A revival of Jewish culture in Poland
Polish-Jewish relations have always aroused the interest of global opinion due to their complex history. Poland is currently rediscovering its great Jewish tradition and is starting to consider it to be a significant and inseparable part of its own identity and history. The revival of Jewish life in Poland exemplifies the changes that have occurred in Poland related to its political transformation in 1989. The POLIN Museum reflects the Poles’ increasing interest in Jewish culture and common heritage.
Museum of life
The grand opening of the core exhibition of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews has attracted the attention of the world’s media. It is already regarded as one of the most interesting exhibitions in Europe. This architecturally modern museum, situated at the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, does not solely focus on tragedy of the Holocaust compared to the major institutions that deal with Jewish history around the world, but it is above all a museum of life.
Full of symbols, the POLIN Museum recounts the past with the use of the most advanced technology and interactive multimedia. It shows the whole richness of the vital 1,000-year history of the Jewish community in Poland. However, that account also includes the dark times in Polish- Jewish history.
The exhibition was designed by an international team of more than 120 academics and curators headed by Prof. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett from New York University.
The core exhibition of the POLIN Museum, an impressive journey through 1,000 years of Polish Jewry, starts on the grand stairs that lead to the grand hall. Through the artistic installation on the green glass panels, surrounded by sounds and voices, visitors are introduced to the first gallery that symbolises a forest. In this imaginative space, visitors learn legends about the arrival and settlement of the first Jews on Polish lands 1,000 years ago. Among them is the beautiful Po-lin legend, which became an inspiration for the name of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
According to this legend, Jews who were fleeing persecution in Western Europe in the Middle Ages came to the territories of today’s Poland, where they heard birds chirping “Po-lin! Po-lin!” In Hebrew, this means “you will rest here”. Taking it as a sign from God, the Jews decided to settle down there and began to develop their culture, spirituality and centuries-old learning. As time went by, this word began to denote “Poland” in Hebrew. “Forest” is the only gallery in this exhibition that uses narration based on legends. The next galleries’ narration is built by presenting facts and historic events.
“Working on this exhibition, we selected a very special way of narration. We decided to tell the history of 1,000 years of Polish Jews by presenting the stories of people who lived in a certain period of time. We show the reality in which they lived. We make visitors feel that they are kept in a moment and in a place. He or she discovers following parts of our stories, exploring this old world of Polish Jews engaging many senses. We let the visitors immerse themselves in the history, but without anticipating facts, etc. We preferred to put visitors in the moment of the story itself,” says Łukasz Adamski, exhibition projects manager at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
In the “First Encounters” gallery, visitors follow the events from the earliest period of Jewish settlement in Poland. They get to know that the first Jews who came to Poland were travelling merchants from Western and Southern Europe.
Paradise on Earth
Entering “Paradisus Iudaeorum”, visitors are introduced to the so-called golden age in the history of Polish Jews, which was between 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries. In “Paradisus Iudaeorum”, visitors have a chance to get to know the richness of the culture of the local Jewish community.
At the time, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the largest and most tolerant countries in Europe. It aggregated the largest Jewish community in the world and became the centre of Jewish life.
In the next stage of the journey through the history of Polish Jewry, the visitors are taken into “Jewish Town”, a gallery in which they can explore
the vivid bustling daily life of Jews living in small towns in the 17th and 18th centuries. They learn about their various customs and religious rites through various installations. The visitors come through reconstructed spaces that imitate private houses.
The centre of this gallery and the whole museum is the breathtaking and spectacular reconstruction of the roof and the ceiling of the wooden 17th century synagogue from Gwoździec, in today’s Ukraine.
Jewish contributions in times of change
The largest gallery of the main exhibition “Encounters with Modernity” presents Jewish lives at the time when the First Polish Republic was partitioned by three empires: Russia, Prussia and Austria. The significant point of this gallery is a mock 19th-century railway station that symbolises the Industrial Revolution. In this place, visitors can learn about the prominent Jewish financiers who played a significant role in the industrialisation of the Congress Kingdom.
