We Remain: Polin, Museum of the History of Polish Jews

By Lisa BitelMarch 31, 2015

We Remain: Polin, Museum of the History of Polish Jews

LAST NOVEMBER I visited Poland for the first time. My excuse was the grand opening of a new museum funded jointly by the Polish government, the City of Warsaw, and private donors from around the world. With my husband, I was loosely attached to a delegation from the Taube Foundation, which is a major donor to the museum. Tad Taube, the philanthropy’s chairman, was born in Kraków, which he left, as a child, shortly before World War II. Another Kraków native, Roman Polanski, also arrived for the museum’s opening gala (the United States took this opportunity to try, yet again, to extradite Polanski on a 1977-based charge of sex with a minor.)

At the time of my visit, the Polin Museum of the History of Poland’s Jews was much in the international news. Locally, too, Polin was everywhere: enormous banners hung from street lamps and tall buildings, decorated train stations, and greeted visitors arriving at Polish airports. The museum occupies a large plot on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, which was reduced to rubble by German soldiers in 1943. A year later, the Germans went on to raze 90 percent of the city. For decades nothing stood on the site except a modest Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (those who fell in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis), constructed in 1948 amidst post-war pogroms. The monument, now in Polin’s courtyard, is a single freestanding wall meant to evoke, simultaneously, ruins of ghetto walls, the Western Wall, and the Berlin Wall. It features a frieze of vaguely Semitic figures raising fists, guns, and Molotov cocktails against enemy viewers. On the day of Polin's opening, four soldiers in long olive coats stood sternly at attention before the monument while gas-fed menorahs blazed on either side. Later, the soldiers helped the presidents of Poland and Israel lay wreaths there.

Although Polin is massive, its exterior is unremarkable. The architect, a Finn named Rainer Mahlamäki, designed it to complement the city's Soviet-era aesthetic. It looks like every other oversized granite block in Warsaw. Inside, though, the museum is expansive and light-drenched. In the entrance hall, walls curve and swell upward for three stories. A river of glass bisects the building from floor to ceiling on two sides, symbolizing the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus story. Every element of the structure has special meaning. Docents point out the enclosed walkway hanging near the ceiling. It conjures the bridge that once crossed over city tramlines, linking one crammed area of the ghetto to another. Jews scuttled above, trams ran below. The two halves of the building represent neighboring communities of Poles and Jews joined together as one nation. Polin’s design symbolizes a historical friendship that began centuries before the Nazi invasion and, according to museum brochures, continues today.

Polin is a Museum of Life, according to its founders, funders, curators, and boosters. It celebrates a millennium of ethnic and religious coexistence in the territory that we now call Poland, beginning with the arrival of Jewish traders before 1000 CE. Reviewers have enthused about the museum’s digitally enhanced, immersive environment, organized into eight galleries and spanning 10 centuries. Curators furnished Polin’s rooms with a mix of reproduced documents, still and moving images, murals suggestive of particular historical periods, glass cases containing both genuine artifacts and historically accurate fakes, antique documents and faithful copies, as well as hands-on exhibits. There are buttons to push and pages to turn, animations to follow and sounds to hear. In the first gallery, for example, trees bend and whisper on slim vertical screens projected by invisible machines. Labels tell a charming legend of 10th-century merchants from Western Europe who broke their journey in the woods along the Vistula’s shores. Polin, they called their new home. It was Hebrew for “rest here,” or so the legend goes. The merchants wrote to other Jews, who then followed them east.

Three galleries cover the first seven centuries of Jews in Poland: the Middle Ages, the Paradisus Judaeorum (Paradise of Jews, 15th to 16th centuries), and life in an early modern Polish town. Visitors learn how Jewish communities helped build markets near the fortresses of 12th-century Slavonic lords. A copy of the medieval charter guaranteeing ducal protection to Kraków’s Jews, signed and sealed, hangs in one room. “We strictly prohibit anyone in the future from accusing any Jew living in our country of drinking human blood,” decreed Duke Bolesław the Pious, in the Statute of Kalisz, 1264. Visitors can peer at bracteates (one-sided coins) inscribed in Latin and Hebrew, one of which is genuine, scattered across a display case. They can also digitally mint bracteates stamped with their own names in Hebrew. Excerpts from letters and whimsical medieval drawings decorate gallery walls. Animated words flicker over a scale model of Old Kraków and its adjoining Jewish island, Kazimierz, linked by a bustling bridge over the Vistula. In another room, a peddler’s cart holds model vegetables and a wooden duck. Spotlights illuminate an old nail.

