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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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In 1972, they moved to New York, where Kirshenblatt-Gimblett went to work at YIVO, the Yiddish research institute. She cultivated a bohemian existence on the Bowery with Gimblett, whose painting studio dominates their loft, but professionally she plugged into a thriving Jewish cultural scene. At YIVO, her colleagues knew her by her Yiddish name, Brayndl. (Today, most of her New York colleagues refer to her by her initials, BKG, while her Polish colleagues call her Barbara, with all three syllables carefully enunciated.) Karl Katz, a former director of New York’s Jewish Museum and of the Bezalel National Museum in Jerusalem, remembered inviting her and Gimblett to Rosh Hashanah dinner and being surprised when she arrived with a large homemade challah decorated with birds in flight. “She had a whole story to go with it, a Yiddish kind of a story, which was that for Polish Jews these challahs represented some kind of way of expressing wishes to fly through the air,” Katz said. “I thought it was so amazingly wonderful.”

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The Polish view of history is a deeply martyrological one, and, after a decade of confronting the questions of historic culpability that Jan Gross raises in his books, it’s somewhat voguish now for Poles to identify with Jewish suffering. Waldemar Dabrowski, a former minister of culture who serves both as the general director of Warsaw’s Opera Narodowa and as the government’s ministerial plenipotentiary for the museum, told me that, for him, the museum is part of the decades-long project of rebuilding Warsaw to its pre-1939 state. “We lost 6 million inhabitants during the war, 3 million of Jewish origin, 3 million Poles,” he said, ticking off the numbers in his spacious, wood-paneled office at the top of the ornate Opera building. “No one knows that Auschwitz was set up for Poles, not for Jews. The first many thousands of prisoners were activists in the Polish underground movement.”

Warsaw was the biggest Jewish city in the world—out of 1.4 million inhabitants, 350,000 could pray in Yiddish.

Dabrowski smoked as we talked and lamented the calculated destruction of Warsaw during the citywide uprising in 1944, a year after the battle of the Jewish ghetto. He pointed at buildings outside the window that looked like they had been built in the late 19th century but that were in fact a century younger; even the façade of the Opera building in which we sat had had only been finished in 2002. An alcove outside his door contained the sole remnant that survived in the rubble of the prewar opera house: a small statue of a forgotten actor named Alojzy Zolkowski, which was missing its face. “Nothing is real, because Hitler commissioned the only plan in mankind not to build a city but to destroy a city,” Dabrowski said. “Warsaw was the biggest Jewish city in the world—out of 1.4 million inhabitants, 350,000 could pray in Yiddish. They had their specific culture, their certain districts, and Warsaw without it is not complete. Without this Jewish component, the city is not real.” He paused. “The fate of Warsaw is incomparable to any other city in the world,” he added. “No other city was killed on purpose, none of them was killed according to a plan. So, in this perspective, as I told you, this museum is filling this painful gap.”

rendering of Forest Gallery of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews

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

Halfway through our conversation, Dabrowski handed me a copy of a manifesto by the poet Julian Tuwim titled, “We, Polish Jews.” “I am a Pole because I want to be,” Tuwim wrote in 1944, from New York. “A Pole, also because the birch and the willow are closer to my heart than palms and citrus trees, and Mickiewicz and Chopin dearer than Shakespeare and Beethoven.” Dabrowski told me he chose to see Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s decision to acquire a Polish passport as a statement of fidelity. “She has brought a lot as a person with a strong identity in a world which disappeared, vanished, actually,” he told me. “On the other hand, she became much more Polish, and she started to understand us much better. So, I see Barbara now as a Polish patriot, in this broader sense.”

But being a patriot, or a citizen, doesn’t make Kirshenblatt-Gimblett Polish. There is a universe of anxiety around the later galleries in her exhibit—the ones depicting the years of the Cold War, when the stories of Jews who remained in Poland and their former compatriots everywhere else in the world diverged. For Polish Jews, exploring that history means excavating not just the pogroms visited on Holocaust survivors who tried to return home after the war, but the history of Jewish communists who helped build the new Stalinist regime. “For us, the postwar galleries are really the biggest issue,” said Konstanty Gebert, a columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, the country’s largest daily. “There’s a picture of the Communist Congress, and four leaders are Jewish. Are we supposed to put a Magen David by their names? It’s an issue of credibility for non-Jewish Poles.” But the story also includes the purge of most remaining Jews from the country in 1968—an event that at the time, Gebert said, was seen by some Poles as another kind of Jewish privilege, since most Poles were prohibited from emigrating at all. Even the history of the Solidarity movement, in which Jews were deeply involved, is fraught. “The fact that Jews were also overrepresented in Solidarity makes it worse,” Gebert, himself a former Solidarity activist, told me with a rueful grin, “because then you activate the ‘cling to power’ trope.”

Gebert looks forward to the opening of the museum—in part because of how often the project, initially scheduled to open in 2010, has been delayed, first because of problems facing the contractor hired by the Polish government and then because of funding shortfalls for the core exhibit, the development and fabrication of which has been underwritten by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, the nonprofit entity that employs Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. The name is, at this point, something of a misnomer; while Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has drawn heavily on the holdings of the institute for her exhibit, which will feature reproductions of photographs and documents from the institute’s collections, there are no plans to move any of the original materials from the institute building, where they are kept in rudimentary archival storage, to the newly outfitted museum building a few blocks away. “It makes no sense to move from here, because the museum has no research capacity,” Pawel Spiewak, the director of the institute, told me. “In this museum there is simply no one who knows anything about the Jews. We have no partner, simply no partner.” Rather than fighting for a role, Spiewak said the institute, while committed to lending items to the new museum, wants to establish itself as a destination in its own right, drawing largely on its claim to be a surviving remnant of Jewish life in Poland. “We want to make our brand,” he told me. “We want people to come here and know that the materials were prepared here before the war.”

In 2011, Jerzy Halbersztadt resigned his role as director of the museum. He has been replaced by Andrzej Cudak, a technocrat whose chief qualification for running Poland’s highest-profile cultural development project is his successful oversight of Warsaw’s preparations for the Euro 2012 soccer championship, which was jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine. We met one morning at the museum’s temporary offices downtown. “I serve three masters,” Cudak told me, in his limited English, referring to the Ministry of Culture, the city of Warsaw, and the American-backed Association. His desk was decorated with a small silver soccer ball trophy, a memento of his previous success.

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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