• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Life before the Holocaust: The force behind a new Warsaw museum

Germans suppress the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Photo/Getty Images

A museum that celebrates 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland is built on the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto and, says one of its key curators, hopes to foster constructive engagement with a painful past.

The past is another country. For an estimated 70% of about 14.7 million Jews in the world, that country is Poland. Two of us of that cohort sit contemplating this statistic over a pot of green tea in an Auckland cafe. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is in New Zealand for what will turn out to be terrific talks with such titles as “Curating Between Hope and Despair” andBeyond Living Memory: The Future of Holocaust Museums” (holograms, possibly).

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is tiny, engaging, irrepressible – even RNZ National’s Kim Hill scarcely got a word in during her interview. She’s curator of the core exhibition of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Her parents were from Poland and went to Canada, her mother in 1929 and her father in 1934. In an introduction to the book about the museum she co-edited, Polin: 1000 Year History of Polish Jews, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett offers another statistic: “As a result of the Holocaust, 90% of Poland’s pre-war Jewish population of 3.3 million Jews was murdered.” Ninety per cent. Here’s one of the problems of creating a Jewish museum in Warsaw: Poland can seem like a graveyard. “All the more reason,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes, “that it was important to bring the history of Polish Jews, all 1000 years of it, to life in Poland.”

When the museum was still at the project stage, she had some explaining to do when she spoke to Jewish audiences.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“They’d say, ‘This is the Polish Government. They want to whitewash the history. They want Jews to come to Poland and they’re going to take their money’.

“Of course it wasn’t. The whole project was initiated by a Jewish non-profit, the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland.”

Even the location of a Polish Jewish museum in Poland proved contentious. “I was, like, where should we make it? In Tel Aviv? Or New York?” Presenting to Polish audiences could bring a different narrative: ‘Oh, this is going to blacken the good name of Poland. It’s going to be a museum of anti-Semitism.’”

History: always up for grabs. “The starting point isn’t anti-Semitism,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says of the core exhibition covering the 1000-year history. “It doesn’t mean that there wasn’t or there isn’t and that there probably always will be, not only in Poland but elsewhere. France, Ukraine, the German right, the United States … So, of course, Poland also. But the idea that somehow in Poland it’s innate is simply racist.” When the exhibition opened in October 2014, one reviewer remarked, “It was not just a cultural event, but also a political one.”

Polin was founded as a partnership between a private Jewish NGO, the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the City of Warsaw. Did she have intellectual freedom? “Complete. Because this was not initiated by the state, not by the city, we had the independence to really do a proper job.”

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: “I’m old enough to remember survivors arriving in Toronto.” Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

Fears of whitewashing

There have been criticisms. “Some Jewish visitors would like to see anti-Semitism stressed more. Some Polish visitors would like to see the Polish righteous [who saved Jews at great risk to themselves and their families in German-occupied Poland] stressed more.” A 2018 exhibition, Estranged: March ’68 and Its Aftermath, marking the 50th anniversary of the anti-Semitic campaign that drove out at least 13,000 of the country’s remaining Jews, dispelled fears of whitewashing.

“The last section of it was very brave. It identified statements from politicians, TV presenters and other public figures that were virtually identical to anti-Semitic statements made in 1968.” The sources of the contemporary quotes weren’t named, but one television presenter threatened to sue. Her tweet effectively outed a politician as a Jew by highlighting that he’d changed his name, a standard veiled attack. Retraction and apology were demanded. Polin’s director, Dariusz Stola, stood firm. “One of the most prestigious law firms in Poland immediately said we’ll represent you pro bono.” The suit disappeared.

Polin is built on the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, in respectful conversation with the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes honouring the fighters who held off the Nazis for a month in 1943. It was designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, after a competition that drew such starchitects as Jewish Museum Berlin’s Daniel Libeskind. Mahlamäki’s luminous glass-and-copper exterior echoes the geometry of the Ghetto Heroes monument. The drama, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says, is on the inside: the play of light, undulating walls that create a rift through the main hall. When you walk in it’s … dramatic. The architect has invoked the biblical parting of the Red Sea. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett prefers to see a chasm. “He also created this bridge across the chasm. To me, that’s much more meaningful symbolism than the Red Sea.”

The Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Photo/Getty Images

A bridge spanning a chasm: it’s an apt metaphor for the “constructive engagement” with a painful past that is one guiding principle of the exhibition. It means that the multimedia narrative doesn’t begin and end with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. “It doesn’t mean you forget how they died, but it means that we have a moral obligation to honour them by also remembering how they lived.”

