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The Curator of Joy and Ashes

How ethnographer Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett became the keeper of Poland’s Jewish heritage

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Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett outside the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, April 6, 2013. (Magda Braniewska)
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The new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw is many things: a memorial, a monument, a meeting place. It’s also a visual metaphor, a concrete cube encased in glass curtain walls split in half by a roof-height gash. “It’s a rupture or a break that can never be healed,” the folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who is designing the museum’s core exhibit, explained recently, sweeping her arm from the floor of the entry plaza up toward the bright blue sky above. She meant not just the depredations of the Holocaust but the half-century of the Cold War that hived off the place where she was standing—a park in a residential neighborhood known as Muranow, formerly the heart of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto—from most of its scattered survivors. “But the museum is a bridge across time,” she went on. “It’s the best you can do. You can’t heal the rupture and put the pieces back together, but you can build bridges.”

Nearly two decades in the making, the museum will open to the public on April 19 in a ceremony hosted by Poland’s President Bronisław Komorowski. Designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki (who beat out stars like Daniel Libeskind for the commission), it will house $40 million worth of interactive exhibits tracing the long intertwined history of Jews and Poland, starting with a 10th-century dispatch by Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, an Arabic-speaking Sephardic Jew who reported back to the Moorish court at Cordoba on the Piast prince Mieszko I, Poland’s first Christian ruler. It will be the Polish capital’s newest, and by far its most sophisticated, attraction—a statement that Warsaw has arrived on the European, and perhaps the world, stage. And the museum’s chief backers also harbor ambitions for restoring Warsaw’s historic role as a Jewish capital. “The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews will take its place and rank alongside the Holocaust museum in Washington and Yad Vashem,” one of its chief American backers, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor named Sigmund Rolat, asserted at a preview in New York last October.

For Kirshenblatt-Gimblett—a distinguished New York University academic who chaired the department of performance studies at Tisch School of Arts and holds an appointment in the university’s department of Hebrew and Judaic studies—the museum is also an effort to re-animate a vanished Jewish world she has spent a lifetime exploring. At the time she was chosen to head the museum’s exhibition team, in 2006, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was finishing an illustrated memoir of her father’s prewar Jewish life in the Polish town of Apt, which is located halfway between Warsaw and Krakow. The book, They Called Me Mayer July, was, in many ways, a bookend to Image Before My Eyes, the groundbreaking photographic history she co-authored with the Łódź ghetto survivor Lucjan Dobroszycki in 1977. “I’m an outsider to Poland, but I’m an insider to Polish Jewry,” she told me over lunch at Cafe Blikle, which she chose because it was one of the few prewar Warsaw institutions to survive both the Nazis and the Communists. “Between Lucjan and my father I spent a lifetime absorbing this history,” she said.

For Poles, the museum opening will be a celebration of Poland’s commitment to reviving Jewish life—and, officials hope, of its successful re-entry into the grand narrative of the West. “For the second and third generation of American and Israeli Jews, we can say, ‘This is also your home,’ ” said Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, Poland’s consul general in New York, a former journalist who worked as a fundraiser for the museum in its early planning stages. “But it also says that this is a democratic country, whose government wants this institution because it believes there is no Polish history without the Jews. It says we want no more falsification of history, no more empty pages. That is not who we are now.”

The museum’s American backers—Rolat, a New York businessman who made a fortune after the fall of the Berlin Wall exporting denim to Eastern Europe, and the Bay Area-based real-estate developer Tad Taube, head of the Koret Foundation and of Taube Philanthropies—are both Polish-born Jews who have been deeply involved in the revival of Jewish life in the country since the fall of communism. For them, the museum is in large part an opportunity to educate non-Jewish Poles about the legacy they lost along with their vanished compatriots. “The biggest message here is that Western culture didn’t just come out of a vacuum,” Taube told me when we spoke by phone. “It wasn’t just Jewish culture that was lost in the Holocaust, not just lost but murdered—it was essentially the greater part of Polish and Western culture.”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has set herself a far more difficult challenge: convincing Jews in the Ashkenazi diaspora that Poland, the place, should still matter to them. It’s a tall order: Jews don’t, after all, make pilgrimages to Egypt at Passover to connect with the era of pharaonic enslavement. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, with her characteristic intensity, argues that a millennium spent in a land necessarily leaves its imprint. “For American Jews, the first question is, ‘Who are we?’ And one way to explore that is to ask, ‘Where did we come from?’ ” she told me. “Not just a place on a map, but culturally, linguistically. How did you get to be the person you are?” She told me about a colleague who asked why the museum should be in Warsaw, rather than in New York or in Israel, where the Jewish audience lives. “The answer is that we’re telling the story literally where it took place,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “The place is everything.”

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Hershl says:

Poland is a cesspool of anti-Semitism.

Any Jew who has any self-respect will keep as far away from this place and its Jew-hating culture as s/he can.

My family hails from there. My grandparents wanted to visit our village, Brezin, after the war. The US embassy told us to not even bother. Not a trace of over 1,000 years of Jewish life remained. Our dear Polish neighbors had even taken our cemetery and used the grave stones for paving.

bykov says:

The NYU Professor’s father, fortunately, left that country before the war, and this perhaps explains her unhealthy pride in carrying a Polish passport. One’s perceptions are always colored by one’s environment and experiences, and so she can romanticize about the place – my father, who served in the Polish Army, spent six years in camps, and lost his entire family during the war, had quite a different view of the place than the professor does. I have visited that country two times and both times, I could not leave it fast enough. It is nice to romanticize about dead Jews, and speak of a revival of Jewish life in Poland, but the picture was far different when Jews actually lived there. I will give Poland (and its neighboring countries) one credit: their great contribution to Jewish life: they compelled six million other Jews to leave Europe on time. While I can already hear the chorus of protests saying “you’re letting Hitler have the final victory,” the truth is that it is a fallacy to describe the Jewish presence in Poland as anything other than through the prism of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Belzec, Treblinka, etc., etc. For the life of me, I will never be able to understand people like this professor as being anything other than dilettantes.

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The Curator of Joy and Ashes

How ethnographer Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett became the keeper of Poland’s Jewish heritage