SPEAKER 1: Good evening. I'm Jonathan Boyarin, Director of Jewish Studies here at Cornell, delighted to welcome you all to this very special event in this beautiful building, and especially delighted that you've all chosen to join us on an evening when it's drop-dead gorgeous outside, and the one day Cornell Cultural and Critical Festival is going on, apparently. It's just amazing what's happening on this campus this evening. Our warm thanks to the Johnson Museum, to the University Lectures Committee and staff, and to colleagues in German studies, the College of Architecture, Art and Urban Planning, the Romance Studies department, and the Cornell University Klezmer Ensemble for their support for this event.
And now I'm going to start with a little quiz in Jewish folklore. If you know the answer, keep it to yourself. Or you could raise your hand if you know the answer, but don't blurt it out, OK?
Do you know what the phrase "A khisorn di kale iz tzu sheyn" means? Hint-- although it's the kind of hint that only helps if you already know it. The phrase is in Yiddish. Most-- well not everybody knows that. Some people obviously understood that.
Now don't feel bad if you didn't pass the quiz. Shh! After all-- you threw me off here. After all, I was already a graduate student in Jewish ethnography way back in the fall of 1977 when our professor asked the class if we knew what that expression might mean. She stumped all of us, and-- myself excluded, perhaps-- there were some pretty smart people there.
That professor, as you may have guessed, was tonight's guest, Barbara Kirshenbaltt-Gimblett. I first met her in the basement of the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue, when she was working to prepare a pioneering exhibition of Jewish textile art that eventually became the book, The Fabric of Jewish Life. She was then fresh off her triumphant work on the exhibition and book of photographs of Jewish life in pre-war Poland that she prepared with Lucjan Dobroszycki, titled Image Before My Eyes. And she was commuting between the University of Pennsylvania, where she taught in the Folklore department, and a loft in the Bowery she shared with her husband painter, Max Gimblett-- in the early 1970s, already, just another area in which she was an urban pioneer.
Barbara went on to a remarkably energetic and productive career at the Department of Performance Studies at NYU, a department that she chaired for several years before retiring with the title of University Professor Emerita. Her own production continued apace with works on Jews and mediatization and critical museum studies. Her volume, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums and Heritage, is an indispensable volume in that field.
She also brilliantly encouraged her father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, to record his childhood memories of the town of Opatow, or Apt, on canvas, resulting in their joint volume, They Called Me Mier July-- Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust. Anything but a nostalgist, she's also a pioneer in the exploration of how Jewish identity and culture are transformed by new media, as witnessed, for example, in her study of Jews in Second Life.
Her students are legion. And it's fair to say Jewish cultural studies, as a rich interdisciplinary field, would be unthinkable without her contributions over the decades. As she told me many years ago, her slogan is take care of the scholars, and the scholarship will take care of itself. But she's taken care of plenty of scholarship, as well. All this prior to undertaking her greatest challenge-- working to ensure the creation and to shape the message of the great new POLIN Museum of Polish Jewish history in Warsaw, the topic of her talk this evening.
And, oh yeah-- the answer to that quiz, "a kishorn, di kale iz tzu sheyn" means a defect-- the bride is too lovely. If Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has one defect, it's that her energy, insights, and accomplishments put us all to shame. And she makes it all look easy. Please join me in welcoming her to [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER 2: Well, it would be an underestimation to say that I am absolutely thrilled to be here. And I am so unbelievably proud of Jonathan Boyarin. And you are so fortunate to have him here on your faculty. And to think that 40 years ago-- I can't believe it-- he was my student. Of course, I wasn't so old then, myself. But I have followed his work. And I have so, so admired his original cast of mind, the depth and sensitivity of his research. And when he invited me to come here to talk about POLIN Museum, I just was thrilled to come. And to also renew contact with Jonathan, and also with Alissa-- of whom I'm also very, very proud-- a recent PhD. And I think that's really quite an accomplishment.
So Materializing History-- Time and Telos at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews-- and as I present this museum, I think the issue of time and its directionality, or lack thereof, will become clear.
"It's not often that a museum makes history as well as chronicles it, and rare, too, when otherwise cautious observers remark at the opening of a new museum that it may prove a source of hope and pride that propels an entire society forward. Both of those things happened this week in Warsaw, with the opening of POLIN Museum." These are the words of Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, shortly after he attended the grand opening of the museum on October 28th in 2014. And I should say that the observers, many of them, were very cautious. And this is actually, I would say, an understatement.
This is where this museum has been constructed. It has been constructed on the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto, on the rubble of the pre-war Jewish neighborhood. And this is what this area looked like after the Germans suppressed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943. And it's what it looked like-- and you can see it in the background-- it's what it looked like in 1944, when the Germans suppressed the Warsaw Uprising and destroyed 85% of the core city of Warsaw. And so we are literally, literally building on the rubble of this pre-war Jewish neighborhood, which was home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, and for a time, in the world. And it means that we're starting without an historic building, without a historic neighborhood, and without a collection.
In 1948, on the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a monument to the ghetto heroes was unveiled on the rubble of the ghetto. And you can see the destroyed city of Warsaw in the background. And this monument, which was designed by Nathan Rapoport, was something that he was already designing in the Soviet Union as soon as he heard about the uprising. So that means literally in 1943, when he was in the Soviet Union, he was already planning a memorial.
On one side, we have the ghetto heroes. But on the other side, we commemorate what happened several months before, and that is the deportation of 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka. And I call it the other side. It is not the side where the commemorations are normally held, but it is equally important.
In 1993, with the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, there were representatives of a Jewish NGO in Warsaw who attended that opening. That Jewish NGO is the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland. And it was established in 1951 in Warsaw, and it continues to be the single largest and most important and long-living Jewish philanthropic organization in post-war Poland.