Visitors move through Polin according to the stop-and-start rhythms of Polish political history. The museum focuses on periods of amicable prosperity for both Jews and Poles, rather than the invasions, wars, and persecutions that punctuated these periods. Although visitors may examine life-sized scenes of urban commerce and village life, they see little of the angry peasants who blamed Jews for controlling markets and raising rents. The Paradisus period, in which Jewish scholars and artists flourished, gets lots of well-lit floor space and kid-friendly activities. By contrast, the Cossack rebellion that ended the Golden Age (known now as the Khmelnytsky or Chmielnicki Massacre) merits only a few panels in a dark passage linking 17th-century prosperity to 18th-century rebuilding.

In 1648 the son of a minor Ukrainian nobleman, named Bohdan Khmelnytsky, led a coalition of horsemen, angry peasants, and Crimean Tatars against their Polish lords. The army targeted Jewish overseers of Polish estates. Aggrieved peasants were happy to help. An eye-catching wall, painted with flames and the shadows of bloody horsemen, represents the uprising, including quotes from eye-witness accounts: Nathan Hannover (a rabbi and Kabbalist who may or may not have been born in Kraków around 1610) wrote of Jewish men flayed or buried alive, pregnant women torn open, and babies chopped or roasted on spears. Nearby hangs a scarlet banner bearing a 17th-century portrait of Khmelnytsky, whom Ukrainians still celebrate as a nationalist liberator. The gallery is subdued and even elliptical, I guess, because of Polin’s ostensible emphasis on peaceable coexistence. Curators made decisions to mute the importance of Khmelnytsky and historical debates about the extent of the Jewish massacres; the small space allotted to the exhibit, the abstract depictions of violence, and the heroic portrait of Khmelnytsky speak to Polish-Ukrainian relations as well as a historical alliance of Poles and Jews. Most viewers will probably miss the nuances. Will they appreciate the irony, for instance, when they leave 1648 and move on to view a copy of the papal edict of 1753? In that year, the rabbinic leaders of Polish Jews sent messengers to Rome requesting confirmation of Duke Bolesław’s original charter of protection. Pope Benedict XIV complied, but the document proved no charm against harm back at home.

The highlight of the pre-modern galleries is the meticulously reproduced interior of an 18th-century wooden synagogue that stood at Gwozdziec (once in Poland, now in Ukraine) until it was destroyed in World War I. Polin’s guides proudly recount how modern artists taught themselves to make and use period-appropriate tools before carving the gazebo-shaped bimah and synagogue ceiling. Experts mixed vibrant pigments according to 18th-century recipes in order to color the flowers that entwine the bimah and the folksy animals that peer from the ceiling. Mystical symbols hide in the whimsical décor, according to docents who did not specify exactly where — is it the unhappy-looking fish curled around a towered town or the unicorn wrestling a bear that conveys concepts from Kabbalah? Maybe the twirling sun flanked by nut-bearing squirrels?

By the time visitors reach the four modern galleries, the trickle of history that began in the digital forest has widened to a raging river of information. Navigation gets tricky. If you pause to parse every word and picture, you risk drowning in the increasingly plentiful details and artifacts of 19th- and 20th-century events and, thus, missing the larger narrative. As fur-trimmed cloaks and papal edicts give way to smart wool coats, and ancient bracteates yield to international banks, the lesson of each gallery is much the same: despite periodic violence and continuing restrictions on their enfranchisement, Polish Jews always returned and rebuilt. They clustered in shtetls or segregated urban districts where they spoke, dressed, and behaved differently from their Polish neighbors. They kept their own laws and holidays. Even in the 20th century, in the brief interwar Polish state, they governed their own communities. By the 1930s, more than three million Jews lived beside, but not among, the Poles. After German armies invaded Poland in 1939, it became the obvious place for Nazis to begin dealing with their Jewish Problem and, eventually, the tactical center for the efficient extermination of all Jews.

