POLIN – The Museum of the History of Polish Jews “POLIN – Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich”
6 Mordechaja Anielewicza St. 00-157 Warsaw, Poland
Mon, Thurs, Fri – 10am to 6pm (last admission 4pm)
Weds, Sat, Sun – 10am to 8pm (last admission 6pm)
Ticket price to core exhibition – 25 PLN, 15 PLN reduced (for students) / Temporary exhibition is 12 PLN, 8 PLN reduced / A guided tour through the core exhibition – 35 PLN, 25 PLN reduced / Audio guide (available in Polish, English, Hebrew) 10 PLN
Admission is free on Thursdays
As a student of German-Polish relations, I have read a lot recently about the newly opened and much praised POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. The core exhibit opened on October 28, 2014 in a pompous ceremony attended by the presidents of both Poland and Israel. With a price tag of $130 million ($50 million of which came from private donations and the remaining $80 million from Polish government funds), POLIN is the most expensive museum or cultural site to have ever been built in Poland (surpassing even the record previously set by Warsaw’s Copernicus Science Center). Needless to say, I was quite eager to check out the museum for myself and did so the first week I arrived in Warsaw.
POLIN’s location of is itself layered in memory. Set in the heart of Warsaw’s former Jewish district (and during WWII the Jewish Ghetto where the Judenrat stood), the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is meant to be a testament to the life of Jews in Poland and the integral role they have played in the country’s 1000 year history, rather than focus on the death and destruction of the Holocaust (as do other museums of its scale and caliber, such as the National Holocaust Museum in DC or Yad Vashem in Jeruselem). Directly across from the main entrance to the museum, is the monument to the Heros of the Warsaw Ghetto (Pomnik Bohaterów Getta) where the first armed clash of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 took place. The monument was built as early as 1948 using materials brought to Warsaw in 1942 by Albert Speer (Hitler’s lead architect) for his plans to remake the face of the city in the image of a German city.
The site is also significant, however, for the role it has played in German-Polish relations. Indeed, today the square is called “Willy Brandt Square” (Skwer Willy’ego Brandta) in honor of the West German chancellor, who is remembered today largely for initiating West Germany’s “Ostpolitik” or new policy of reconciliation and engagement with the Eastern Bloc countries in the early 1970s. It was before this very monument (of the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto) that Willy Brandt knelt to pay his respects before the victims of the Holocaust. The iconic and deeply symbolic move was interpreted by Poles, however, and an act of penance for the German crimes against the Polish nation as a whole and was reproduced on the front page of newspapers everywhere across the country. In one poll last year, the iconic photo of the kneeling German chancellor was even rated as one of the 40 most significant and important photos of Polish History. On the opposite corner of Willy Brandt square from the monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto (and catty-corner from the museum), there even stands a monument to Willy Brandt, thereby literally triangulating memories of German-Polish-Jewish history.
The museum itself is a monolithic construction of glass and stone. Covered in what may be Hebraic writings, however, the museum is not transparent, aside from the gash-like portal (the main entrance) that is at once supposed to symbolize the Holocaust (the gash in the history of the Polish Jews) as well as the parting of the Red-Sea (see the undulating, wave-like ceiling) that led the enslaved Jews of Egypt (eventually) to the promised land of Israel. The message is one of hope and continuity: the gash of the Holocaust was indeed terrible and scarring but led to the recreation of the Jewish state of Israel and failed to prevent to the present day revival of Jewish life in Poland.
In the main exhibit, Jewish life in Poland is divided into eight chapters, of which the Holocaust is just one, and not even the last. The 8 chapters are: (1) The Forest (arrival in Polin), (2) First Contact, (3) Jewish Paradise, (4) Miniature Town, (5) Encounters with Modernity, (6) On a Jewish Street, (7) Annihilation, (8) Postwar.
The first gallery, entitled simply “Forest” is supposed to represent the arrival of Jews in Polin (the Yiddish word for “Poland”), which, as visitors to the holographic forest will soon discover projected onto the trees, also sounds like “rest here” in Hebrew. Fleeing persecution in Western Europe, Jews began to arrive in Poland as early as the 10th Century.
When walking through the 2D holographic projections of a forest, you can hear animal sounds and learn about the legend of Polin in Hebrew, Polish, or English. I’m not quite sure what the point of this experience was, and perhaps I am ignorant of the symbolism of the forest in Jewish history but it seemed a bit extravagant to me.
The next section was entitled “First encounters” and covered the time from 960-1500. Much like the rest of the museum, light-up maps and beautiful paintings of Jewish cities made the experience extremely visually entertaining and pleasing but at the same time somewhat distracting. Without a cohesive narrative, one jumps from one beautiful and intriguing mini-exhibit to the next. The main point of this gallery, I believe, was the Statute of Kalisz – a charter by Boleslaw the Pious in 1264 that gave Jews permission to settle and practice their religion in Poland under the direct protection of the King – but seemed like it would be actually quite easy to miss. Otherwise, medieval Jewish life in Poland was depicted in a variety of platforms.