And in 1993, the idea of somehow communicating a 1,000-year history of Polish Jews, a history that was cut short by the Holocaust, became a very compelling idea. In 1996, the association, in a sense, formulated that idea as a project. And the city of Warsaw designated that orange rectangle as the site of the future museum, in the event of a miracle, that such a museum would ever get built. Because the idea, in 1993, is only four years after the fall of communism, in 1989. And to come up with such an idea so soon after the fall of communism is really extraordinary. And the idea that this arose, not from the city, not from the state, but from a Jewish NGO in Poland-- that also seems to me to be a real key to the importance of this project.
Now you saw the rubble. And it took years to clear the rubble. And the decision was taken that the area in front of the monument should remain essentially a park, and around it, of course, are the communist-era buildings, the housing. And you can imagine, with a destroyed city, the crisis of housing that ensued.
And so in 2013, we opened the building. And in 2014, we had our grand opening with the opening of the core exhibition. And here you can see the relationship of the building to the monument. And I'll say more about the building in just a moment.
But the key the key here is the memorial complex. And the way that we understand the museum is as follows-- that we go to the monument to honor those who died by remembering how they died. And we come to the museum to honor them by remembering how they lived, and how they lived for 1,000 years. And that the task of memory is not complete if we only remember how they died, that we have a moral obligation to recover the world that they created, and the memory of the world they created, and to honor their lives-- and their lives in a place where they lived continuously for 1,000 years, which cannot be said for Spain. It cannot be said for England, parts of France, Germany, parts of Italy, Austria, Vienna.
Now this particular building is exceptional, because it is a glass building on a site of genocide, which I take as a kind of architecture of hope in the face of tragedy. And this glass building has glass on the outside that's like scales on a fish. And on the glass is silkscreened the word POLIN in Latin letters and in Hebrew letters. And I'll say a word in a moment about why, and why the museum has this name. And so the building itself is already communicating a message-- a message of light, openness, transparency, and reflection. And that is not what you expect on a site of genocide.
All the drama of this building's on the inside. And that was a requirement in the architectural competition, which is to say, create a building that stands in a respectful relationship to the monument. And the monument in its time is monumental, but today, as monuments go, it's rather modest. And if you want to create a really wonderful building, it would be very, very easy to overwhelm the monument. And so the minimalist exterior is a kind of quiet and very discreet geometrical form. And all the drama and all of that wonderful changing light is on the inside.
And so basically the timeline for this project is the idea in '93. The project starts in '96. And with very little money-- because this Jewish NGO had never raised any money, never made an exhibition, never made a museum. And there was no confidence that they would be able to. And I'm convinced that only somebody that was so idealistic-- and so unrealistic-- could ever, ever have come up with the idea and persisted with it. Because anybody realistic would have said in 1993, 1996, it's not possible.
But this Jewish NGO was really totally committed. And so what they did with the little bit of money they were able to raise at the time is they put that money into the creating of a master plan for the exhibition. So that this museum was really created from the inside out. Usually museums-- those who are involved in them, who found them-- are very invested in the architecture. And then they worry about what to put inside.
In this case, it was exactly the opposite. And then, with the master plan in hand, the Jewish NGO went to the city of Warsaw, went to the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, and said, join us. And they did-- to form a unique private public partnership for a major cultural institution in Poland.
And the agreement was signed in 2005. And that was the time of the architectural competition. And it was over 200 entries, 11 finalists, among them Daniel Libeskind, of course, with some very dramatic kind of starchitecture solution for this museum. And the architects like to say that second prize is the best prize, because you get the prize and you don't have to build it. So I can assure you that that Liebeskind is not of our school. And I'm sure some of the other wonderful architects are not of that school.
Then in 2013, we opened the building. 2014-- the grand opening with the exhibition. And at this moment in time, we've had, I would say, 2 million visitors. And we're averaging probably about between 500,000 and 600,000 visitors a year, which is really extraordinary. There is no Jewish Museum in North America that has that kind of visitorship. And the only other Jewish Museum in Europe that approximates it, or even exceeds it, is the Jewish Museum in Berlin. So it's actually really, really a success.
Then in 2016, we won the European Museum of the Year Award, and the European Museum Academy Prize-- the first time any museum in Poland has won that award, and the first time that any Jewish Museum in Europe has won that award, which is really quite exceptional.
So without an historic building, without an historic neighborhood, and without a collection, how do you make an exhibition? And you want to tell a 1,000-year story. And from the perspective of the Association of the Jewish NGO, the story is everything.
And so with the, I would say, inspiration and support of Shaike Weinberg-- and you may know his work. He was responsible for Beit Hatfutsot. That was the Museum of the Diaspora. Today they've renamed it the Museum of the Jewish People. He was also instrumental in the design and the creation of the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. And before he passed away, I believe in 1999, he was also instrumental in steering this project in the direction of a multimedia narrative exhibition, putting the story first.
Now I have colleagues who've said to me, you know what? You're lucky you didn't have an historic building, because you would've had to squeeze your exhibition into it. And you're lucky you don't have a collection, because you'd have to show it. I mean, I should be so unlucky as to have had the building and the objects. But what this did do is it did allow us to creatively imagine how to tell this 1,000-year story in a way that would engage our visitors, including visitors who had absolutely no knowledge, no preparation, no background in the story, and visitors who did.
And so we created what I like to call a "theater of history." And by theater of history. I mean an exhibition that works like theater, only in the case of an exhibition, the if you will, the action is static, stays still, and you move, whereas in theater, you sit, and they move. And that's the kind of theater that it is. So it's scenographic. It's visual narrative. It's a story that unfolds in space, and that is communicating in many ways at the same time, so that when you come into the space, even before you've read a word, you're already getting a sense of what the story is about.
Now, of course, we want to show original objects. And many of our visitors are very disappointed if they don't see wonderful original objects. But as I will show you, for some periods, there's almost nothing to show. And it's not because everything was destroyed. It's for other reasons.
Now there is a great collection at the Jewish historical Institute in Warsaw, but it's largely Judaica. It's paintings, photographs, drawings. And it's largely late 19th century and mainly interwar years and in the post-war period. And from that you cannot make a thousand-year story.