Visitors to Polin know where the modern galleries lead. As they cross the symbolic bridge to the last exhibition chambers, the lights dim and the walls shrink. Terse accounts of Poland’s invasion by the Germans give way to pictures of life in the wartime ghetto, then to descriptions of deportations to the camps. The dark rooms of the Shoah seem brooding in this bright, enormous Museum of Life. The space lightens again when visitors emerge into a few final rooms devoted to Soviet occupation, Solidarity, and the recreation of the Republic, as well as the pogroms and exiles of the post-war period. Political posters, photos, and videos — lively manifestos of modernity — lead visitors forward to the present day. The exhibit seems to blame the Soviets for failing to commemorate the Jews of Poland, as part of the Cold War suppression of Polish national identity. Still, objects and labels in these rooms hold Poles responsible for the pogroms that began in 1945, and for the exile of many remaining Jews in 1968. As visitors leave the modern galleries, they can stop at one last display and listen to 20 Polish Jews answering questions about their national, religious, and cultural identities. “Is there a future for Jews in Poland?” “Is there anti-Semitism in Poland?” “What does Israel mean to you?” Afterward they can find sanctuary in the gift shop or café.

As Tad Taube has declared in speeches and publications, the most important artifact in Polin is Polin itself. The museum’s construction is now part of the history of Polish Jews. International tourists, civic officials, and scholars crowded the museum for many months before its official opening on October 28, 2014. The ceremony on that day drew not only the current presidents of Israel and Poland but also the Prime Minister of Poland, a previous president of Poland, the Polish Minister of Culture, the mayor of Warsaw, the chief rabbi of Poland, state delegations from the US and other countries, and hordes of local civic officials. Contingents of donors from the US and Europe included many returning Polish Jews (including Polanski, whose mother died in Auschwitz) as well as first-time visitors like me. Younger members of the audience were the children and grandchildren of survivors.

Many in the international audience understood President Komorowski’s speech even when the broadcast of English translations failed. Komorowski told us that although Nazis had tried to destroy the Polish nation, and though the Soviets had almost finished the job, Poles now have their country back and Jews are welcome home. Komorowski spoke of Polish Jews, never Jewish Poles; like the creators of Polin, he described a history of neighboring rather than integrated peoples. President Rivlin of Israel also mentioned the intertwined Jewish and Gentile communities of Polish history. He praised Polin for preserving what is left of Polish-Jewish culture. He reminded us that at least 70 percent of today’s Jews descended from ancestors in Poland. Poland is one of our homelands, he said. We all miss Poland and we all long to return — although not in the same way that we want to return to Israel. For Rivlin, Poland remains a graveyard. You return to a graveyard to say kaddish.

The last speaker received the most applause. Marian Turski, a survivor and Museum Council member, quoted an anthem of the Ghetto Uprising: Mir zenen do. We are here. We are still here. Turski lived through confinement in the Łódź ghetto, internment in Auschwitz, and the death march to Buchenwald. Turski is still here, thank God. Little else of Polish life lingers here though, if here means Polin. No exhibits of piled shoes or human hair threaten visitors of the museum. The illuminated displays in Polin’s rooms lack both genuine relics and real shadows.

Polin’s organizers seem to believe that immersion in the nationalist dream of historical coexistence is more urgent than visible, tangible proof of the past’s most tragic moments. As in earlier periods of peace and increasing prosperity, Jews and Poles are collaborating on yet another revision of their history. Polish business owners are investing in recreated Jewish neighborhoods, cleaning up what’s left of old synagogues, building falafel huts and King David Hotels, selling yarmulkes on the street. Shops and stalls hawk small wood-carved caricatures of Hasidic musicians. The Poles call them zydki, Lucky Jews. Keep one in your home and it will bring you riches. Here and elsewhere, festivals of Jewish culture are increasingly popular. Like Polin, the restored ghettoes are international advertisements for the present renewed age of Jewish-Polish mutual prosperity. It began at Gdansk, like other important historical changes, in 1980 with Lech Wałęsa and a trade union. Now the children of that revolution strive for a genuinely multi-religious Poland. It’s as if Jews are a retro fad.

