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Dr Catherine Chatterley

New Jewish Museum scheduled to open in Warsaw

Dr. Catherine Chatterley: New Jewish Museum to Open Next Year in Warsaw

October 25, 2012

The new Museum of the History of Polish Jews is scheduled to open in Warsaw in early 2013. Designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki and curated by a team of historians under the direction of Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Professor of Performance Studies and Affiliated Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, the museum is built on the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto facing the famous Rappaport monument depicting the Ghetto Fighters.

A millennium of Jewish life in Poland is the focus of the museum, which will provide what Dr. Kirschenblatt-Gimblett calls “constructive engagement,” acting as both a “site of conscience” and a “trusted zone” in which to engage the most difficult subjects. The museum will complete the Warsaw memorial complex by depicting the “uniquely Jewish and distinctly Polish civilization” that made Polish Jewry the largest Jewish center in the world until its destruction during World War II.

Inspired by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews was first proposed in 1996 by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, a private Jewish NGO (non-governmental organization) based in Warsaw. Launched in 2005, the museum is a joint venture. The Association is in charge of financing and organizing the creation of the core exhibition while the Polish Ministry of Culture and the City of Warsaw provides the financing for the building and operating costs. The total cost of the museum is 105 million dollars, with the government assuming 60% of the cost and the Association paying the balance.

The historical exhibition was created before the building and then placed into the physical structure of the museum, which is characterized by a massive chasm at its center symbolizing the Holocaust and its catastrophic effects on Jewish Europe. Never to be repaired, the chasm however has bridges that connect the two sides of the building open to the entrance hall below. Dr. Kirschenblatt-Gimblett describes the museum itself as a kind of bridge, from the past to the present, connecting different generations and groups of people to one another.

The eight galleries of the museum’s core exhibition will cover 1000 years of history in 43,000 square feet of space. The story begins in 950 CE in a gallery called “Forest” that recalls the Jewish mythologies of why, when, and how Jews settled in the area, and ends with a circulation area with news feeds to every corner of the contemporary Jewish world. The six historical galleries are divided as follows: First Encounters (950-1506), Paradisus Iudaeorum [Jewish Paradise] (1506-1648), Into the Country (1648-1795), Encounters with Modernity (1772-1914), The Street (1914-1939), Holocaust (1939-1945), and Post War Years (1945-).

The exhibit uses source materials – drawings, photographs, film, and articles of everyday use to tell an interactive story about Jewish history, culture, and religion in Poland. A constant theme running through the exhibit is the Polish Jewish symbiosis, a highly complex coexistence based on cooperation, competition, respect and hostility. Poland, once the center of Jewish life with a pre-WWII population of over 3 million Jews, now has a Jewish minority estimated between 5,000 and 10,000 people.

Designed by a team of four historians, the Holocaust gallery is one of eight sections rather than the focus of the museum. The history of the Shoah is told from within the Polish context so while the rise of Hitler and the assault on German Jewry is addressed in the pre-war gallery, the Holocaust per se begins with the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland on September 1, 1939. Using the principle of pars pro toto, the voices of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Ghetto, and historian Emanuel Ringelblum are used to narrate the desperate experience of ghettoization. Teaching this terribly tragic history on the very ruins of the ghetto is a profound exercise in historical responsibility, progressive education, and memory preservation. For these reasons alone the museum and its founders deserve praise.

An exciting new project is the museum’s virtual shtetl that allows the public to exchange photographs and information about the specific towns from which family members migrated or escaped, as the case may be. Scholars estimate that 70% of world Jewry (9 million people) can trace their ancestry to the physical territory defined as Poland over the centuries.

Polish interest in the museum seems sincere, I am told, although some of the Poles who work at the museum are somewhat skeptical about its level of impact once opened. The Jewish Culture Festival held in Krakow every year is well attended with some 15,000 Poles coming out to hear Jewish music concerts so people imagine that the Jewish museum will also be of interest to the public. The museum will provide educational and cultural programming that will reach out to the public and to students in Poland, the EU, and throughout the Jewish world. And, of course, like any new national museum they are counting on the “Bilbao effect,” which is to say that regardless of the level of one’s interest in the specific content of the museum people will nonetheless put it on their list of things to see when visiting Warsaw.

In the interest of maintaining historical authenticity and legitimacy, the government has allowed the Association and its expert scholars to design the exhibit without any interference. Still, there will be critics on all sides, particularly those who see government support for the museum as a public relations campaign for the new Poland. That was likely part of the original impetus for the support but given the fact that a team of international historians is in charge of the content one might want to rethink this cynical assumption. In fact, there is probably some anxiety on the part of Poles that the museum will be critical of Poland and its people, especially given its rather substantial contribution to the history of antisemitism. It is hard to gauge the public response in Poland at this time because the press has been rather light in its coverage of the museum.

It will be interesting to see how this museum is received in a number of different ethnic and national contexts and whether it has a noticeable effect on Polish-Jewish relations. The young Polish tour guide who led us around the Warsaw Ghetto memorial sites after our briefing with Dr. Kirchenblatt-Gimblett twice referred to the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews as “our museum,” in other words Poland’s museum. I must admit that the words were jarring to my ears. Her words were likely even more disorienting to my Israeli colleagues. And yet, strangely enough, this new museum is indeed a Polish institution. 

Visit the Museum Website.

Listen to Dr. Kirschenblatt-Gimblett talk about the museum here.


Dr. Catherine Chatterley is the Founding Director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA) and Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Manitoba.


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