Now I like to say that we don't tell a master narrative, that we think in terms of what we call an open-ended past. We don't want it to have a telos. We don't want it to have a defined end, towards which the entire story is driving. What we want to do is we want to, if you will, narrate in a way that doesn't foreshadow what's going to come ahead and doesn't backshadow and look at this thousand-year history through the lens of the Holocaust. And that's where the issue of time and telos really comes into focus.
So having said that there's no master narrative, that we're working with what we call an open ended past, Moshe Rosman, who is one of the historians that worked with us, said, but you know what? You do have a set of what he would call meta-historical principles. And here are a few of them.
Many people have asked me, what's the most important period in the history of Polish Jews? And usually when they ask they already know. So for some, it's the Holocaust, understandably. And some have even said this whole museum should have been a Holocaust Museum. That's the most important story. Or others will say the post-war years, because that is their period. It's the period through which they have lived particularly, if they stayed in Poland. There are others for whom the interwar years represents a period of incredible cultural flourishing, and it might be the period of their parents or grandparents-- in my case, my parents.
But my answer is always the same. The single most important period in the history of Polish Jews is 1,000 years-- 1,000 years of continuous uninterrupted Jewish presence in this territory. That's the most important period.
The second principle is that Jews are an integral part of the history of Poland, that they are not only in Poland but also of Poland. And what that means is that history of Poland is not complete without a history of Polish Jews. And one of the most, if you will, rewarding responses of some of our Polish visitors is when they exit the exhibition, and they leave the museum, and they say, you know, this is a museum of Polish history-- that they would recognize a history of Polish Jews as a museum of Polish history, a museum of Polish history that is not a history of a nation, not a history of the state, but a history of one of the many diverse populations that were living historically in this territory. I think that's extraordinary in terms of their receptivity to what we present. And also, I think, it's a mark that we've somehow or other succeeded.
This is a story of a spectrum of relations. Because whenever you say the word Poland, the next word is anti-Semitism, and the next word is Holocaust, as if this is that definition of the thousand-year history of Polish Jews. And so what we've done is to take an approach that we call a spectrum of relations, a story of coexistence and conflict, cooperation and competition, separation and integration.
And, of course, there are moments in the story where one of those terms is in the foreground, and the other is in the background. But this spectrum of relations has to be understood, or that 1,000 years of continuous Jewish presence would not have been possible. The Jews created a civilization that is categorically Jewish and distinctly polish, and the Polish wooden synagogues are a wonderful example. And those who of you who have seen Raise the Roof and our big wonderful project on the Gwozdziec wooden synagogue can really see, I think, precisely that principle at work.
That Polish Jews became the largest Jewish community in the world-- during the 18th century, half the Jewish population of the world was living in the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth-- 750,000 people. And that's quite extraordinary. And a center of the Jewish world-- the center really shifted from the Rhineland, from German territory-- was already beginning to shift by the end of the medieval period, by 1500, by the 16th century.
And the power of telling the story in the very place where it happened-- that may seem obvious, but when I would say that we're making this museum in Warsaw, I had people tell me, why are you making it in Warsaw? Why are you making it in Poland?
Why not? They don't ask that question about the Jewish Museum in Paris, in London, in Berlin, in Philadelphia. But they said you should make it in Tel Aviv, or you should make it in New York. Well, there is no way that this museum would have the power and the impact that it does were it to have been created anywhere than in the very place where Jews lived and also where they perished.
And finally, this is a museum that is a site of conscience. And one of our goals is to create what I call a trusted zone, or a zone of trust, for engaging difficult subjects.
So when you come into the main hall of the Museum, in this beautiful organic and really architecturally interesting space, in the main hall-- very dramatic-- and you descend a staircase into the exhibition level-- because the architects in the international competition were actually given the master plan for the exhibition. And they were told you have to create a building that can accommodate this exhibition.
Now can you imagine that the designers were actually developing the master plan without knowing what the museum building would be? But they created it in such a way that, essentially, what the architect was to simply give us the entire footprint of the building, basically a great big open space. I call it a "black box" exhibition because it's a bit like a theater, where you can do anything in that space.
And we begin this story in a very counterintuitive way. You come down a very large set of stairs, and you come into a space where you actually enter a space of poetic imagination, a space of historical imagination, one that is defined by a story, or a legend the Jews told themselves about why they came to Poland, how they came to Poland, and why they stayed. And we use a very beautiful version of this legend by Agnon, by the Nobel laureate in Hebrew literature.
And the story goes something like this. Jews are fleeing persecution in the west. They came east. They found themselves in a forest. And then, depending on the version of the story, the clouds broke, an angel's hand pointed, and they heard the word "Polin," which they thought they thought was Hebrew for "rest here" or "here you shall rest"-- or the birds chirped Polin, or they saw words carved on the bark of trees, or pages of the [INAUDIBLE] were floating down.
And they said to themselves, this is how we know this is the place that we should come to. We should stay here until we are taken to the land of Israel, which would have been a very, very long time, given the sort of messianic thinking that was behind that statement.
And so what we did was to create this very poetic environment. And we think of it as a priming experience of separating our visitors from the normal world of trams and tickets and all the normal things, and in a sense, putting them in the mood for the story that we want to tell and the kind of world of the story that we want to create.
But when the visitors pass the threshold between legend and history, they enter the medieval gallery. Now the medieval period, as we define it, goes from about 965, beginning with the travel account of Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, who actually left the first written description of Poland, which of course all the school kids know. And we start in 965, and we take the story all the way to about 1507.
And the story of the medieval period is how did we get from a few traveling Jewish merchants along major trade routes that passed through Poland? How do we get from those few traveling Jewish merchants to the point in 1500, where there were about 15,000 Jews living in Poland? They were in over 100 locations. They had Jewish communities in over 50 of them. And it's the beginning of the shift of the center of the Ashkenazi world from the Rhineland to this territory. How did that happen? That is the story we tell in the medieval gallery.