In that spirit, a jewel in Polin’s crown is the timber-framed roof and magnificent painted ceiling of the synagogue of Gwoździec in Galicia, a historical area of what is now eastern Ukraine. It was one of 200 18th-century wooden synagogues destroyed during World War II. Built using traditional tools, it painstakingly remakes by hand a shattered past as something defiantly more than just a reconstruction.

Massacres of Polish Jews by their non-Jewish neighbours – Jedwabne during the war, Kielce after – are also confronted. “We present the extent of the violence that was perpetrated by the Polish neighbours … There were partisans that killed Jews, there were components of the Underground that killed Jews, absolutely, not a question. It’s attributing responsibility for the genocide collectively to the Polish nation or the Polish population at large, rather than to the German state, that’s the issue.”

A postcard showing a wedding dance, published in 1910. Photo/Getty Images

A wider history

Polin offers a different experience from that of such Holocaust museums as Israel’s Yad Vashem. “In Holocaust museums, you might get one small area of life before the war, then you get a seven-minute film of the 1000-year history of anti-Semitism in Europe.” Then, the Holocaust. “It’s like it’s the inevitable outcome: you start with hate and end up with genocide.”

Polin devotes one of eight galleries to the Holocaust, but situates it within the wider history. “It is not the inevitable and logical outcome of this 1000-year story and our visitors have to grapple with that: how did it happen, why did it happen here? How could it have happened within this wider story?” So, other factors are not let off the hook. “Precisely.”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett first travelled to Poland for the Polin project in 2002 and went to live there at the beginning of 2008. She remains chief curator of the core exhibition and adviser to the director, but has recently moved back to New York, where she lives with her husband of nearly 55 years, internationally regarded New Zealand painter Max Gimblett. He received an honorary doctorate from Auckland’s AUT on this visit.

If Kirshenblatt-Gimblett hadn’t done so much – professor emerita in performance studies at New York University, writer, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – you might say Polin was her life’s work. In a way, she was always preparing for it. Born in 1942, she grew up in a largely Jewish immigrant neighbourhood in downtown Toronto where she played in Yiddish. “I’m old enough to remember survivors arriving in Toronto.”

She was also, she realised one day, home on a college break, living with the history of Polish Jews. She was reading aloud to her parents from her Russian folklore textbook. “I said, ‘Listen to this. It says when a person dies, they lay him or her out with the feet towards the door so they shouldn’t find their way back in. They put a glass of water and a hanky on the windowsill and open the window so the soul can wash and dry itself and exit through the window.’ And my father said, ‘Oh, we did that.’ And I said, ‘What?’ I thought, ‘If he knows that, what else do they know?’” The exchange launched 40 years of interviewing her father. “I began in 1967 and I didn’t stop until the day he died.”

Mayer Kirshenblatt’s painting of Passover, as he remembers it from his childhood in Poland. Image/Supplied

This long conversation produced an extraordinary book, They Called Me Mayer July. Her father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, was nicknamed July after the hottest month, when people get a bit crazy. “I didn’t take any crap,” observes Mayer. “He was an incredibly curious kid and adult,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. He sounds a bit of a rascal. “He was a rascal.”

He had an exceptional memory. When he was 73, his daughter said, “Would you please, please paint what you remember.” The result: a collection of paintings that capture Jewish life as it once existed in his home town, Opatów: his grandmother, Fat Shoshe, sitting outside her grocery shop; the lady who was a kleptomaniac stashing a stolen fish down her bra; a horse-drawn cart full of pioneers on their way to Palestine.

His unembittered recollections seem to have helped form Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s own response to Poland. “There’s no question. Although his parents lost their families in the Holocaust, he didn’t experience the trauma directly. His memories of his childhood are not filtered through, and overshadowed by, the lived trauma of the Holocaust. It didn’t determine our relationship and it didn’t determine our conversations, and I think that was the great gift.”

The paintings ended up generating their own “creative engagement” as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett accompanied her father back to Poland. The first trip wasn’t a success. “They could all go to hell. He didn’t want to come with me.” It’s understandable. “That town, before the war, had 10,000 people, 6500 of them Jews. In the course of two days, 65% of that town vanished. Two days.” Members of Mayer Kirshenblatt’s family were among them.

There were more trips, then an invitation to exhibit his paintings in Opatów. A moving short film, Paint What You Remember, records the experience. Mayer visits what had been the Jewish cemetery. Headstones had been taken to use for constructing pig pens. There remain a few residents with Jewish roots. “Nobody in the town is allowed to identify them without their permission,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says. Being Jewish in Poland is never unproblematic.

