Are you ready to get your mind blown? Go to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Surprised?
This is not your old school museum with dusty artifacts and long, boring descriptions of events no one cares about reading. This is one of the most beautiful museums in the world. And it is not just my opinion! By the long list of awards it has received over the past few years it is pretty obvious a lot of important people think so, too. In 2016 POLIN Museum won the title of the European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA 2016). In the Jury’s statement we can read:
POLIN Museum rose up to the challenge of creating an engaging and persuasive core exhibition without a substantial collection of artefacts. The programme of temporary exhibitions, educational activities, conferences, academic and artistic residences make the Museum a vibrant platform for dialogue and spreading the knowledge on Jewish history and heritage.
POLIN Museum is, of course, a museum but also something much more. It became a very important place on the cultural map of Warsaw. Its stunning building hosts many events. Some of them are connected with Jewish culture, like workshops for families ahead of Jewish holidays. Others support the POLIN Museum’s mission through organizing meetings with writers or activists, workshops, yoga classes, events for local seniors or lectures and classes. In its own words:
POLIN Museum is a modern cultural institution – a narrative museum which presents a 1000-year history of Polish Jews. It is also a place for meetings and conversations for all of those eager to learn more about the past and present Jewish culture, to confront the stereotypes, and to face the perils of today’s world such as xenophobia and nationalistic prejudices. By promoting openness, tolerance, and truth, POLIN Museum contributes to the mutual understanding and respect amongst Poles and Jews.
Short but vital history of the POLIN Museum
The thought to create a museum of the history of Polish Jews was nothing new. Historians from the Jewish Historical Institute hoped to create such institution for a long time. But it needed the support of Polish government and huge financial help from abroad. Finally, in the beginning of the year 2005, the Polish Minister of Culture signed appropriate documents offering not just spiritual support but significant financial one. Now the JHI had to find funds to create the core exhibition.
POLIN Museum: the Building
The core exhibition is without a doubt a masterpiece. But it is not stored in some dingy old building. The structure is an architectural gem in itself. The place itself is steeped in symbolism and meaning. It is placed where the old Jewish district of Muranów used to be… After the WWII and the brutal fighting during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, there was nothing left here but a sea of ruins. Nothing. One of the first construction to be placed here was a monument to the Ghetto Heroes, designed by Natan Rapaport and erected in 1948. In front of it, for more than six decades was a huge empty square left for future plans. People knew, that there had to be something of a museum built later on. And so the building of the POLIN Museum faces the monument, showing everyone that the history of Jews was so much more than just this war.
In the international architectural competition organized in 2005, the project designed by a Finnish architectural office Lahdelma & Mahlamäki won. Four years later, the foundation stone was set in an official ceremony and the construction was completed in 2012.
POLIN Museum: The Core Exhibition
The core exhibition takes visitors on a journey of 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland. What I loved the most in the way it is done, is firstly the highly artistic presentation (you can see it in the photos) and the approach to showing historical facts. Instead of long and boring descriptions of life and events, the creators chose to use quotes from thousands of primary source materials. Through very carefully chosen short quotes from memoirs, public documents, philosophical books, and chronicles, the life Jews is painted. We can learn not only about the history of Jews but in general about those times, about the history of Poland and generally of Europe. As Poland still waits for a high-quality museum of the history of Poland, this is also the best place to learn about crucial events in this country.
The core exhibition is divided into seven galleries:
First Encounters (960–1500)
I think it might be still my favorite one in terms of the excellent artistic presentation. Using the typical style of medieval manuscripts, we can learn about first Jewish visitors and first communities. There are interactive maps, short videos, and audio narrations. Quotes from various chronicles describe the way Poland was viewed by one of its first chroniclers – Ibrahim Ibn Yakub, a Jewish merchant, and a diplomat from Cordoba who described all he had seen. We learn about first laws and privileges and the generally safe and secure lands of Poland to the Jews escaping pogroms in the Western Europe.