Now for this wonderful story of more than 500 years, which is more than half of our 1,000-year story, there are exactly two kinds of objects for this story-- two-- that are Jewish. And they were made in Poland-- two. Tombstones and coins-- and the coins are not that big. They're the size of a penny, the size of a dime. They're tiny.
Now this tombstone is the oldest Jewish tombstone from the territory. It's 1203 from Wroclaw. And this coin is one of several dozen coins that are one-sided coins-- they're known as bracteates-- that have Hebrew inscriptions. The Hebrew inscriptions refer to the King, [INAUDIBLE]. And they have blessings on them they say [SPEAKING YIDDISH].
And it's clear from these coins and what we know that some Jews were given, I would say, permission, given a charter of some kind-- a privilege. They were given a privilege to mint a certain number of coins and/or they were administering the mint. And so these coins and that tombstone, those are the only two things.
There are some manuscripts. But in terms of trying to create a story and use original objects-- so first of all, the coins are so tiny. And we have one. It's the most expensive thing in the collection. But it's so tiny, you can hardly see it. And the tombstones-- I'm not going to make a cemetery as a way of telling this 500-year story-- besides which, there's no way to bring these tombstones into the gallery.
So what do we do? Because we're a narrative museum, what was most important for us was to go, in particular, to travel accounts, chronicles, but above all, to rabbinical correspondence-- to the letters that rabbis sent to each other with questions and with answers, and the compilations of them. And in those letters, we have questions that were raised about those traveling merchants wandering around in the wild east.
What exactly were they doing? Were they being observant? Were they observing the laws of kashrut? Were they observing the laws of the Sabbath? And there were questions that arose, and from those questions we have evidence of from a very, very early point, from the 13th century, and even earlier.
So we went to those sources, and we pulled out the stories that would help us to really convey the larger narrative we were interested in. We took illuminated manuscripts-- Ashkenazi manuscripts from the Rhineland. And we hired two of Poland's most favorite comic book artists. And we took the stories. We took the illuminated manuscripts, both the Jewish ones and the Christian ones-- Christians especially from the region. And we asked those comic book artists to illustrate our stories, and to do so in a way that would reflect changes in the style and the iconography from the 10th century all the way to the 15th century.
And then we hired conservators that specialize in the conservation of the interior of historic Polish churches. And we had them paint the walls. And we had them gild the walls. And the result is a hand-painted gallery that is like stepping into an illuminated manuscript that is life-size and 360 degrees, which is really extraordinary.
And I would say that necessity is the mother of invention, that I don't think we would ever have come up with such a solution had we had all kinds of wonderful original objects. But from a storytelling point of view, what we were able to do is to create a kind of immersive experience, where you feel yourself surrounded, and to create something that was so material and so handmade.
We truly materialized history, so to speak. We materialized these stories. And we did so in three-dimensional space. And what we've done is also to layer the communications, so that if you're really interested in depth, in how the Jewish community was organized in the medieval period, there's an interactive table, where you can explore that
And so we come to the end of the medieval period, which is around 1500, more or less. And we now cross another threshold. And the threshold we cross is we cross to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1564 to 1772.
And this is a period during which this territory is perhaps one of the largest, if not the largest country, in Europe. Because Poland had already absorbed Ukraine during the medieval period and then, in 1569, it joined with Lithuania to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a way of being stronger, to fend off attack from its neighbors. And this country was extraordinarily diverse, in terms of language and in terms of religion-- every conceivable variety of Christianity-- Catholic, Orthodox. and every variety of Protestantism, and in particular during the religious wars in Western Europe.
And so in this enormous territory, with this very, very diverse population, with so many different religious denominations, so many different languages, so many different cultures, so many different regions-- this territory was exceptionally tolerant from an early modern point of view. Clearly the-- whoops. What happened?
But it shouldn't do that. Maybe-- we're back. OK. Let me see if this-- oh, we're back. We're good.
So this territory was exceptionally, I would say, tolerant. Because they saw what was happening in Western Europe. They saw how religiously diverse they were. And the nobility, who had already achieved a high degree of, I would say, control, wanted to ensure that religious wars would not break out. And this meant that Jews were one of many minorities. They weren't the only minority. They were one of many minorities.
And so what we did here is a principle we use throughout the exhibition, which is to create a multi-voiced story, a multi-voiced narrative. And this is a very, very good example of it.
Here on one wall are multiple perspectives on the diversity of the Commonwealth, and specifically, on the situation of the Jews. And this is what creates, if you will, the openness of the narrative, and one of the ways in which we try to avoid what I call a master narrative. And we call this gallery Paradisus Iudaeorum, with a question mark. Somehow the question mark go lost, but when we talk about it, we try to put the question mark back in.
And why? Where does the phrase come from? Because it sounds like, oh, Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was a paradise. It comes from a satirical poem that is critical of everything in the Commonwealth. The Polish kingdom is paradise for the Jews-- in other words, they had it to good-- hell for the peasants, purgatory for the bergers, rule by servants, paradise for the Jews, shelter for heretics, harvest for foreigners, fatherland for immigrants. It sounds like the EU today.
So that's the starting point. The starting point is that, from the perspective of this critic of everything in the Commonwealth, Jews had it, quote, "too good." But what did the great rabbi, Moses Isserles-- the Remu or the Rema, depending on how you pronounce the acronym of his name, who is considered the greatest Polish rabbi in the entire history of Polish Jews-- what did he say?
He said, "Their hatred of us in this country has not overwhelmed us as in the German lands. May it remain so until the coming of our messiah." In other words, toleration in the early modern period is not what we think of today. And he had low expectations, basically. But I think this statement is a much more measured and tempered statement.
But then there are other statements, from a [INAUDIBLE]. There's a statement from a nobleman. And these statements-- basically, they form a kind a chorus. Sometimes this chorus is singing in harmony, and sometimes this chorus is dissonant. And we invite our visitors to add their voice to the chorus.
