Inside POLIN 2017
Inside the Polin Museum for lunch 2017

Inside POLIN. Top, Hornstein students examine a roof structure, a replica roof built to resemble the intricate wooden, painted synagogue roofs in Poland. (The story of its construction is documented in the film, "Raise the Roof.") Bottom, students gather for lunch.

Hornstein students walk to the Polin Museum 2017

Hornstein Seminar to Poland 2017
Day One, POLIN Museum, Warsaw 

How I agitated
  the first speaker
     and why
it was a good start

By Chen Arad

“Wait wait wait, hold on there!” Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett interrupted me as I was attempting to end my question.

Up to that point, the conversation was everything you’d expect from a meeting between a group of Jewish American, Israeli, and Canadian students of Jewish Professional Leadership and an esteemed professor. We had just concluded a two hour visit to POLIN, Poland’s elegant Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Professor Gimblett, the Chief Curator, discussed the behind-the-scenes considerations they faced while trying to do justice to a thousand years of glorious Jewish-Polish history that are, understandably, overshadowed by the Holocaust.

We asked about narratives, design, historical accuracy, methods, national memory, and more, and she answered. Even though we just landed that morning and were tired and jet-lagged, and despite the gloomy eastern European wintry weather, the mood was cheery and the conversation lively. We—and it seemed that Professor Gimblett too—were enjoying a stimulating exchange.

My question, it seemed to me however, seemed to throw her off a little. “Does the focus on positive elements of Jewish-Polish history, to some degree,” I wondered genuinely, ”absolve the Poles of their responsibility for the fate of Poland’s Jews in the 20th century?”

She appeared surprised by what I thought was an almost trivial question. I continued: I acknowledged that our two-hour visit only allowed us a perfunctory review of the museum’s wealth of carefully crafted exhibitions. I also acknowledged that in Israel, where I grew up, Poland is generally perceived as a grim country ridden with antisemitism, perhaps wrongfully so. (When Israelis call someone “Polish,” they don't mean it as a kindness, implying that the individual is petty, boring, or both.)

I understand why the Museum’s mission of shedding more light on those many remarkably beautiful elements of Poland and on the fact that, until the Holocaust, it was home to a flourishing Jewish community accounting for 40 percent of the world’s Jews, is so important.

But the splendor of Polish and Polish-Jewish heritage, so effectively highlighted by the museum, makes the question even more pressing: What made it possible for the Holocaust to take place here, of all places? And how is the museum addressing this, if at all?

Prof. Gimblett's slight agitation was a good thing, a sign that we’d hit on something important. “It is critical that we separate the place where the genocide took place (Poland), and the architects and perpetrators of the genocide, who were German,” was the essence of her first response. I felt, at first, that she hadn't really answered my questions. As more questions followed, however, the conversation developed into a fascinating exploration of different narratives and the difficulty of finding a right balance while maintaining accuracy.

Some visitors, Prof.. Gimblett said, argue the whole museum should be dedicated to antisemitism. At the same time, many non-Jewish Poles who visit are angered that antisemitism is too prominent in the exhibits. Others believe that it should only deal with medieval Jewish-Polish history, an intriguing period few people know anything about, or alternatively, only focus on World War II. The local Warsaw municipality has been working to erect a new monument outside the museum, commemorating Polish Righteous among the Nations, which could, she said, completely pivot the narrative originally intended by the Museum founders. "It’s a challenge, and we deal with it one day at a time," she said. 

We came to Poland to explore exactly those questions of memory, reconciliation, and the way they impact the future of the Jewish community here. This first discussion was really everything we could hope for. I can’t wait to agitate more speakers, get agitated right back, and leave knowing much more than I did before arriving.

Hornstein students and Dr. Len Saxe pose with Dr. Gimblett at POLIN, 2017

The Hornstein group met with Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Chief Curator at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

“Success to me is when Polish visitors come here and at the end of their visit say ‘This is a history of Poland, not only of Jews,’” Professor Gimblett said. The discussion touched on the challenge of presenting the beauty of a thousand-year Polish-Jewish history that has been overshadowed by the horrors of the Holocaust and antisemitism. The conversation became slightly tense when the group raised the question if, by focusing on the positives of Jewish history in Poland, the museum absolves, to some degree, the Polish of their responsibility for the fate of Poland’s Jews. Professor Gimblett acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue and a certain struggle between different desired narratives, while emphasizing the need to distinguish between the perpetrators of the Holocaust, the Germans, and the local population.

In February 2017, the Hornstein Class of 2017 traveled to Poland with Professor Leonard Saxe for an eight-day seminar to study contemporary Jewish life in that country. This is a blog post from that seminar written by a student or pair of students.

This year's seminar was supported, in part, by the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry and the Center for German and European Studies, both at Brandeis University.

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