of anti-Semitism in Poland.
Many studies of ethnic prejudice confirm that a significant part of the population has an anti-Jewish prejudice. There is a lot of work to be done here, including for us at the museum. Prejudice frequently stems from ignorance, and here we can help. Even a short visit to our exhibition can provide a lot of knowledge, presented in a highly communicative way. The exhibition makes clear that Jews were an integral part of Poland. This helps to see things from a different angle. I hope that viewing our exhibition will give that kind of perspective to many people. In this way Polish Jews can be integrated into the “We” of historical narratives.
You say “exhibition,” but the word is not really adequate for what is on display here.
Indeed. Our exhibition is not just an ordinary set of museum objects, but a kind of “theater of history.” A kind of grand stage that visitors walk onto, immersing themselves in the past. They follow a path through the ages, starting in the 10th century and ending barely yesterday, since the interviews in the last section of the “Postwar” gallery were recorded just recently. Each gallery has its own specific atmosphere, its own vividness. All the eight galleries include a lot of multimedia, but also hand-made wall paintings, low-tech wooden toys, and our greatest exhibit: a replica of a wooden synagogue roof, ceiling and bimah from the 17th century.
I dare say that until a museum of the history of Poland is opened, POLIN Museum will be not only Europe’s best museum of the history of Jews, but also the best museum of Poland’s history. My experience as a university lecturer has shown me that the level of ignorance about Polish history among young Poles can hardly be overestimated. Our museum presents the history of Polish Jews as part of the history of Poland as a whole, and depicts this general context in a fuller and more modern way than any other museum. On the other hand, we also show in a more complete way than in other museums how deeply rooted the Jewish community was in Poland, and to what extent today’s Jewish culture is steeped in this past. For many visitors, including Israelis, that may come as a surprise. We hope that our museum will become a fixed point on the agenda for groups of young Israelis visiting Poland.
We have to stress that the basic mission of the museum is to foster mutual respect and understanding, and not just between Poles and Jews. The history we present contains a message not only for Poles and Jews. It speaks of periods when Polish rulers wisely respected religious, linguistic and ethnic diversity among their subjects. When the Polish political elite, the nobility, formed the Warsaw Confederation and declared that despite differences of religion they should not kill one another – we have to live together, and it is a bad idea to start wars – they made the right decision for all the inhabitants of the kingdom, including Jews. This, to a large extent, was a result of Poland’s ethno-religious diversity itself: no religious group was then strong enough to wage war against the others. Roman Catholics made up half of the population of the huge Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But it took some wisdom, too. There are lessons to be learned here not only about anti-Semitism, but also about ways of maintaining peace, political order and the laws that made the kingdom a relatively safe and prosperous place.
Do you also show such facts as Jedwabne, Kielce?
Of course we do. When I was in New York, someone asked me whether we would be portraying Polish anti-Semites. I responded that this was not a museum of Polish anti-Semites, but of course we have to show anti-Semitism, both as an idea and a practice, because it was an important factor shaping the lives of Jews in Poland, and sometimes also contributing to their death. If hateful beliefs drove someone to commit a crime, that cannot be concealed; the only question is how much importance we ascribe to it. We depict the birth of modern anti-Semitism in the latter half of the 19th century, for instance the first Polish anti-Semitic periodical. The anti-Semites at that time were proud of their prejudices, they claimed that their ideas were based on modern science and were gaining ground among the European elites and masses. Now we know that those prejudices led to unspeakable crimes.
When depicting World War II, we show how the Holocaust began, in the strict sense of the word, in the summer of 1941, including the wave of pogroms that took place in Polish lands. We show evidence of the pogrom in the city of Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine), where the main role was played by Ukrainian nationalists, and in the Polish-Jewish town of Jedwabne. We feature several pictures of the town’s Jewish residents before the war – those who were later killed by their neighbors.
Do you write that they were killed by their Polish neighbors?
Yes. The fact that Poles took part in this crime is beyond all doubt; no serious historian will question that. What remains to be determined is the degree of involvement of the Germans and their local collaborators.
To what extent was the concept for the exhibition shaped by historians?
They were very strongly involved. The first ideas were put forward by a group of historians from the Jewish Historical Institute, later joined by many others – from Poland, the United States, Israel, and Western Europe. For example, Prof. Hanna Zaremska was the lead scholar for the medieval gallery, Prof. Marcin Wodziński for the 19th century, Prof. Igor Kąkolewski for the 16th and 17th centuries, Prof. Samuel Kassow for the interwar years, and Profs. Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak for the events of World War II, to name but a few. Prof. Antony Polonsky, the author of a monumental history of Polish Jews, the doyen of historians working in the field, remains our chief historian. Eminent historians also sit on the Museum Council, including Profs. Janusz Tazbir, Henryk Samsonowicz, and Bożena Szaynok; the content reviewers have included Profs. Andrzej Friszke, Andrzej Chwalba, and Włodzimierz Borodziej. The chief curator and Program Director of the core exhibition is Prof. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
The museum has three founders: the Polish Ministry of Culture, the City of Warsaw, and the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute. It is an extraordinary project, unique in Poland, with state authorities, local authorities and an NGO jointly creating something on such a scale. It is worth stressing that the idea of building this museum has had the backing of three Presidents of Poland: Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Lech Kaczyński and Bronisław Komorowski. Our beautiful building received the grand prix of the Association of Polish Architects. I invite anyone who has any doubt: come and see for yourselves. And if you are not surprised, then I will be surprised!
Interview by Anna Zawadzka
Photo Magda Starowieyska/Darek Golik/POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
© Academia 3 (43) 2014