On the Jewish street
The main element of the next gallery that is dedicated to the life of Jews in the Second Polish Republic during interwar period is the reconstruction of a Jewish street.
In the next parts of this gallery, visitors are invited to discover the diversity of cultural and political life at the time considered by many as the second golden age in the history of Polish Jews.
In the spaces referred to the culture, visitors can feel the mood of pre-war entertainment entering filled with music halls such cinema, theatre in Yiddish and Polish or the café.
Heading up the stairs to a mezzanine, visitors are invited to explore daily life in the towns and to get to know stories about a new generation of Jews who were born in independent Poland.
The Holocaust: Tension takes place
In the “Holocaust” gallery, the dramatic narration accelerates. Visitors are brought into the time of terror. They are informed about the events related to the outbreak of war and the German and Soviet occupations from the various multimedia installations that highlight this mood of tension. In the part of the gallery called “Separation and Isolation”, the visitors learn about intensifying acts of repressions and persecutions towards Jews.
In the gallery dedicated to ghetto, the walls that divide the spaces are angled, which highlights the feelings of claustrophobia and disorientation- the emotions what Jews experienced to the extreme conditions of living in the ghetto. In the “Shoah” part, visitors follow the footsteps of the victims until the tragic end that symbolises the doorstep of a gas chamber. This is the most striking and emotional moment of gallery. Then visitors are led to a part titled “Emptiness”, a space devoid of exhibition pieces where they can rest and think about all the emotions they experienced. This space is filled with a reflective mood, which completes gallery dedicated to Holocaust. This is another innovation in comparison to the museums dealing with that period of war.
The last gallery presents the post-war period. Of the 3.5 million Jews living in Poland in 1939, one-tenth survived the Holocaust. Those who survived the Holocaust must have faced the choice between staying in the country or leaving. Those who stayed in Poland helped to rebuild the country and also the destroyed life of the Jewish community. Due to an anti-Semitic campaign in 1968, many Jews were forced to emigrate. Following this campaign, only approximately 10,000 Jews remained in Poland. The gallery presents, among others, the reports from these events. Since the fall of communism in 1989, there has been a renewal of Jewish life in Poland. The exhibition completes with a multimedia projection about Jewish life in Poland today. One of the questions put there for discussion is about the future for Jews in Poland.
The grand opening of the core exhibition of the POLIN Museum, which was largely covered by world media, focused global opinion attention to current Polish-Jewish relations. In many press reports there was highlighted the revival of Jewish culture in Poland.
The very visible revival of interest in Jewish cultural heritage that has taken place in recent decades in Poland seems to many observers to be especially remarkable, even shocking. “Poland was long considered the quintessential ‘Jewish graveyard’, so many observers found Jewish and Jewish cultural revival there hard to believe or accept. For years, many people did not acknowledge or trust these developments,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, European-based American journalist and author, specialist in contemporary Jewish affairs. “The revival of interest in Jewish culture and history was a symbol of the fall of communism and return to democracy 25 years ago, in Poland and in other post-communist countries. Finally, people could “recover” a part of the past that had been virtually taboo in some places”- claims Ruth Ellen Gruber.
Currently, the revival of Jewish culture in Poland is proceeding above all through recalling the Jewish culture in the form how it was presented on Polish lands in the previous centuries (including recalling history, Judaism as religion, Jewish art) and showing relations between Jewish and Polish/Christian culture. However, events, which are proceeded within the revival of Jewish culture also rely on showing contemporary Jewish culture, which is in a large part developing outside Poland — in Israel or in countries of the Jewish Diaspora.