Now this period-- I think because of the size of the country and the prosperity of the country in the first half of the Commonwealth period-- is considered within Polish history as a kind of golden age, and similarly for Polish Jewish history. We don't use the term golden age, because we think of it as a cliche. And we think that it's not helpful in understanding the period.
But at the same time, it is a period in which Jewish culture's civilization and life really flourished. And there were two aspects that I would say are a key to that development.
First is a very high degree of Jewish self-government, Jewish communal autonomy, and, two, the rise of rabbinical authority, learning, religious academies, and Hebrew and Yiddish printing. Now these are very abstract ideas. And our hardship case is the 15-year-old Polish boy. And we're thinking to ourselves, hmm, rise in rabbinical authority. How are we going to communicate this? And we decided that the best way to communicate this would be through the most material expression of it, which are these Hebrew and Yiddish books that were printed in the Commonwealth, and some of them really, really important, and printed literally in the 16th century and in the 17th century.
And so we decided that for kids-- but it turns out adults love it, too-- that we would create a set of printing presses, and our visitors would-- and real presses. I mean, they press. It's not rolling-- that our visitors would be able to print the title page of the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law-- the first edition with the notes by the great rabbi Moses Isserles. And now our Polish visitors walk away with print--
I didn't touch anything. Oh, I have to move it? OK
--that they will walk away with these printed sheets. And they'll frame them, and hang them up in their homes, if you can imagine this, across the length and breadth of Poland. Rabbi Moses Isserles, I don't think, ever anticipated such a development.
Now it's not enough to simply, if you will-- and the printing is great. Because it slows everybody down. It gets them focused. It's manual. And I think some of those manual moments are actually among the most meaningful for people. We think the digital devices are going to be so exciting, but actually some of those very manual things are really great.
So we wanted to open the books up. So we created a library with the standers, which are basically lecterns. And in this library we were able to open up material and to, if you will, interpret it in ways that our visitors who know absolutely zero about this material would actually find interesting and also meaningful.
And the material that we're looking at was really intended for scholars and for specialists. My favorite is a scroll, a Kabbalistic scroll that was copied by David Darshan, a student of Rabbi Moses Isserles, and that was part of his spiritual development as a budding Kabbalist.
And we were able to get a very high resolution scan of this scroll, which had never before been exhibited. In fact, nobody could find it, because the number for it got mixed up with another number. But we persisted until we found it. And then we were able to create a very beautiful interactive presentation where you can enlarge it, and look at it in detail, and learn more about it.
Of course, the economic story--
I don't know why this is-- it shouldn't do this. It shouldn't time out so quickly. OK.
And of course, the economic story is key-- that the flourishing of the economy involves Jews as agents, essentially, of the nobility to lease and manage assets on their estate, which put them in conflict, of course, with, the peasants that they had to supervise. And in 1648, with the outbreak of that Khmelnytsky Cossack uprising-- this was a catastrophic event. About a third of the Jews living in the southern part of the Commonwealth, which is today Ukraine, were murdered. And some were forced to convert and others fled.
And this was actually a terrible period in terms of Polish history. It was a century of war-- war with the Swedes, war with the Russians. And the Commonwealth was devastated. But by the end of the period, the Commonwealth rebounded and the nobility began to renew their towns. And they invited Jews to return to help them to develop the economy.
And so what we do is we treat the Khmelnytsky Uprising as a kind of caesura between that first half of the Commonwealth period, which is kind of big picture, and the rise, if you will, of Jewish civilization, and the second half of the Commonwealth period, where we zoom in and look at everyday life in the most distinctive form of Jewish settlement, namely, what we call the Jewish Town. And by that we mean, in large measure, these private towns owned by the nobility, where Jews formed a very substantial percentage of the population-- 30, 40, 60, 70, even 80% of the population. And this was very characteristic, not only an early modern period, but all the way up into the 20th century.
And we decided on two centers of gravity in the story of the Jewish town. One was the marketplace, with the tavern and with domestic life. And I would say that we are-- and with women's piety, which was we express in the setting of the home. And I would say that we're probably the only museum of Jewish history that has a church.
Now some of our Israeli visitors didn't realize it was a church. And I said to a Catholic colleague of mine, I said, how could they not realize it's a church? He said, well, there's no cross. I said, well I can't go that far.
You know? I can handle the church, but I can't handle the cross. And what we have is like this. We have a phenomenon. We want to look at the relationship-- and the changing relationship-- of the church and the Jews in the 17th and 18th century. That's the phenomenon.
So we need a setting. What better setting than a church? But once we have that setting, we use it as a platform for developing a whole set of other topics. So it's here, where the altar should be, that we present the story of the heretic Jacob Frank, one of several false messiahs. And there were some who said, you shouldn't put in the church. You should put it in the synagogue. I said, well not in my synagogue.
And we put it in the church because, the followers of Jacob Frank, they actually held two big disputations between the rabbis and the Frankists. And they were held in cathedrals, so we felt that it was perfectly appropriate to do so. But I would say that this is, again, a phenomenon, a setting, and a platform.
The second center of gravity-- and for those of you who have seen Raise the Roof, you know a lot about it already-- the second center of gravity was the synagogue. And what we did was to, essentially, create again the phenomenon of Jewish religious life. And the setting would be the synagogue, but and in a very particular way. And then it became a platform for exploring all kinds of dimensions of Jewish religious life-- women's piety, the liturgy, and around the edges of it, new religious leaders and movements from heresy-- Jacob Frank-- to heterodoxy, meaning the Vilna Gaon, and modern Torah study, the Baal Shem Tov which, would lead to the development of mystical movement called Hasidism, and the Jewish enlightenment as represented by Mendel Lefin.
And so we wanted to take a wooden synagogue, which we felt was appropriate, to the Jewish town. A lot of these Jewish towns in this period were essentially wooden towns. And there were once hundreds of these most magnificent wooden synagogues across the length and breadth of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And during the Second World War, the Germans destroyed all of them. Not one of these great synagogues survived.