Jewish children in Warsaw c1906. Photo/Getty Images

Mayer’s exhibition, organised by a young local man who became a friend, brought Opatów a powerful, new engagement with its past. “The town organised a commemoration of the deportation of all the Jews of Opatów to Treblinka,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says. “It was the first time that event was on the calendar of that town since the Holocaust.”

The paintings are unschooled, delightful, the people bristling with life, but also, sometimes, ghostly pale. As his daughter would do at Polin via projections, photographs and interactive installations, Mayer Kirshenblatt reanimated a destroyed world.

In a 2015 piece on the museum in the Jewish Review of Books, David G Roskies writes about striking up a conversation with a Polish woman as he seeks directions back to his Warsaw hotel. She tells him her grandparents remembered what Poland was like when there were still many Jews. “A museum couldn’t bring back the Jews,” she said, “but it could bring back the memory of a better Poland.”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s father gifted such memory to his child. “I always felt blessed to have been raised in an environment … suffused with an East European Jewish sensibility and fed by a spring so close to the source,” she writes in They Called Me Mayer July. Now she says: “I like to say that I got the right father and he got the right daughter.”

Museums also look to the future. What will happen when the day arrives when there are no longer people alive who experienced the Holocaust? “At Holocaust museums, there would be an opportunity to have a discussion with a survivor … Their role became enormous and indispensable to the point that the prospect of there being a world without them has produced a feeling of panic,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says.

Orthodox Jewish boys studying the Talmud in Warsaw, 1938. Photo/Getty Images

Secret archive

One approach: hear the voices of those who recorded the Holocaust in real time. See the 2018 movie Who Will Write Our History? It tells of historian Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes secret archive he initiated – 30,000 pages of diaries, posters and photographs hidden in tin boxes and milk cans and buried by heroes in the Warsaw Ghetto. Ringelblum, his wife and their son Uri, their hiding place betrayed, did not survive. “That material from the period – being on the spot, in the moment, in the here and now, is very powerful. I think its value has been underestimated.”

There’s a more radical possibility. Yes, holograms. “The idea is to create a hyperreal experience of that survivor for eternity. They want to do it 360 degrees in the round, analyse all the survivor testimony and then come up with I don’t know how many thousand questions they think any visitor might ask. And then click, click, click through the database and the survivor answers the question.” Those whom the Nazis consigned to death live, digitally, forever. It sounds amazing and scary. “Thank you. You said it, not me,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says drily.

She has seen a beta version, one involving Polish survivor Pinchas Gutter. “Oh, my goodness, a really wonderful person with an extraordinary ability to communicate. What I was relieved to see is that he was so much more compelling than the technology.” As a scholar, she tries not to yet make a judgment. “What is there to say except how wonderful and crazy it is?”

As for the future of Polin, what is her greatest wish? “The renewal of the contract of the current director,” she replies unhesitatingly. Dariusz Stola’s five-year contract was up on February 28. “Under other circumstances, it would be automatically renewed because he’s brilliant.” Under his watch, the museum was awarded the European Museum of the Year Award in 2016 and the European Museum Academy Prize. But culture remains political.

“The current Government has been changing the directors and the boards and staff of not only museums but also TV stations, trying to reshape those institutions to conform to their historical policy, which is to be more Polish, more patriotic and the like.” There’s a competition under way to decide the appointment. She’s cautiously optimistic that Stola will win. “That is my greatest wish.”

None of it sounds easy, but it’s the hard stuff that matters in the end. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has become a Polish citizen. She talks about a petition that was taken up for her father in Opatów. “I said to him, ‘Listen, they want to make you an honorary citizen.’ He says, ‘What do you mean, honorary citizen? I already am.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s extra.’ That’s the Poland I love. It represents everything that I stand for and that I believe the museum stands for.”

A bridge across the chasm. She recalls a visit to Polin by members of an organisation called Facing History. “They specialise in educational programmes, intervening in projects that are dealing with difficult histories.” She explained Polin’s approach. “Very open, multi-voiced, that we present perspectives from within the period on a difficult event like the Kielce pogrom. One woman stood up and said, ‘You need to tell me that you would take the chance to let your visitors invent their own errant narratives.’ Errant. That was a nice touch. I said, ‘Yes, I would rather take that chance than tell them what to think,’” she says. “I will take that chance.”

This article was first published in the April 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.