“This process of the revival of Jewish culture is present in almost the entire country. Such intensity of the revival of Jewish culture does not exist in any other European country. Almost every city and town in Poland is discovering the past Jewish presence and its importance for Polish history and culture. Jewish culture is recognised as an integral and inherent part of Polish culture and history. ” explains Edyta Gawron, professor of Jewish studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
Along with the popularity of Jewish culture, there is also revival of Jewish life in Poland.
“Comparing the situation in Poland with the rest of the Europe, and its growing anti-Semitism, without question it is easier, safer and better to be Jewish in Poland. Changes towards Jews are going in a very good direction. In contrast to the rest of Europe, there are no security guards in front of the synagogues in Poland. Jewish life is more open here than anywhere else in my experience of travelling in Europe,” says, Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow (JCC Krakow).
Referring to the whole Jewish community in Poland, Jakub Nowakowski, the author of many publications about Jewish culture and history, regards that, for the first time in over 70 years Jewish community is largely diversified. “It is noticed in variety of trends among Polish Jews- from Chabad-Lubavitch, Orthodox, Progressive to total Secular”, says Jakub Nowakowski.
Revival of interest in Jewish culture
Currently in Poland, there are many various Jewish culture festivals and new ones continue to show up each year. The Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow is the largest Jewish culture festival in Europe and one of the biggest festivals of Jewish culture in the world. With 30,000 participants annually, the Jewish Woodstock or the Festival of Life, as it is sometimes called, shows the various faces of Jewish culture from all over the world. In addition this festival, organised annually in June, the most popular annual events related to Jewish culture are Warsaw’s Singer Festival of Jewish Culture, the Jewish Motifs International Film Festival in Warsaw and the “Following Singer’s Traces” Festival, which is an international journey in the footsteps of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories set in towns and villages of the Lublin region.
“Due to the incredible interest in Jewish culture among non-Jews in Poland, we deal with the unique situation in which the revival of Jewish culture has been primarily led by non-Jews for non-Jews. Here, enormous numbers of events dedicated to Jewish culture attract an audience that consists of 90 percent non-Jews and 10 percent Jews. In the rest of Europe, it’s the opposite,” says Jonathan Ornstein.
The renaissance of interest in Jewish culture is displayed in enormous numbers of publications dedicated to Jewish culture and history. In democratic Poland, Jewish issues are again the subject of public debate.
In 2001, historian Jan Tomasz Gross published the book Neighbours about a 1941 massacre in Jedwabne. This publication stirred up many controversies, but also initiated a deep public debate about Polish civilians’ violence against Jews during and after the war.
In recent years, there have been several films presenting complex Polish-Jewish issues in the wartime history. One of them is the critically acclaimed Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski. Another is the Oscar-nominated drama In Darkness by Agnieszka Holland.
Jewish museums play an important role in preserving Jewish heritage. With its permanent exhibition, the internationally acclaimed permanent photographic exhibition “Traces of Memory”, the Galicia Museum in Kazimierz stands out among other Jewish Museums in Central and Eastern Europe of a comparable size in the innovative exhibiting Jewish culture, the Holocaust and present-day Jewish life.
Along with the popularity of Jewish culture in Poland, many Poles are starting to discover their Jewish roots. There are also more and more young Polish Jews who feel comfortable enough to come out and get involved actively in Jewish communities in the country.
“The strong presence of the third post-Holocaust generation of Jews in the Polish landscape brings a new quality of Polish-Jewish relations. Young Polish Jews are open, full of energy and optimism, willing to contribute to Jewish life and they also deal with specific identity issues. More and more often they are considered to be a new phenomenon in the Jewish world,” claims Jakub Nowakowski, director of Galicia Jewish Museum.
The Jewish Community Center of Krakow
The Jewish Community Center of Krakow (JCC Krakow) is the one of the most prominent examples of the initiatives fostering the resurgence of Polish Jewry and indicating the direction of changes in building a Jewish future in Krakow. The Center was founded in 2008 from the previous initiative of Prince Charles and with the support of the World Jewish Relief organisation.