On November 1, three days after the speeches at Polin’s grand opening, my husband and I took the train to Kraków. We stayed in a hotel where Copernicus had also once slept. Wawel Castle, the impregnable fortress of Poland’s early kings, looms over one end of the Old Town. The Virgin Mary’s massive Gothic church, where those kings were buried, rises at the other end. We strolled the streets on a foggy evening, admiring the city’s famous baroque facades. Even in chilly, late October, musicians, shoppers, and tourists filled the main square. Young people huddled noisily in café chairs under portable heaters. Two burly men dressed as medieval knights strolled across the square and disappeared into the mist of history. It was easy to visualize a Golden Age when Jewish merchants made and spent fortunes in this city, when their ladies shopped these streets, and when families could choose among half a dozen synagogues and learned rebbes. In Kazimierz, now integrated into greater Kraków, you can visit some of those synagogues, along with museums, Jewish graveyards, and kosher restaurants. You can purchase a whole orchestra of miniature musical Hasids.

By the light of morning, we left the Paradisus Judaeorum by bus and headed for the modern apocalypse of Auschwitz. A dozen fellow refugees from the Taube delegation rode along. Our guide was Tomasz Cebulski, a newly minted and extremely knowledgeable historian from the University of Kraków, who wrote his dissertation on modern interpretations of the Holocaust in the context of ever-changing Polish politics. Tomasz filled us in on death camps as we watched the countryside roll by. In 1940, the Germans built Auschwitz on the site of an old army barracks outside the small town of Oświęcim. The camp contained a fluctuating population of about 15 to 20 thousand Jews, Polish dissidents, Roma, homosexuals, intellectuals, and other enemies of the Nazis who were brought there to work to death. In 1941, the Nazis wanted more space for more prisoners, so they decided to expand Auschwitz by building a larger enclosure three kilometers away at the village of Brzezinka. Birkenau was not a work camp, it was a death camp. Its purpose became to kill people, mostly Jews, in the most efficient manner possible. Today Birkenau is a state-funded historical site complete with brochures and tours. The mild resemblance to a museum seems to help many visitors approach the place intellectually rather than emotionally. A place with guides and labels is not as dangerous as a neglected historical site.

Unlike Polin, though, Birkenau is hidden from casual view. You cannot see the camp until you reach its walls. Trees once disguised the entrance, but these days a row of new houses blocks sight of the gates. Why, I wondered while climbing from the bus, do today’s young families build so near the killing grounds of their grandparents’ time? Are home-buyers ignorant of Birkenau’s history, or is the land so cheap that they don’t mind? The camp’s scale is also invisible until you pass through the gates and realize that the enclosing walls are endless. Birkenau covers 175 acres. A few bricks still mark the orderly rows of barracks that once housed almost 100,000 slave laborers — those who escaped the gas chambers for a little while. A set of train tracks ends in the middle of the camp at a concrete platform. Most prisoners who stepped onto the platform marched immediately into the camp and disappeared forever. Guards strove to keep the newcomers calm, answering their questions and instructing them to keep track of their possessions at the showers.

Birkenau was a Nazi success. By 1944, the camp’s commanders had improved the extermination process so that it took only 45 minutes to move a few thousand people, including small children and the elderly, from train to tunnels to ovens to ashes. As Tomasz put it, no bodies, no crime, no Jews. Only concrete shards are left of the gas chambers because the Germans blew up their perfect killing machine on their way out of Poland.

Like the charming city of Kraków, Birkenau is a solid place in space and time, not merely a gallery of romantic recreations. Any impression that Birkenau is a museum quickly disappears once you begin to wander the camp. Curators rebuilt several wooden barracks, but most of the original structures dissolved into the earth long ago. “Wood,” shrugged Tomasz, “it rots.” Birkenau casts no projections of virtual reality on its interminable walls. There are no interactive galleries, just a small coffee shop. There are no labels or books here, except for one giant volume displayed at the sister camp of Auschwitz I, which everyone checks for familiar names. Birkenau is a massive, wild lawn subdivided by barbed wire. Beneath the grass abide the ashes of more than a million individuals, about 90 percent of them Jews. Trees that witnessed their last hour still grow near the site of the ovens. Curators have begun to erect markers wherever they discover ash pits. Despite the best attempts of the Nazis, Birkenau remains.

