Arts & DesignEssays

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews

The return of the secular Jew to a happier Poland

The grand opening of Polin or the Museum of the History of Polish Jews at the end of October was a widely anticipated event, and when its exhibition was finally revealed, the celebration was covered by major media in Europe, the U.S., and, unsurprisingly, Israel. Timothy Garton Ash and Anne Applebaum, among others, acknowledged Poland’s efforts to deal with its own history of Polish-Jewish relations. In the Financial Times Tony Barber emphasized how, today, Warsaw is a safer place for Jews than Berlin or Paris. All this praise comes a long way from the usual connotation: Poland as the place of Nazi death camps.

The official part of the opening, which took place during the day, was attended by high-level politicians, including the presidents of Poland and Israel, and the sponsors of the museum, notably Polish Jews who had been forced to leave Poland after post-World War II anti-Semitic outbursts. The stark difference between this museum and other such institutions is that this one focuses on the history of Jewish life rather than death. The very name of the museum, Polin, which in Polish sounds like a foreign word — Yiddish or German — for “Polish woman,” is in fact the Hebrew name of Poland and signifies “you should dwell.” In this sense the very name of the institution is a reminder that for centuries Poland has been center of Jewish life.

In one of the opening speeches, Marian Turski, a Polish Jew, Holocaust survivor, historian, and one of the creators of the museum, quoted a Polish-Jewish partisan song from World War II “Mir zaynen do!,” “We are still here!” That Turski was right to stress the importance of the living could be felt later, during the chilly evening, as the vast lawn in front of the museum became filled with hundreds of Varsovians, who came for a free concert of Jewish and Jewish-inspired music. The performers included, among others, David Krakauer, the famous klezmer-jazz musician and a Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival regular, and the internationally acclaimed Polish jazz trumpeter, Tomasz Stańko. The crowd, however, was not typical of Jewish or jazz festivals in Poland. Instead, it felt like a random mix of young and old curious onlookers from all over the city, as well as people from the neighborhood where the museum is located — it is the location of the World War II Warsaw Jewish ghetto, the place of death of around a hundred thousand Jews. Furthermore, another element that challenged the vision of Polish-Jewish culture as boiled down to klezmer music, shtetls, and Chasidic dances, was an essay, We Polish Jews… read out loud from the stage:

I can hear the question immediately: ‘Why US?’ A question that is not baseless. Jews ask me, the ones whom I always told that I was a Pole, and now the question will be asked of me by the Poles, for the greatest part of whom I have been and will be a Jew. (…)

To be a Pole, it is neither an honor, nor glory, nor a privilege. It is the same as breathing. I have not yet met a person that is proud of the fact that he breathes.

A Pole — because I was born in Poland, grew up, was educated, taught, because it was in Poland that I was happy and unhappy, because from my exile I necessarily want to return to Poland, though they may promise me Paradisiacal delights elsewhere. (…)

A Pole — because it was in Polish that I confessed my first love and its fears, and it was Polish in which I sobbed of its joys and storms. (…

A Pole — because I have absorbed a certain number of their national faults. (…)

But above all — a Pole because it pleases me. (…)

[Source: Kunert Andrzej (ed.). 2001. Poles – Jews 1939-1945 : selection of documents trans. Krystyna Piórkowska. Warsaw, Poland: Rytm]

The essay was written in London in 1944, the midst of the war, by exiled Julian Tuwim, a Polish-Jewish poet, now a beloved classic, whose children’s poems are known by anyone who ever went to a Polish elementary school. Yet he is also famous for his sarcastic political verses, often aimed at his anti-Semitic opponents, which he wrote before World War II. On that October evening, We Polish Jews…, a seventy-years old manifesto of sorts of a secular Jewish-Polish patriot resonated particularly strongly in a space which aims to show Jewish life in Poland as it has been, and not how it is being romanticized — for school trips from Israel who visit ghettos and death camps, for visitors of Jewish music festivals, or for politicians who wish to portray contemporary Poland as a land of Jewish freedom. What’s more, given the popular Polish imagination, in which Jews have been reduced to cheap oil paintings of Chassids holding golden coins in their hands — pictures considered luck pieces, the idea of bringing back secular Polish Jews, such as the treasured poet, into popular debate is nothing short of a revolution.

Not infrequently in Poland, celebrations that focus on Jewish history spark heated internet conversations full of anti-Semitic comments. This time, however, the “I am not an anti-Semite, but…” audience suddenly felt largely silent. The most critical opinion I found since the museum’s opening was that it should not charge for entry until the end of the year, because the institution was funded with Polish taxpayers’ money. Although the separation between “us” (Polish taxpayers) and “them” (Jews) is palpable, the demand suggests an interest in the exhibition — rather than the usual request for Jews to leave Poland, and to leave Poland alone.

I believe this unusual lack of anti-Semitic grumbling on the Polish web plays into a more general shift of attitude that can be noticed in Poland today. This year, the country celebrates its 25th anniversary of peaceful democratic revolution, and its 10th anniversary of accession to the European Union. And there are even more new reasons for Poles to be proud: ex-prime minister Donald Tusk was recently appointed as the president of the European Council, the EU body which determines the union’s policies. Outside the realm of elite politics, and on the level of televised reality, Polish athletes have been unexpectedly providing a wave of stellar performances in a variety of disciplines, including cycling, volleyball, and the most popular sport of all, soccer. In the latter case, in the European Championship qualifying match the Polish team surprisingly beat the German one for the first time ever, with a startling score of 2:0 — a triumph which is likely to end up in Polish history textbooks — as the one, from the 1974 World Cup, when Poland landed in third place.

These tangible achievements, which give the Polish mass audience reasons to feel proud, resonate with the latest research on the attitudes of Poles. The annually conducted Social Diagnosis shows that although they love to complain about Poland, Poles feel generally accomplished as individuals. With fresh victories with mass appeal that can be celebrated by many, other things to be proud of are also coming to the surface of the Polish popular imagination. As Poles are finally able to personally feel that their country is fairing better, so can the museum of the history of Polish Jews find its place.

Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer

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