However, there was a lot of interest in them already in the 1890s. And they are very well documented. And the single best documented of all the wooden synagogues is the one that once stood in Gwozdziec, which is today in Ukraine. But it was in Poland before the war and also historically. And so we have not only photographs, but we have architectural drawings, we have floor plans, cutaways, cross sections. And we even have color studies-- not very many, but a few color studies.
And so in working with Handshouse Studio-- and I met Handshouse Studio in 2007 in New York in the Angelika cafe, at the corner of Bleecker and Broadway. And what I remember is that Michael Berkovitz, who is a supporter of the museum, had emailed me, and said, Barbara, you're in town. You're in New York for a couple of days. You have to meet these people. And I said, I don't have time. I don't have time. He insisted.
So we met. And they got a little laptop, and they showed me a five-minute film of how they had created the bema, the reader's platform from which the Torah is read publicly from the scroll. When I saw that, and they told me that their dream is to do the same thing for a wooden synagogue. That's their dream.
And they showed me how they'd made that bema. Because their mission is to recover lost objects, which is the most poetic mission I've ever heard-- to recover lost objects. And what they say is, you can never recover the original object in the sense of the original material. But you can recover the knowledge of how to make it by making it, using traditional tools, materials, and techniques. And they had done that with the bema in one week, and now they wanted to do with a wooden synagogue.
So I came back to Poland, and I said to the director, I want one. I want to do it. I want it 100% scale. And I want it with the walls. And the director said, it's too much. So I settled for the painted ceiling and the timber-frame roof at 85% scale. And then I had to fight to get the 100% scale bema accepted as part of the installation, and I prevailed.
So how did we do it? In two summers-- we began, first summer, in Sanok outside of Sanok in a skansen, a folk architecture museum. And we started with 200 raw logs with the bark still on. And in three two-week workshops, we were able to actually convert those logs into timbers and panels, and to actually mount the whole timber-framed roof. And we did it, as Handshouse does, with traditional tools, materials, and techniques.
And we worked with the American Timber Framers Guild-- and these people are maniacs for timber framing. It's timber framing? They're there. And they bring their tools with them. They bring their adzes and their blades, and their axes and their pit-saws. They bring everything with them in golf bags and in ski bags on the airplane. I don't know how they do it. And it's like Lord of the Rings.
And they taught the volunteers how to do it. And these volunteers-- there were like 300 people-- volunteers, experts. These volunteers, many of them, had never picked up a tool like this. And it was an extraordinary, extraordinary, experience. It is the ultimate pedagogy.
And so, in the course of those three two-week workshops, we actually mounted, we actually completed, the timber framing of the roof. And then at the end of that period, we took it apart. We numbered the parts. We stored them over the winter.
And then we loaded them into a big truck, drove to Warsaw. And then we brought them into the bottom of the building. And of course these timbers are enormous. And we literally had to lower them without destroying the building in the process. And we did the same and then we reassembled the whole thing-- this is 25 tons. And we hoisted it. And then we suspended it from cables. And fortunately we decided to do this in time for the architect to actually create an opening in the ceiling of the gallery so that we could bring this timber-frame roof up and into the main hall, so that visitors, who are on the upper level, come into the museum, they see the timber framing, and they can actually see into it to see what the structure is. And then we created interpretive panels around it, explaining and showing the documentation.
But it being suspended from cables makes it float. So some have said this is our Sistine Chapel. I'm not so sure about the metaphor. But I would call it a celestial canopy, which-- frankly I think that the Jews who prayed-- and this town was tiny. It maybe had 800 Jews. It maybe had a little over 1,000 people living in it. How could such a tiny community create something so fabulous? And I can well imagine-- it's very, very intimate, and it's a square shape-- that you would feel like you were under a celestial canopy.
And of course, we did the painting workshops in the same way. But the wonderful thing about the painting workshops is that we divided the ceiling into eight parts, and each section was a two-week workshop in an existing masonry synagogue in a town in Poland. And I think we had seven locations, so it was Sejny, Rzeszow, Warsaw, Kazimierz Dolny, Kazimierz, Szczebrzeszyn-- and I'm trying to think some other locations. And it was an incredible experience for these volunteers and the experts working with them to actually be creating this element in an existing synagogue.
But we also invited local people to come in. And so the local communities-- not Jewish-- started to feel a sense of ownership of the part of the synagogue that had been painted in their town. And our intention was to encourage them to take pride in their synagogue and in the Jewish past of their town.
So now I have visitors come and they say, you know, a section of the ceiling was done in my town-- say in Szejyv, for example. They'd say which parts? So now I have to sort of look around, and think to myself, OK, I know that one was definitely done in Wroclaw, in the White Stork Synagogue, but for the rest I'm not so sure.
And this is the result. And it is really, really, really, absolutely magnificent. And I think of it as a new kind of object. I don't think of it as a copy, a facsimile, a replica, a reconstruction-- any of those words that suggest that there's something better, that's original, and that this is some rather a second-order phenomenon. No. This is an actual object, not a virtual one. And this is a new kind of object. And it's a new kind of object because of the way it was created, because its value lies in the knowledge that was recovered by creating it. And in a sense, the creating of it materialized that knowledge.
And it's a very Japanese approach. In Japan, there are shrines that say that they're 800 years old, and never more than 20 years old, because every 20 years they tear it down in order to have to rebuild it. Because they can't transmit the knowledge of how to build it except by building it. And the value lies in that knowledge, not in the original material. And this for me was just an absolutely brilliant concept.
And so we have also of course, these lecterns and interactive presentations of the iconography, so our visitors can find out more. But my favorite is the kids. So with the kids-- we have cushions that have straps, so they can wear the cushion like a backpack. So they wander around the museum like little turtles, with the house on the back. But when we bring them to the synagogue, we invite them to take off the cushions and lie down, and just simply look at the ceiling. And I have a feeling for some of these kids, this will be the most memorable experience of their life. And that they will come back as adults, or come back with their own kids, and they'll say, you know what, I just 15 minutes. I want to go downstairs. And I want to just stand underneath this wonderful Gwozdziec ceiling.
