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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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Her unusual perspective allows Kirshenblatt-Gimblett to defend Poland, and Poles, in ways that, from someone less historically aware, might sound naive. “Somehow or other, I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t have a good image,” she said of her newly adopted country, “and among Jews especially it gets a bad rap.” But Kirshenblatt-Gimblett knows as much as anyone not just about the history of the Holocaust but about the despicable facts of what followed and how it completely effaced centuries of Jewish history. Her point, essentially, is Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, however dirty and bloody it is. “There was nothing inevitable about it,” she often says. It’s a position even Poland’s fiercest critics can get behind. “To think of Poland as just a cemetery, it’s such an impoverishment of history,” Princeton University historian Jan T. Gross, author of Neighbors, told me recently. “This idea among American Jews that you don’t go to Poland, it’s crazy. That’s where the patrimony is.” He acknowledged the legitimate anxiety American Jews associate with the country, but—perhaps surprisingly, given that he has almost single-handedly exposed how inhumanly many Poles behaved during and after the war—insisted that was exactly why the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews will be important. “To give these kids a sense of what was lost, not just life but a whole way of life, is really very important,” he said. “We know neighbors kill neighbors—look at Rwanda, Yugoslavia. Poland is not unique.”

But the extent to which the vibrant Jewish culture of the prewar period has been erased is staggering. In Warsaw, which was home to more than 375,000 Jews—a quarter of the city’s population—few traces of authentic yiddishkeit remain. One of the exceptions is the Jewish Historical Institute, on Tlomackie Street, the main thoroughfare of the city’s former Jewish neighborhoods. The institute is housed in what was once the city’s Jewish library, whose walls survived the dynamiting of the city’s Great Synagogue by the Nazis in 1943, and is custodian of the Emanuel Ringelblum archive, a UNESCO-registered collection of documents—letters, journals, sheets of food ration stamps—collected from residents of the Warsaw ghetto and hidden during its destruction.

“This idea among American Jews that you don’t go to Poland, it’s crazy. That’s where the patrimony is.”

It was where the original idea for a Jewish museum in Warsaw was born, in the early 1990s. “I was invited to the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and when I came back I said, ‘In the U.S. a museum like this is very important,’ ” Grazyna Pawlak, who was then the institute’s director, said when we met at the office of the small Jewish education foundation she now runs. “But here, because we have Auschwitz, because we have Treblinka, where my grandparents perished, we need a museum of life.” Pawlak initially imagined exhibition galleries built on the top floors of the institute, to make it a hub for Jewish historical preservation in the city. But it turned out the building’s foundations wouldn’t support it. Instead, she secured a promise from the city of Warsaw for a parcel of land on which to build her museum. She recruited Chaim Herzog, the former president of Israel, to headline the project and invited Jeshajahu Weinberg, the Warsaw-born founding director of the Holocaust museum in Washington—known as Shaike—to consult on its development.

By 1999, Weinberg, who also created Beit Hatfutsot, the Diaspora museum in Tel Aviv, had taken control of the initiative, which he imagined as an analogue to the Tel Aviv project, which relied on narrative re-creation rather than displays of objects. “We had no artifacts, nothing but what we could get on loan, so we understood it would be a virtual museum,” said Marian Turski, an Auschwitz survivor and Polish journalist who served as head of the council for the Warsaw museum. “And the idea of Shaike was to recruit scholars from America, from Israel, from England, from Poland, and have designers and producers only from abroad, because there really was not the design expertise in Poland then.”

After Weinberg died of a stroke, in January 2000, it fell to his deputy Jerzy Halbersztadt to keep the project going. Halbersztadt, a historian by training, had worked as a liaison in Poland for the Holocaust museum in Washington. But, like Pawlak and Turski, he lacked the international museum connections and cosmopolitan experience Weinberg brought to the project. In 2006, he offered Kirshenblatt-Gimblett the job of overseeing the development of the core exhibition. “There was a wave of criticism from all sides, from Polish historians, from Jewish academics here in Poland, from Israelis, from some in America as well,” Halbersztadt told me. “They asked, ‘How is it possible an American Jewish professor will be head of such a team?’ ” But Halbersztadt was determined. “Barbara, with her brilliant mind and her competence in evaluating various museums in Israel and America, was the right one,” Halbersztadt said.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett grew up in a heavily Jewish Toronto neighborhood alive with Yiddish and fond memories of the old country. Her father, the painter Mayer Kirshenblatt, left prewar Poland as a child for Canada, and he gifted his oldest daughter with a deep sense of the importance of material culture. She met her husband, the New Zealand-born painter Max Gimblett, at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, where she was representing the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, when she was 19, just after she returned from spending a year on ulpan in Israel. “She had a hobby of copper enameling, and I was a potter,” Gimblett, a bluff extrovert who is an ordained Buddhist monk, told me when we met in New York. “I took her to a bar and she gave me a treatise on how she was never going to get married. A year later, we were married.” After Kirshenblatt-Gimblett finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, the pair went to San Francisco, where Kirshenblatt-Gimblett earned her Master’s degree at Berkeley, and then to the University of Indiana at Bloomington, where she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on traditional Jewish storytelling in the Toronto community where she grew up. She was in the first generation of scholars, primarily women, to explore folk arts and crafts as an academic subject. “Men in Jewish professional life were not used to looking at Jewish life as resource material, and Jewish art and art history was an unexplored subject,” said Nancy Berman, the former director of the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, who met Kirshenblatt-Gimblett in 1975 when she was recommended as a consultant for the Skirball’s textile collection. “Her subject was ethnography and folklore, and she was a star in that world.”

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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