The next section – Jewish Paradise – covers the years 1569-1648 and was the “golden age” for Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. While religious wars were tearing apart the rest of Europe, Poland maintained its religious tolerance and diversity and the Jewish population expanded rapidly. This section of the museum includes many more light up maps, stories of individual and prominent Jewish figures and even a printing press that you use yourself to make a replica of a Jewish printer’s insignia.
Unfortunately this period of blossoming Jewish life ends tragically with the Khmelnytsky Uprising of the Cossacks in 1648, which also marks the end of the gallery. The Cossacks were Ukrainian farmer-warriors and the defenders of the Eastern frontier of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Tired of unjust treatment from their Polish overlords, they allied with the Crimean Tartars and massacred the whole of the Polish nobility together with the Jews, who enjoyed the protection of the King. Unlike the other mini-exhibits of the gallery, the visitor is forced to face the horror of the Cossack Uprising as it comprises the winding passageway to the next gallery. While walking through the passageway, you hear the crackling of fire and the cries of war…accompanied by anecdotes from Jews that survived the butchery.
Then suddenly, after experiencing the horror of the Cossack Uprising, one arrives in the eerily tranquil and calm of a miniature Jewish town. The replica is complete with a tavern, marketplace, the interior of a home, a church, and finally a stunningly beautiful synagogue. The synagogue’s ceiling is a replica of the wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwoździec (today in Ukraine). The focus of the gallery is on the spiritual movement of Hasidism, new spiritual leaders of the Jews community, and daily life in the Jewish town.
The next gallery, entitled “Encounters with Modernity,” covers the years 1772-1914 and begins with the partitions of Poland between Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Jewish life in the three partitioned parts of Poland is examined and compared as is the integration and emigration movements.
The sixth gallery – “On the Jewish Street” – demonstrates life on a projected Jewish street. This section is dedicated to Jewish life in interwar Poland (1918-1939), which some historians describe as the second golden age of Jewish life in Poland (despite rising anti-Semitism). Jews enjoyed full electoral rights and were even represented by Jewish parties in the Sejm, the Polish parliament.
The penultimate gallery is dedicated to the Holocaust. It begins in near-darkness as the visitor learns about the growing repression of Jews and what daily life is like in the Ghetto. The Warsaw Uprising is highlighted as well as deportation and life in hiding. The history of Polish anti-Semitism is also not whitewashed – pogroms against Jews with Poles as perpetrators (such as the highly controversial Jedwabne pogrom) are described, although admittedly only as a side-note. The gallery also ends in low-light as the visitor is forced to exit through a section dedicated to the darkness of the German death camps in Poland.
Emerging in the light, the final exhibit is dedicated to the life of Jews in postwar Poland until today. It remembers the 150 thousand Jews that voluntarily left Poland for various reasons during the second half of the 1940s, the communist state sponsored propaganda campaign against Jews in 1968 that resulted in the emigration of about 14 thousand Jews, and finally the revival of Jewish life in Poland in the post-communist era.
Ultimately, POLIN is definitely worth a visit – I would even categorize it as a must-see – but almost overambitious in the scale of its presentation. Lacking a cohesive narrative the museum showcases snippets of Jewish life in Poland, tells the stories of prominent Jewish figures, and dazzles with its interactive glamour, beautiful paintings, and light shows. It is thus, in the end, hard to follow even for the most dedicated museum-goer and distracting in its eye-candy. A map enthusiast, I was personally seduced by the myriad of brightly colored, changing, interactive, and rare maps, led astray into niches and corners less relevant to the museum’s central message.
Then again, given all of the distractions, it was hard to evaluate a central message or narrative, other than the fact that Jewish life was, is, and always has been, an integral part of life in Poland. It is not dead and has not been defeated even by the evil of the Holocaust. Thus on the one-hand, the critic may consider it near propaganda-like in its message of Jewish persistence and importance to Poland, given the near invisibility of the community today.
Indeed, in his recently published book Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland, Michael Meng coins the term, “redemptive cosmopolitanism” to describe what his recognizes as a performative embrace of the Jewish past that celebrates the liberal, democratic nation-state rather than thinking critically about its past and present failures. To quote Meng, “the new Poland – democratic, tolerant, cosmopolitan – showcases its normality by recovering the Jewish past.” In POLIN then, Jews become an object of display and serve as markers of successful change from the past.
On the other hand, it is an important step in making the general Polish gentile aware that Jewish life in Poland has a long and important history that is intertwined with that of Polish Christians.
If you’re in Warsaw, you should definitely at least check out the museum for yourself. On Thursdays it’s free to the general public, so why not? It’s certainly beautiful and captivating in its depth of detail.
For groups and faculty-led tours, the experience of visiting POLIN may be quite different. As a disclaimer, I visited the museum on my own – a professional tour-guide would undoubtedly provide a much more targeted experience.