1772-- by 1772, that big red map, that Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was de-centralized. It was run by the nobility. The nobility were busy with their own estates. And it had a very weak army. And it was at this moment that Russia, Prussia, and Austria decided to tear up the map of the Commonwealth and to each take a piece of the royal cake.
And that's what you see in this very iconic image. You actually see the last King of Poland. The crown is slipping off his head. And these three-- the King of Prussia, and the Empress of Russia, and the emperor of Austria-- are tearing up the map of the Commonwealth. And this is the first of three partitionings of the Commonwealth.
And we try to communicate that in a way that's very dramatic and visual. Because for the next 120 to 140 years, there is no Poland, as such. There are only the parts of what had been in the Commonwealth that are now in these three empires.
And what we do is to create a kind of palimpsest for what we call "the long 19th century." And that is, our long 19th century unfolds in the parts of these empires that had been in the Commonwealth. In other words, the pieces that these countries took, those are the pieces in which we follow the story-- so not the whole Russian empire, not the whole Austrian empire, not the whole of Prussia. And we try to get that message across loud and clear by these enormous massive portraits, and then through a series of maps and interactive presentations.
So we call the long 19th century Encounters with Modernity. And the idea is that, in this new geopolitical situation, in each of the partitions, there are now efforts to somehow or other legalize, regularize, and reform Jews so that they will somehow or other fit in better. And there are all kinds of debates as to whether or not they can become "useful citizens."
And we're interested at how Jews responded to those challenges. They had to do with dress reform, marriage age, language, education, conscription of the Army. They had to do also with new kinds of rabbis, new rules for rabbis. They had to do with many, many, many aspects.
So we look, of course, at daily life. But we also look at organized responses. And the three organized responses that we look at are the Jewish enlightenment, the modern yeshiva, and the exponential growth of Hasidism, the Jewish mystical movement, which had its beginnings with the person that became, if you will, identified and claimed as its leader, the Baal Shem Tov. But as a movement, it really, really took off in the 19th century.
So let me give you one example, because it's really an example of what you do when you have nothing, which was more than once we had to deal with the situation. So my historians for the 19th century-- Marcin Wodzinski, Sam Kassow-- they said, all right. Haskalah we understood. That was very important. The Hasidism was obvious, too.
But the modern yeshiva-- I'm thinking of a 15-year-old Polish boy. What am I going to do with the modern yeshiva? I can't imagine how that kid is going to get involved and interested in the modern yeshiva. They said, look, that's not the point. You have to do it. It's simply you have to do it. I said, well, give me the material. They said we have no photographs, no paintings, no drawings, and no objects.
So what do you do? So what we did was we commissioned research from a doctoral student in Israel, who was writing a dissertation on the history of the modern yeshiva in 19th-century Poland, this territory. And we told him what we always ask for is go to memoirs. Go to our biographies, go to personal accounts.
When the material came back, I was simply blown away. The descriptions by those who had been students in these yeshivas, the descriptions by people who had gone to visit these yeshivas were completely and utterly amazing. They were vivid. I would say, that you could see from them that these yeshivas had the most innovative and interesting and dynamic pedagogy. If we would have a pedagogy today the likes of these yeshivas and that period-- I have to say it's the gold standard.
And so when we got this material in, we took one of those accounts, and we wrote a script based-- that is to say, made up of quotes from that account. And we created an animation of film-- 24 hours in the yeshivah of Volozhin in four minutes and 45 seconds.
And the idea was this. The designers had said to us, look, since you don't have anything except this wonderful memoir material, why don't you make an animation? So when they showed us the kind of animation, I thought to myself, not the Simpsons, not Disney. We have to have something that is consistent with the visual language of the period. So the painted animation is based, in fact, on a style of painting of the 19th century.
And this is how we did it. We cast live actors, and we painted them-- literally. We painted them. And we filled the scenes with them in a greenroom. Because when you do that, the green thing goes away. And we created the scenography in the studio. And then we put the the painted actors that we had filmed, we put them into the picture.
So this is, if you will, the beginning of the 24-hour day, and here they are in the yeshiva. This is intended to be based on whatever material we've got, because the building of the yeshiva of Volozhin actually is still standing, though of course the interior was not preserved. And this is essentially the basis for this animation of 24 hours in the yeshiva of Volozhin. And now, I think, it's one of the most memorable of the many, many wonderful elements in this exhibition.
So when we come to the middle of the 19th century, it's really the story of the railway and its impact on industrialization, on urbanization, social mobility, demographic expansion, and the creating of new Jewish elites, with cultural capital, with social capital. And it's a real kind of turning point in terms of our narration.
And so we set the story of industrialization in the Manchester of Congress kingdom, or kingdom of Poland, the section within the Russian partition that had semi-autonomy and that was the most Polish area of the Russian partition. We set it there in the city of Lodz, or Lodzh, and we look at the various paths that Jews in the second half of the 19th century followed. And we follow them in each of the partitions. So in the Prussian partition, we follow the path of Heinrich Graetz, who wrote a history of the Jews in many volumes-- piled up on the floor-- in German, and who attended the University of Vienna.
We follow the path of Shin Ansky in the Russian partition, who began as an arudnik, as someone passionate about the Russian peasantry, and then shifted to Yiddish, and who was the person who led an incredibly important ethnographic expedition to collect Yiddish folklore. And we follow the path of Maurycy Gottlieb, a very gifted painter in the Austrian partition, the partition that became known as Galitia, and present a series of his self-portraits as a way of trying to suggest the ways in which this new situation offered various paths to Jews in this area.
