Poland’s Jews: Under a New Roof

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Czarek Sokolowski/AP Images
The reconstructed ceiling of a destroyed seventeenth-century Polish synagogue at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, October 21, 2014

Exiled from Canaan in antiquity, Jews are famously scattered across the world. So, it seems in recent years, are Jewish museums: Paris, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, but also around the globe in more than one hundred cities, from Dnipropetrovsk to Shanghai, Caracas to Casablanca. Tel Aviv has one. Manhattan has two. Yet Warsaw—capital of the nation that once held more Jews than any other—was conspicuously absent from the list until the opening a few weeks ago of POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Few cities would seem more suitable for a Jewish museum than Warsaw. Jews have lived in Poland for a thousand years, and by the eve of World War II made up over a third of the population of many parts of the country, including the capital. Half of all Jews who perished in the Holocaust were from Poland. Most American and European Jews can trace their roots to the region. And while many do not acknowledge it, 25,000 Polish citizens today are believed to be of at least partial Jewish heritage. But Poland’s complicated postwar history has rendered the recovery of its long Jewish legacy a thorny task.

Under the Communists, education about Poland’s Jews was suppressed. And many non-Jews—scarred by the Nazi occupation, their own great wartime losses, the Soviet takeover, ongoing destitution, and in some cases fear of losing plundered property or guilt over misdeeds—found it least painful to simply forget. The Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was opened by the Polish parliament for tours two years after the end of the war, yet for decades little information was provided about those who suffered there. Jewish cemeteries were abandoned to overgrowth, synagogues fell into disrepair, and though some Jews remained in Poland, Yiddish theater, klezmer music, and other signs of life disappeared from the scene, as though Jews had never lived there.

After the 1989 fall of the regime things shifted. Warsaw Jews who had been meeting underground gradually came into the open to stage Jewish discussions and events. In Krakow, a non-Jew captivated by his city’s rich Jewish heritage founded a Jewish culture festival that has since grown into a large-scale yearly event. In the years since, a sort of neo-Jewish village has emerged around the city’s main festival square: bookstores importing hard-to-get Jewish literature, modest but groundbreaking cultural centers showcasing Jewish art and events, and restaurants serving what is billed as classic Jewish cuisine—some of it incongruously porky, some authentic—as well as restored synagogues and re-creations of prewar Jewish store façades. At Auschwitz, the post-Communist government posted informative signage and, in 2005, instituted an educational center whose challenging programs extend to forums on racism and genocide worldwide. Throughout Poland, brigades of non-Jews concerned for the fate of Jewish cemeteries have ventured out to safeguard and restore them.

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POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
The new POLIN museum with the 1948 Ghetto Heroes Monument (left), in Warsaw’s Muranów district, 2014

It was amid this new era of openness that a team of Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals and historians proposed a museum, securing a plot of land in the former Warsaw Ghetto in 1995 and later forming an NGO working in partnership with the government. Still it proved difficult to pull off. In the early 2000s Frank Gehry was commissioned to design the building, but that plan was scrapped as too costly to execute. A competition was held in 2005 in which the Finnish team Lahdelma and Mahlamäki was chosen. In 2006, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a Canadian museum scholar, now seventy-two, was appointed as head curator, and a year later ground was broken on the $100 million project.

After eight years of construction, the completed museum has become a striking addition the capital’s cityscape. With its tent-flap-like entry and façade of copper, glass, and sand-colored concrete, the building, glimmering like a mirage against its drab Warsaw backdrop, appears to look both back and forward in time. While, in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s words, memorials like the adjacent 1948 Monument to the Ghetto Heroes pay tribute to Polish Jews by “remembering how they died,” the museum is designed to honor Polish Jews by “remembering how they lived.” And indeed—although the architects appear not to have intended it—the shape of the museum’s portal suggests the combined shape of the Hebrew characters spelling the word chai, or “life.”

