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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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A few days later, Cudak waved to me cheerfully from behind a bank of microphones set out in the lobby of the museum building, where the government was holding a hard-hat tour for the Warsaw press corps. He stood alongside Warsaw’s Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, an economist who served as head of Poland’s national bank in the 1990s. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett flitted around the edges of the crowd photographing the almost-finished interior of the museum building, whose soaring, undulating walls were reminiscent of the symbolic eternal flame. At one end of the lobby, a giant linden tree shaded the plate-glass windows; at the other, the corner of the monument to the ghetto uprising stood beyond the entry hall, barely visible through the scrim of “Polin”-inscribed panels. Just beyond the lobby was a glass-walled viewing area through which visitors will be able to look at the roof of a wooden synagogue, completed last summer and installed earlier this year, which will be the centerpiece of the 18th-century galleries.

After the tour, I asked Gronkiewicz-Waltz—who many believe has designs on higher office—what her hope for the museum was. “As a symbol for the Americans, it’s like the Ellis Island museum,” she told me. “There I learned the history of Jews in America, and I think here they will learn the history of Jews in Poland.”

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Whether the Poles will succeed in selling a new narrative to Jewish visitors from abroad still remains to be seen. While I was in Warsaw, I spent an afternoon with an adult tour group organized by the Ramah Israel Institute, the Jerusalem-based offshoot of the American Conservative movement’s camping arm. Their itinerary included stops at the major camps—Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek—as well as formerly Jewish shtetls in Galicia, the ghetto of Krakow and the factory where Oskar Schindler saved the Jews on his list. Their first stop was the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, where their guide, Moshe Gold, started by holding up a plastic sleeve containing a sheet of paper with a series of words printed on it in Roman and Hebrew characters: Polin. He told an energetic but far less poetic version of the Polin legend. Then he led the group on a quick highlights tour that included the tombstone memorializing the three fathers of Yiddish literature—Y. L. Peretz, S. Ansky, and Yankev Dinezon—and the ohel of Chaim Soloveitchik, the Brisker rebbe. As we walked along, one of the women in the group asked, somewhat rhetorically, “Why do they preserve it, when there aren’t any Jews here? Just for tourists?”

“Why do they preserve it, when there aren’t any Jews here? Just for tourists?”

From the cemetery, the group proceeded to the orphanage run by Janusz Korczak, the martyr who accompanied his young charges to Treblinka in 1942 rather than let them go alone to their deaths. The tour did not stop at the nearby Warsaw Rising Museum, which opened in 2004 to commemorate the citywide revolt against the Nazi occupation in 1944 that followed the Jewish ghetto uprising the year before. Instead, the bus went directly to the remnants of the ghetto walls, which are sandwiched between apartment buildings off a busy commercial stretch. We arrived at dusk, under a light drizzle, and found Israeli security outfitted with earpieces at the entrance. Seated in consecutive courtyards, groups of Israeli teenagers looked at photographs from the ghetto. Some were in tears; most were respectfully silent; all ignored the residents of the surrounding buildings as they came and went.

An exhibition under construction, featuring a reconstruction of the roof of an 18th century wooden synagogue

An exhibition under construction, featuring a reconstruction of the roof of an 18th century wooden synagogue. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

This is precisely the phenomenon both the Polish and American sponsors of the museum want to disrupt. “I don’t think going from one death camp to another is what the Jewish experience in Poland should be about,” Tad Taube, who has given about $16 million to the project, told me. “It’s a bad experience, in fact. I think people should honor the Holocaust, but it doesn’t really pay a lot of respect to why all those people died, or to the thousand-year history that ended up in ashes.”

In late October, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett returned to the United States to give a lecture about the museum at Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution in Connecticut, hosted by the school’s center for Judaic studies. About a hundred people, only a few of them students, turned out in the autumn chill to hear the talk. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, wearing her customary black outfit with a nubby knit jacket, stood up and launched into her pitch. “What we’ve created is a multimedia narrative exhibition, what I’d call a theater of history,” she told the audience. “Our story is not teleological. It doesn’t drive to some pre-ordained end, which would of course be the Holocaust.” She asked the crowd to think in terms of a millennium, an impossible stretch of time for most Americans to wrap their heads around. “It’s an extraordinary message, one thousand years,” she explained, “because you don’t become the center of the Ashkenazi world and a center of the Jewish world if your story is a thousand years of unmitigated anti-Semitism.”

She showed a video introducing the museum and its galleries and then took questions: about how Poles have responded to her work, about whether any historic material had been found in the ghetto rubble beneath the museum site, and about the artists and typeface specialists she’d commissioned. Someone asked about the interest from the Polish public, and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett replied, “I’m counting initially on the Bilbao effect”—a reference to Frank Gehry’s swooping architectural fantasia in northern Spain, which almost incidentally houses an outpost of the Guggenheim Museum. She went on to say that when she began traveling to Poland friends of hers encouraged her to visit the Wieliczka salt mines, in the country’s south, where miners carved underground cathedrals into the rock over hundreds of years. “I said, ‘Look, I’m not interested in salt, I’m not interested in mines, I’m not interested in salt mines,’ but after I was told I don’t know how many times how incredible it is, I went—and it is incredible,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett told the crowd. “So, I hope that this museum is something like that: If you only went once, you can’t not have gone.”

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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

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