Paradisus Iudaeorum (1569–1648)
The year of 1569 is the year of the birth of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was a strong, rich and ethnically very diverse state. The title of this gallery – Paradisus Iudaeorum – Jewish Paradise – reflects the autonomy and legal rights Jews enjoyed in that time. Walking through the gallery you see how the daily life of Jewish citizens of Poland has changed – about the flourishing of Jewish cultural and intellectual life, and religious writings and publishing houses. There was no such phenomenon anywhere else in Europe. Jews could feel safe and were protected by the kings. One of most striking elements of this gallery is the huge model of medieval Kraków and Kazimierz. It’s not just informative – but simply beautiful with the moving quotes and images displayed on its bare white construction.
In every part of the core exhibitions, there are interactive elements. Everywhere you turn there are touch screens or things to move, push and click. All quotes are in the original language (Polish, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew…) and then in Polish and English – so no worries! You will be able to understand everything. In this section, you can also make your own medieval-style print.
The Jewish Town (1648-1772)
We enter into this gallery through a narrow, dark and red corridor. It shows the dramatic and tragic events during the Chmielnicki Uprising of 1648. Thousands upon thousands of people lost their lives and the traumatic stories of what “the Kozaks” did, became part of the Jewish narrative. After this, we enter into “a shtetl”, a typical town where Jews lived. There is a home, an inn and a market where we can learn about the daily life of ordinary Jews. There is even a small church! But the thing that truly out-shines everything is the synagogue. Just look at this beauty!
“The Gwoździec Re!construction project included construction, painting, and educational workshops in eight Polish cities where students worked shoulder-to-shoulder with an international team of historians, architects, artisans, and artists specializing in traditional woodwork and polychrome painting.” Thanks to this amazing educational initiative the students and experts recreated the timber roof structure and polychrome wooden ceiling of the lost 17th-century wooden synagogue of Gwoździec.
In their own words:
In March 2013, the roof of the synagogue along with decorative vault were installed. The process of collecting and developing the documentation of the timber roof truss lasted nearly eight years. In 2011 and 2012 took place two editions of workshops, during which nearly 400 volunteers and experts from all over the world worked on the replica. In total, there were created more than 300 items, 29 sections forming the walls of the roof, plates with zodiac signs, 13 sections forming the culmination and the lantern – all covered with colorful painting depicting: 67 mythical animals, more than 1,000 flowers, bunches of grapes and doughnuts. In the works participated young people – volunteers from all over the world, mainly Polish, American, French, German and Israeli. Workshops were held consecutively in the existing synagogues throughout Poland, among others in Wrocław, Kraków, Kazimierz Dolny, Rzeszów, Sejny, Gdańsk and Szczebrzeszyn, as well as in Sanok, where in the open air museum there was built a timber roof truss. In each city, the workshops were accompanied by a rich educational-cultural program of activities, so that participants could deepen their understanding of the Jewish and Polish culture and get to know each other during these numerous fieldtrips, workshops and discussions.
I am pretty sure you understand why this is not just another museum!
Encounters with Modernity (1772–1914)
We enter now a very complex period. Those years are some of the most tragic for Poland as she lost its independence. Her lands were divided among three powers: Russia, Prussia, and Austria. In all three sections, the Jews had to face new challenges and political realities. Questions about tradition vs. modernity, adaptation, and assimilation, reformation or standing by tradition were common to all communities. During this time some chose to leave behind old traditions, pick new clothing and accept the Western style of life. Others decided to live as they always did. Still, others created new trends and denominations within the traditional body of Judaism.
Walking from one room to another we see how dramatically their lives were changing. Jews living in cities often were part of the cheap labor in freshly built factories, many were leaving their small towns and villages looking for luck in big, industrialized cities. Some traveled to yeshivas (Talmudic academies) or to their Chasidic rebbes for moral and ethical guidance.
Just look at the fabulous details of this gallery! The “train station” is a pure genius in how it shows the dilemmas of common folk.
Don’t forget to grab a train ticket as a souvenir!
On the Jewish Street (1918–1939)
Oh, another masterpiece. The years after the Great War, in newly independent Poland, were fascinating. We enter a typical city street in a Jewish quarter with “apartments” showing various sides of communal and private life. We have the political section with a great collage of election posters showing how many various political parties there were in the Second Republic. Enter the cinema showing how the Jews embraced this new creation for a world of Yiddish films. We have a writers’ cafe and a Yiddish salon, perfectly showing how vibrant and rich Jewish culture was in that period. Don’t forget to go up – to see the way Jewish education looked at the time, with various types of schools and clubs.