Since its opening, the JCC has became a focal point in rebuilding the Jewish community, which was for the previous 50 years cut off from the rest of the Jewish world. Today, numbering approximately 500 members, the JCC reintegrates the representatives of the old generation of Jews (including Holocaust survivors), middle-aged people and also people from the younger generations who have just recently learned about their Jewish roots.
The rich array of activities for members of JCC includes Yiddish and Hebrew classes, cooking classes, yoga and Israeli dance. There are also a senior club, middle-age club, a student club, a Sunday school and a nursery. The Introduction to Judaism class is lectured by Avi Baumol, a Modern Orthodox rabbi. Every Friday, Rabbi Baumol conducts Shabbat prayer and he also accompanies the JCC community during celebrations, explaining to its members, among other things, the character and significance of rituals, or other religious or cultural matters of Judaism.
“JCC Krakow is a place where it is possible to profoundly discover our Jewish identity and we are given the choice in which way each of us wants to follow, whether it be Orthodox, Progressive or wholly secular. For us, the third post-Holocaust generation of Jews in Poland, it is very important to learn about our heritage. We are aware that we have more opportunities than our parents to reconnect with the Jewish world and to be an active part of contemporary, modern Jewish life,” explains Alicja Beryt, PhD student of Philosophy associated with the JCC and other Jewish organisations.
JCC Krakow is also a Jewish visitor centre where tourists from around the world can learn about thriving Jewish life in Krakow and meet members of the Jewish community.
“Poland has always been a focus for the Jewish world. About 85 percent of United States Jewry have roots here. For many people, Poland is still a country marked with tragedy and loss related to the Holocaust and also anti-Semitism. In our Center we help foreigners to see and understand how much the situation in terms of Polish–Jewish relations has changed for the better since 1989,” explains Jonathan Ornstein, director of JCC Krakow.
The main mission of JCC Krakow is to bring together the developing, multi-generational and varied Jewish community of Krakow and help its members connect to Judaism and to discover the Jewish world and its various aspects.
“The members of JCC are people who are Jews raised in traditional Jewish families, converts, atheists or also people who come from mixed families. Many of us haven’t grown up with Jewish traditions and culture. JCC also attracts many people who recently have discovered their Jewish roots. They come to us feeling lost and struggling with their identity. Sometimes these issues can be very complex and quite difficult: how to be Polish, be raised in the Catholic religion while simultaneously being Jewish. JCC helps them to be closer to Jewish life and they can choose whether they become a part of the Jewish world,” tells Olga Danek, a coordinator of Gimel, a student club.
Aiming at the idea in Judaism called Tikkun Olam (healing the world) JCC members are actively involved in supporting many social initiatives. They continuously work with Roma, LGBT and women’s organisations and animal rights group.
The Center organises many events aimed for the benefit of local society of Krakow like series of workshops to teach local people about Jewish customs. There are many free educations events open to the public like Chanukrakow. JCC Krakow also has an educational program where members of our Jewish student club go to schools in the region and tell the students about Jewish life in Poland today.
Volunteers at Jewish Community
The growing interest in Jewish culture in Poland has caused many young people to become involved in many initiatives related to Jewish culture, and start to learn about Jewish culture and history. Many of them dedicate their free time to help to run activities that serve the Jewish community (the organisation of celebrations, educational activity or help for elderly people from Jewish community, etc.).
People who volunteer at Jewish communities are driven by various motivations. „Some have personal stories, others are fascinated by Jewish history and culture and want to learn more about them, others still might get to know how do like celebrations or other religious rituals or they simply want to be part of the multicultural community. Generally, they all want to change the relations between Jews and Poles and fight against stereotypes and prejudices among Poles but also among Jews from all over the world who are visiting Poland,” says Magdalena Arabas, who coordinates some 50 volunteers at Krakow’s Jewish Community Center. Most of them are non-Jews.
Originally published at www.contributoria.com.