As we exited the remains of a crematorium, Tomasz tried to provoke a discussion. Education is evil, he proposed, and books can be used for bad purposes. He was referring to the high-ranking Nazis who attended the Wannsee Conference in 1942, many of whom were very well educated. At Wannsee, they agreed to the Final Solution. “So why are you teaching us about Birkenau?” I asked Tomasz. He admitted that he had grown up just down the road, entirely unaware of what lay under the soil nearby. He claimed to have learned about the Shoah when he went abroad as a teen, probably in the 1990s. Tomasz, too, has read many books, but they have not turned him into bad man, as far as I can figure. On the contrary, Tomasz seemed like a righteous Gentile. He earned multiple university degrees in 20th-century history because he honestly believes that his research into the Holocaust can help prevent future genocides. He has returned home to study the camp, to handle its meager ruins, and walk its grounds. Thirty times a year, he leads a busload of visitors to this place so that they, too, can see, touch, and walk Auschwitz-Birkenau. Tomasz, we can assume, did not mean what he said about education causing evil. He was trying to force a seemingly placid group of tourists to ponder the causes of human evil. I did not have a chance to ask him what he would like to discuss with the young docents who guide visitors through the bright galleries of Polin.

Like Tomasz, I grew up blind to Birkenau, although I lived in Michigan rather than Oświęcim. Like Tad Taube and Marian Turski, I am a Jew descended from Poles — but I am not, like them, a Polish Jew. My Catholic grandparents left their Polish homes before 1920 to seek their fortunes in Detroit and later on a farm in Sanilac County. My grandfather died after fathering 10 children, but before I was born. My babcia was an ancient lady who spoke only Polish when I visited her. She went to Mass once a week until she was in her eighties. She sat in a rocking chair on the porch to read the Gospels in her mother tongue. My aunts made kielbasa and gołąbki when they gathered with my uncles in Babcia’s kitchen. They spoke a mix of English and Polish, which they used to curse the African Americans, who had driven them from Hamtramck, and the kikes and yids, who controlled Detroit’s businesses from their big houses in the affluent suburbs. When my father remarried, he chose a woman who boasts of being related to Hermann Goering — he finds this hilarious. My husband, whose grandparents fled the pogroms in Kishinev, jokes that my ancestors probably threw rocks at his.

Before I got to college, I knew almost nothing of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Like Tomasz, I tried to make amends by reading books. In graduate school I studied the Holocaust as part of the larger narrative of Jewish and European history. I earned my PhD, fell in love and married a Jewish man, and learned how to bake a marvelous challah before I, too, became a Jew. I also spent a year reading with a rabbi, trying to understand why God would permit terrible things to happen. My favorite among the philosophers and theologians who tried to answer this question was Emil Fackenheim, who escaped Germany and ended up as a rabbi in Canada. Fackenheim’s theodicy boils down to what Marian Turski said: We remain.

Fackenheim wrote in To Mend the World (1982):

We are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler's victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories.

Not everyone agrees with Fackenheim’s notion that the Shoah is a unique and mysterious test of our humanity. Yet the commandment to survive, witness, and find meaning in history is exactly what impels both Tomasz and the organizers of Polin. It also drives my own historical research. I share their conviction that the conscientious rehearsal of the past helps diminish the ignorance that fuels hatred of fellow humans. Collaborative memory is one of our most effective defenses against recurring evil. Although I went to Poland to visit Polin, my ulterior motive was to learn more about my anti-Semitic roots in the countryside between Kraków and Warsaw. I went to search for my name in the big book of survivors kept at Birkenau. I wanted to find out why I chose Judaism. At Polin, I learned little that I did not already know. At Birkenau, I learned more than I can bear.

I did not remain. Instead, I fled Poland with my husband the next day and have no plans to return. It was the day after the festival of All Saints, when Poles lay flowers on the graves of their departed loved ones. Cheery yellow and white chrysanthemums carpeted cemeteries, church steps, and markets along the road to the airport outside Warsaw. No one noticed when I vanished from the homeland.


Lisa Bitel is Professor of History and Religion at the University of Southern California.

LARB Contributor

Lisa Bitel is Professor of History and Religion at the University of Southern California. She has written five books and many articles on topics that range from Irish monasticism to medieval cursing, historical dream interpretation, and religious landscapes. Her most recent book, Our Lady of the Rock: Faith and Vision in the California Desert (Cornell University Press), is about a modern visionary who sees the Virgin Mary once a month in the Mojave Desert and the crowds that gather to watch. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two dogs, and wishes her kids would visit more often.


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