Gray Sundays in Warsaw: Jewish History Museum

This past Sunday really was gray. And cold. And raining. A good day to visit the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, built on the site of the Jewish ghetto that was established by the Nazis in 1940, and then razed by them after the Warsaw Uprising in 1943.

Photo from Wikipedia.
Photo from Wikipedia. It was too rainy for me to take one.

POLIN is not your average European museum. Brand, spanking new, and extremely well-financed, it is very modern, both in design and in the “flow” of the exhibition. One of the major benefactors is Tad Taube, an American financier who was born in Poland, so that may have had an influence. (It is also clearly designed to accommodate large tour groups—a good “biznes” practice!)

After visiting Jewish museums in Vienna, Krakow, and other locations, I was expecting a bit of history accompanied by a lot of historical artifacts. POLIN reverses that formula. There are very few artifacts on display, but there is an extensive historical narrative accompanied by modern illustrations.

A medieval Jewish village.
A mural depicting a medieval Jewish village.
A graphic novel about the life of a famous rabbi. One of many modern approaches in the exhibition.
A graphic novel about the life of a famous rabbi. One of many modern approaches in the exhibition, including interactive screens and a printing press.

Honestly, I found it a bit hard to follow. The exhibit is not very linear, and the path through it is not clearly marked. Though we spent more than two hours in there, I am pretty sure I missed some important bits. I know I’ll be back, though, so that’s OK.

In 1914. Who-da thunk it?
In 1914. Whoda thunk it?

I did learn a lot. I did not know that Jews had once fled to Poland from western Europe, or that they had been living here for almost 1,000 years prior to World War II. I didn’t know that Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe until that point. And while I knew the bare fact that 90 percent of the Jewish population of Poland died in the Holocaust, the exhibit skillfully puts a human face on that tragedy. The museum also offers an honest assessment of how widespread (though not universal) Polish anti-Semitism helped to enable the Nazis in their horrible plan.

Fruit seller's sign marked by the Nazis as a Jewish merchant. Because Jewish fruit?
Fruit seller’s sign marked by the Nazis as a Jewish merchant.

All that said, while the Holocaust does of course play a prominent role in the exhibition, a visit to POLIN is not the same as a visit to Auschwitz. It is about the whole of Jewish history in Poland, up to and including WWII and beyond. It’s about Jews as Poles as well as Polish Jews. It’s about the Polish Jewish diaspora after the war—and the active community of Jews in present-day Poland.

Reconstruction of one of the thousands of wooden synagogues that were destroyed in WWII.
Reconstruction of one of the thousands of wooden synagogues in Poland that were destroyed in WWII.
Love this artwork.
Love this artwork.

20th century European history is heavy stuff, and frankly hard for present-day Americans to understand. But I appreciate the lessons on a gray Sunday afternoon.

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