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POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
The tent-like entrance of the POLIN museum

POLIN, the museum’s name, echoes a Polish-Jewish legend: the first Jews to arrive in the tenth century heard a whisper from the Heavens: po, Hebrew for “here”; lin, “shalt thou dwell.” Polin is also a Hebrew name for the Polish nation. The Jewish God is evidently not averse to puns, nor alternate locations for a Promised Land. And indeed, the completion of this ambitious museum—with, in the end, considerable government support—led New York’s Jewish Daily Forward to declare Poland once again a “Haven for Jews.” But the country may still have further to go. Jerusalem wasn’t built in a day.

The centerpiece of POLIN’s permanent display is a colorful full-scale replica of the tiered timber roof of an eighteenth-century wooden synagogue, its vaulted ceiling painted with meticulously researched and reproduced folk motifs. Once commonplace on Poland’s plains, such shuls were systematically destroyed during the war. The roof was produced by artisans and students, using only period materials and tools, far from Warsaw in small towns where Poles identifying as Jewish are few. The project was educational for participants, both Jewish and non-, and passersby were able not only to learn about Poland’s Jewish legacy, but to potentially feel invested in it as something of their own.

Sanok, in Poland’s far southeast, where one stage of the roof-building took place, is also where my great-grandparents held their wedding. When in recent years I found myself in the area on research, its gentle landscape of forests and fields looked little changed from family tales. Some residents I spoke to expressed approval of the 2011 roof project, citing respect for history as well as solid, old-fashioned construction, both valued in this traditionalist region. Others simply froze in discomfort at the word “Jewish,” as though it was an obscenity—żyd is still used today to insult opponents in soccer—and awkwardly moved away.

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The author’s great-grandparents at the time of their wedding in Sanok, Poland, circa 1901

While Polish national politics may be edging from far-right to right-center, Poland’s southeast corner is a stronghold of anti-abortion, anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and—with burgeoning Roma communities in Slovakia, just a few miles away—anti-Roma sentiment. It is still possible to encounter medieval Catholic notions of Jews as Christ-killers and money-grubbers, and while it is nearly impossible under Polish law for Jews to reclaim property confiscated in the World War II era, news of revival activity in Warsaw prompts fear that descendants of Polish Jews will show up and take their homes and farmland back. However, so few natives who have stayed in the region have knowingly encountered Jews that this is less a matter of anti-Semitism than cultural insularity and ongoing misinformation.

Such worries extend to anxiety over the Lemko, an Eastern Orthodox people who before their exile at the end of the war outnumbered both Jews and Poles in the area. Many live just over the Ukrainian border, and have increasingly been visiting their ancestral villages in Poland. In one where I spent time recently, a proposal by a Lemko group to restore an abandoned Eastern Orthodox onion-dome chapel—a style of church admired by many Roman Catholic Poles, though the Orthodox religion is not—was shot down by a local council, fearful that this kind of heritage project would attract the wrong element back to town.

In a mid-sized city near Sanok not long ago, I fell into conversation with a group of middle-aged Poles in a café. They informed me, in evident earnest, that Poland was poor today because “the Jews stole all the money from the treasury.”

“When?” I asked.

“Before the war,” a woman said. Others nodded.

“What did they do with it?”

“Ran off to Israel and New York.”

When I asked about concentration camps, I was told that they were where Polish patriots had been killed.

“Have you ever met a Jew?” I asked. A few said they’d seen some.

“What do Jews look like?” With their hands they traced bulbous noses and long sidecurls in the air.

“What would you say,” I concluded after too much wódka, “if I told you I was a Jew?”

They looked at my fair hair and modern clothes and laughed. A woman refilled my glass and straightened my dress collar with a proprietary air. “You are a Pole. Welcome home, daughter! Na zdrowie!”

When I did not reply for some moments the gaiety ground to a halt. My new friends fidgeted and glanced away. A college student on break, listening in, shook his head. “Forgive them. They’re ignorant. Where are you staying?” He picked up my bag. “I had better walk you home.”

If POLIN is to change views of Jews in its home nation, Poles like my café companions may prove a challenge. But there is reason to believe that the museum’s message of respect and understanding will be embraced, especially among younger generations exposed to new ideas by the Internet and, increasingly, employment abroad. After a thousand years, a few more shouldn’t be so long to wait.