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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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But most visitors to the museum will not be American Jews. They will be Poles, chiefly students traveling with school groups to Warsaw, where they can also visit a museum dedicated to the partisan Polish uprising against the Nazis, one devoted to the composer Frederic Chopin, and another to science exhibits named for the Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. The story they will be seeing is nevertheless an inherently Jewish one, guided and informed not just by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s scholarship but also by her sensibilities as a Jew who grew up in postwar North America. She has succeeded in instilling her staff—many of whom are not Jewish at all, and others of whom came from families that suppressed their Jewish backgrounds—with an almost evangelical enthusiasm for the Jewish threads woven into Poland’s history. Yet when the core exhibit opens early next year, control over the museum will pass from Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s team—which was created by members of Poland’s rump Jewish community and is mostly underwritten by Jewish donors abroad—to the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, which runs all public museums in the country. “It’s very easy for this project to become more and more Polish,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, whose formal role will end once the exhibit is completed. “It will become a Polish state institution.”

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Less than a century ago—just barely within living memory—Poland was still home to more Jews than the United States. The trend lines were moving clearly in America’s favor, even before the shadow of Nazism fell across Europe, but Poland remained the crucible of modern Jewish culture, with artists and performers and scholars traveling back and forth between Bialystok and New York. The depressed rural shtetl life conjured by the photographer Roman Vishniac and the folk tales of Y.L. Peretz and other Yiddish writers existed alongside the tremendous wealth and cosmopolitanism of the urban bourgeoisie—people who wouldn’t recognize themselves in the tragic, downtrodden caricatures that dominate the collective Jewish memory. The decades of the Cold War divorced the world’s Ashkenazi Jews not just from the few survivors who remained in Poland after the war, but from their own heritage and from the land itself. “For 60 years, from 1939 to 1989, Polish-Jewish relations were in the freezer,” said Michael Schudrich, Poland’s New York-born chief rabbi. “So, each side grew up with its own story, and they don’t intersect.”

When they think about Jewish life in Poland, most Jews in the rest of the world—not just in the United States and Canada but in Israel, in Australia, in the rest of Europe—think of its terminal point: Auschwitz. The death camp has become Poland’s top tourist destination, attracting more than a million visitors annually. Travelers seeking a Jewish memorial in Warsaw go to see the sculptor Nathan Rappoport’s monument to the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, an unbelievably heroic effort that nevertheless failed to alter the inexorable course of the war. Fashioned from heavy black feldspar blocks, stacked 50 feet high and 30 feet across, the memorial is adorned with twin bronze reliefs that depict the tragedy that befell Poland’s Jews in the six years between 1939 and 1945. One side of Rappoport’s monument—across which bent Jews march to the death camps, an innocent child and a bearded man carrying Torah scrolls among them—faces a quiet residential street lined with Soviet-era apartments, each with its own balcony, where aging Poles sun themselves and hang their laundry to dry.

exterior of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews

(Courtesy of The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews)

On the obverse, the bedraggled but unbowed Jewish martyrs of Muranow stare directly at the sparkling new facade of the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, whose glass cladding is inscribed with tangled Roman and Hebrew characters spelling out the words “Polin.” “It references the stories Jews told themselves about how they came to Poland and why they stayed,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explained when she took me to visit the construction site last fall. “They were running away from persecution in Germany, expulsions, accusations that they brought the plague, and they went east, and came to a forest.” Her voice took on the rhythmic cadence of a practiced storyteller as she spoke. “They came to a forest, and the clouds broke, and the hand of an angel came down and they heard in Hebrew, ‘po lin,’ rest here,” she went on. “Or they heard birds chirping, or they saw the words of the Gemara inscribed on trees, or they saw pages of the Gemara floating down from the sky.” The legends, she said, had been passed on orally and were incorporated into the folktales of writers like Peretz and S.Y. Agnon. “What’s wonderful about the story is that it says Jews would find safe haven here, that they were ordained or destined to be here,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett added.

At 70, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett radiates an uncommon blend of polymath wisdom and youthful curiosity. Petite and energetic, she routinely appears in a uniform of black basics set off by textured jackets and geometric silver-and-stone jewelry she buys from an artist in New Zealand. She wears her graying hair smoothed back into a bun caught at the nape of her neck and peers out at the world with bright blue eyes from behind her black-rimmed glasses. She is Canadian by birth and has spent her professional life in the United States, but for the past half-decade she has been living almost full-time in Warsaw. Already in her sixties, she decided to learn Polish in order to communicate better with her staff. Last year, she took the final leap and filed a claim for Polish citizenship, based on her father’s; in January, she got her passport and used it to travel with her Polish staff to Moscow in February to look at the Jewish museum that recently opened there. “When they asked for my nationality, I wrote down ‘Polish,’ ” she told me, sounding both amused and proud. To celebrate, her staff bought her a cake decorated with a Polish ID card. “For us, she is the spirit of the museum,” said Malgorzata Pakier, a project manager on the exhibition team. “She identifies very much with the Polish Jewish piece of herself, but her memories, or really her father’s memories, of Poland are positive, and that’s something very different than the experience of Jews here.”

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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