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Jewish History is Not Just About the Holocaust. Finally, a Museum Gets That.

"The last thing Poland needs is a Holocaust museum. … The whole country is a Holocaust museum.”

Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews

If every museum is an argument, the principal contention of Warsaw’s massive new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, which opens today, is that a millennium of Jewish history cannot be reduced to the six-year period between 1939 and 1945, when Nazi Germany exterminated six million European Jews, largely in Eastern Europe.

The argument is more remarkable than it may initially seem, entirely due to the museum’s location: Constructed on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, this new museum is neither Holocaust memorial nor Holocaust monument. And this is even more remarkable considering the scale of the devastation in Poland: Approximately 3 million Polish Jews were murdered in the course of World War II, nearly 90 percent of the country’s total Jewish population, the largest in prewar Europe. By the late 1950s, there were fewer than 50,000 Jews left in Poland. When Communist authorities launched an anti-Semitic campaign to eradicate an imagined “Zionist” fifth column in 1968, as many as 20,000 fled. If Poland’s Jewish civilization had been incinerated by the end of the war, by the height of Soviet Occupation that civilization was a distant recollection, almost a dream, accessible only in the tales of Sholem Aleichem and the canvases of Marc Chagall. 

But compared with the other major institutions of its size that grapple with Jewish history across the world—Berlin’s Jüdisches Museum, Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem—Warsaw’s museum emphasizes the vitality and the splendor of the age-old Yiddish world that once existed in present-day Poland rather than the incomprehensible tragedy of its demise.

“The Holocaust and the study of the Holocaust is what’s occurring in the vast majority of other museums of Jewish history,” Tad Taube, the San Francisco-based real estate developer and major donor to the museum, told me this week. “We need to move beyond the Holocaust.” (Taube, who was born in Poland in 1931 and emigrated to the United States in 1939, also established the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland in 2009.) “One of our main objectives is to tell this story in a way that doesn’t give the sense that the Holocaust was inevitable,” says Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the museum’s curator and a New York University professor of Eastern European Jewish history. “After all, the last thing Poland needs is a Holocaust museum. … The whole country is a Holocaust museum.” 

A portion of the exhibition that deals with Nazi anti-Semitism in Poland.
M. Starowieyska

In a sense, the museum is a memorial. It faces another memorial: Nathan Rapoport’s 1948 Monument to Ghetto Heroes, one of the first Holocaust memorials ever constructed.  “I think of the museum as completing the memorial complex,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says. “Until the museum opened, the only way to honor those who died in this place was ... by going to the monument. But our job, our task, our moral obligation to remember is not complete if we don’t remember how they lived." 

This motivation informs the entire experience of the museum. The physical building is a massive structure by the Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, with glass panels filling the museum with light rather than the darkness one experiences in, for instance, the Berlin or Washington museums. The permanent exhibition is a presentation of the color and complexity of the Polish-Jewish encounter, a narrative that begins with the earliest traces of Jews in Polish territories and moves through the centuries in a variety of displays. It is in no way a lachrymose portrait in the blacks and whites of Roman Vishniac, depicting a people hurtling inexorably through time toward their inevitable extinction in the twentieth century. 

The back of the museum's main building.
Wojciech Krynski

This is perhaps the most heartening of the museum’s achievements: the creation of a space where, for the first time in Europe’s former “bloodlands,” the Jewish world in Poland and Eastern Europe can be remembered as the vital nation it was. In that sense, it addresses the absence not just of millions of unborn individuals with names and voices and lives but the absence of an entire civilization, an astoundingly human creation of ethics and culture and religion that was once a pillar of local life.


But the project of the museum also presents a problem: How do you set out to celebrate a culture that was almost entirely destroyed? There is, without question, a deficit of history that records the diversity and the intricacy of the Ashkenazic universe that spanned from Berlin to Minsk in the centuries before the Holocaust. Most of Poland’s Judaica was either plundered, destroyed, or sent elsewhere in postwar decades when, under Communism, it was not safe to present a Jewish identity in public. 

A room of the exhibition devoted to the history of tombstones.
Darek Golik

To that end, the centerpiece of the museum’s permanent exhibition is a kind of reclaimed space within the larger reclaimed space that is the museum itself, a painstaking reconstruction of a seventeenth-century wooden synagogue from Gwoździec, located in present-day Ukraine. Painted in pigments that would have been available to builders at the time, the synagogue is a majestic jewel box of a sanctuary, a reminder that the world of the shtetl was not simply a domain of poverty and despair but also a thing of beauty.

The Gwoździec reconstruction is the result of a ten-year project, originally independent of the museum, led by Richard and Laura Brown, an American couple both on faculty at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, whose work has been chronicled in the documentary Raise the Roof. “Look at what’s happening in Warsaw today,” Laura Brown told me, “with the recovery of Jewish identity and Polish identity within this singular structure. Our work is about that creativity and positive construction.”

Another approach of the museum is to present Jewish history not necessarily as a distinct entity, but as a fundamental part of a national history. Although Warsaw has a small number of other museums, including a national art gallery and the Warsaw Uprising Museum, it has no museum as contemporary, as prominent, and as comprehensive as the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. In other words, there is no exclusively Polish history museum, which means that the new museum tells the story of the Jews in Poland but also, in its breadth and scope, the story of Poland. “You cannot have a good history of Poland without the history of the Polish Jews,” says Dariusz Stola, the museum’s director. “And you cannot have a good history of the Jews without Poland.”

As it happens, the museum’s opening comes at a time of significant growth and enthusiasm in Poland’s own Jewish community. In the aftermath of Communism, thousands of young Poles discovered hidden Jewish roots in their own families at the same time that they entered a society in which individuals are free to arbitrate the nature of their own identities. Warsaw’s museum, with the complicated tapestry of history and memory it presents, will be a resource for a generation wrestling with the intricacies of their pasts.

“It’s Jewish, but it’s also Polish,” Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, told me. “It’s an entry point, to take the first step in learning more about what it means to be Jewish.” For Jews and Poles alike.