Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a Canadian-American scholar of Yiddish and Jewish studies and one of the visionaries behind Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, is one of 228 newly elected members to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary society based in Cambridge, Mass.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett designed the first core exhibit for the museum, itself a striking work of architecture built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto—a powerful metaphor, as Stephanie Butnick wrote in 2013: “From the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, quite literally, was emerging an institution dedicated to not just the Holocaust, but the entirety of Jewish life in Poland.” Indeed, it is important to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett that the legacy of Jews in Poland, and Warsaw especially, not be reduced to their obliteration. As she told a crowd at Fairfield University in late 2012, in a piece reported by Allison Hoffman:
“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.”
As Hoffman wrote, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett responded similarly to questions of why the museum should be in Poland, where there are now estimated to be about 3,200 Jews (in 1939, there were 3.25 million), as opposed to Israel or New York, the centers of Jewish culture today. “The answer is that we’re telling the story literally where it took place,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “The place is everything.” Her answer evokes, for me, the Yiddishist concept of doikayt, meaning literally “hereness”: a prioritization of a people’s current sense of place. Thus Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has dedicated herself to educating the public about Warsaw’s rich Jewish culture and contributions to Western culture in general.
Four years ago, during their visit for the city-wide 70th anniversary commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Tablet staffers had the opportunity to attend the museum’s soft opening; the museum opened to the public in October 2014.
Although her involvement with the POLIN Museum may be the most visible aspect of her legacy, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has contributed scholarship to many journals and institutions of Jewish and Yiddish cultural studies, and serves as a consultant and advisor to several Jewish and Holocaust museums worldwide.
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Miranda Cooper is an editorial intern at Tablet. Follow her on Twitter here.