And to add the final touch – this street is exactly in the same spot where a pre-war Zamenhof Street used to be. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?
First of all – if for whatever reason you do not want to see this gallery, you don’t have to. There is a turn right which takes to the exit hall. This is a difficult and heavy exhibition, which might not be suitable for children. Right away we see a big change in the way this gallery was designed. It’s not just in the images – the walls themselves speak volumes by the way they were built.
Again relying heavily on personal accounts, memoirs, and quotes from official documents we go through the Nazi hell. Through personal artifacts, fragments of journals or letters, photos and short factual description we learn about those horrid times.
We learn about the heroism of ordinary people who tried to hold on to their dignity and humanity through various acts of resistance. We learn about clandestine synagogues and schools, libraries and concerts, communal help and orphanages… We see step by step how the Final Solution took place and how Warsaw was to be cleared of Jews. Photos and documents describe the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the tragic consequences of German Nazi hatred.
Postwar Years (1944 to the present)
What is unique about POLIN Museum, that it doesn’t stop in 1945. Even though only about 10% of Jews survived the Shoah (Holocaust) – the life went on. In an unprecedented way, this gallery is the only and best exhibition showing the times of communist regime. Even if it is focused on the Jewish experience, visitors can learn a lot about the realities of living under the tyranny of a totalitarian regime.
Through fantastic visual elements, movies, and documents it showed the painful choices of Jews who survived. Many forced to leave Poland in 1968, after the government-sponsored anti-Semitic demonstrations. But still, some stayed. Some of them tried to hold on to their Jewish identity, some hid it deep inside, living a secret life.
The exhibition is not finished as the life continue. It shows only briefly the re-birth of Jewish communal life after 1989. But it has enough room to enrich this section in the future.
POLIN Museum: Beyond the Core Exhibition
Over the course of a year, there are multiple temporary galleries open. At the moment of writing this article, there is one named, “Blood. Uniting & Dividing”. A year ago there was an exhibition on the art of the famous Frank Stella and his views on old wooden synagogues. There were meetings with contemporary Polish artists and a really fun one about the history of popular music written on gramophone records called, “Jukebox! Jewkbox!”. There are too many to post here, so if you are interested, you can check the list here.
As I already mentioned earlier, POLIN Museum organizes many educational events, courses, and lectures. Its huge windows are symbols of its openness to the community of Warsaw and beyond.
If you are interested to learn more about the history of Jews in Poland or about the history of your own family – head to POLIN Museum’s Research Center. They gather information available in a variety of institutions or museums and help to find your way through them. There is also a library of books, maps and other documents where you might find interesting to you information. They can even help you get in touch with a specialist in genealogical research to help you started with your own family investigation.
POLIN Museum: Practical Information
Address: 6 Mordechaja Anielewicza St. It’s very close to the Warsaw center. You can get there by taking a tram (#15, 18, 35) to “Muranów” stop and then walk a few minutes on Anielewicza str. or by bus (#180 or #111) – stops right in front of the Museum. You can also take a tram on the other side (#17, 31, 33) and from the “Anielewicza” stop walk or a few minutes. It is in a walking distance from the very center.
You will need at least 2-3h for a *quick* walk through. If you want to read each and every information there is, you gonna drop dead somewhere around the 18th c. Just accept you can only do some and return some other time. 🙂 I’ve been there already at least five or six times and love it each time, finding new things or unnoticed before details. I strongly recommend checking the Museum’s site to read more on its history, activities or to walk through virtual exhibitions.
At the entrance to the Museum, there is a metal detecting gate. If you have any knives or sharp objects you will have to leave them at one of the lockers. There is also a place where you can leave your coat or a bag, free of charge.
At the POLIN Museum, there is a cafe and a BESAMIM restaurant serving pretty good food buffet-style. There is even an option to order catered kosher meals – ask at the cafe (big sign advertising it).
If you have read all the way here, it means you are a hopeless history buff and culture nerd. Congratulations! There is more of similar interest around here! You might be interested in those posts:
I hope you can make it to POLIN Museum the next time you are in Warsaw!
Have you been there already? What was your impression? Share with us!