And one of those paths was a path that was taken by the Jewish elite, particularly in Warsaw, and that is to say the path of those who are identified as Jewish by religion, but Polish by language and culture. And they call themselves poles of the Mosaic faith. And they created the great Nozyk synagogue in Warsaw that was opened in 1878. And we present a scale model of that synagogue. We present archival recordings of Gershon Sirota, perhaps the first cantor to record in the early years, the first decade of the 20th century. And he was the Cantor actually at the [INAUDIBLE] synagogue.
But this is also the period during the 1880s of a wave of pogroms that begin in the southern part of Russia and travel north along the railway. But it's the period, not only of those pogroms, but also of the rise of modern anti-Semitism. And we present, among other things, the resurgence of the blood libel, the emergence of the first anti-Semitic Polish newspaper, and the Protocols of Zion. And what I found astonishing is that this 1897 calendar has, on the front of it, an image of Jews sitting on the world that is a quadratic expression in popular culture of the same ideas as the Protocols of Zion . I just find that absolutely astonishing. And we present it.
And so it's in this period, faced with rising nationalism across Europe, faced with increasing economic hardship, faced with the rise of anti-Semitism, that there is the emergence of what can be called "the Jewish question." And I love this postcard, because it's a Jew in this shape of a question mark. And the Yiddish says, the Jewish question-- the question that does not let the world sleep. Not that the whole world was worried about the Jewish question, but nonetheless.
And so we call this final section of the 19th century gallery Auto-Emancipation. And we take this from the title of a pamphlet that was written by Leon Pinsker. And essentially the message is that you can't depend on the state. You can't depend on god. You have to take things into your own hands. But how to do so?
Well, some voted with their feet. And a third of the Jewish population actually emigrated. And we have an incredible collection of emigrant letters-- amazing collection.
And why do we have them? They were sent by Jews who left. They arrived in Warsaw. They got to the censor's office. And the censor never delivered them. And so this amazing collection was discovered by a scholar. And the reason it survived, as so far as I understand, the Warsaw Uprising is because he did something you're not supposed to do. He took them home to work on them. And as a result, the letters are preserved. And we've done a beautiful interactive presentation of these letters.
But the response is, I would say, that Auto-Emancipation-- taking things into your own hands-- also meant a whole panoply of possibilities in terms of new political and social movements, and also the emergence, the rise of modern Yiddish and Hebrew culture. And then, as we come to the very end, of course, we have the Russian Revolution.
And we close, if you will, the 19th-century chapter, and we open the 20th-century story, if you will, the interwar-years story with World War I and the collapse of the empires-- the collapse of the Russian Empire, the Austrian empire, the Ottoman Empire. By this time, Germany is formed, and Prussia and Germany are one country.
And we now enter the interwar years, the '20s and the '30s. Now the interwar years is a very, very short period. And we have a principle throughout, and this has very much to do with the idea of time and telos. And the principle is this-- that we want to keep our visitors in the moment of the story. What we want to do is that our visitors should, in a sense, bracket what they know happened later and to adopt a perspective of those in the story whose arise and forward is very shallow, but whose past deepens with every step they take through the story. So the past gets deeper, deeper, deeper. But the future is never very far away.
Now we do that by only using materials from the period. We do not use materials from later periods, but only materials from the period itself. And you'll see how important that is when we get to the period of the Holocaust. But it's equally important here in the interwar years, in the 1920s and 30s. So here, we call this gallery On the Jewish Street, which is inspired by the Jewish Yiddish expression, [SPEAKING YIDDISH] "what's doing on the Jewish street," which means what's doing in the Jewish world. And because it's such a short period, we've set it on a street, which is a double-height gallery.
And what we want to communicate is that this was an extraordinary period for several reasons-- namely that, despite economic hardship and despite rising anti-Semitism-- particularly after 1935, with the death of Pilsudski-- that despite those conditions, it was a particularly vibrant period in terms of political energy, cultural creativity, huge investment in youth and in childcare, and in progressive forms of pedagogy and child rearing. It was really an extraordinary period.
And so, rather than adopt the position of say, the sociologist Celia Stopnicka Heller, whose book about this period is On the Edge of Destruction, what we argue is nobody had a crystal ball. Nobody could see what was coming. And that that is a kind of, I would say, foreshadowing that we want our visitors to avoid. But rather, what we want to do, is to focus on their lives as they live them in the moment.
And so we provide an historical timeline, because there are some key events that allow us to really show the rise of anti-Semitism, of ghetto benches, of quotas and the like, of pogroms towards the end of the period, boycotts, and whatever. But then what we do is to really focus, if you will, on the political story. Of all the options in the 19th century, there were three winners-- the Zionism, the Aguda, the religious party, and the Bund, and the Jewish labor movement. There was also extraordinary cultural creativity.
This is a period where there are 3,300,000 Jews living in Poland. And Poland, itself, I would say 40% of the population of Poland in the '20s and '30s were not ethnically Polish. Ukrainians were the largest minority. Jews were the next largest minority. And then there were others.
And as a result of the clauses that were attached to the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty for World War I, these groups were recognized as national minorities, and they were at least, in theory, to have cultural autonomy. And what that meant for Jews was that they could conduct their lives in Yiddish, if they so chose. And Vilna became, in a sense, the icon of that kind of Jewish cultural autonomy lived out in Yiddish.
So we begin if you will, with cultural creativity in Yiddish, which is expressed in music, in literature, but also especially in the press. And we have this wonderful long press wall. But this principle goes from Yiddish increasingly towards Polish. Because by the end of the period, by the '30s, the Jewish youth were increasingly reading Polish. They were going to Polish public schools. And I would say Jewish writers were creative in the Polish language.
And on the upper level, we look at growing up at the generation gap, generational conflict, the autonomous world of the child, these progressive forms of child rearing, and youth groups, and youth clubs. And I was in the fortunate position of having learned from my father, who grew up in the interwar years, how to make more than 20 toys out of nothing-- out of string, paper, buttons, hankies, scraps of tin, rubber, branches.
And since these toys were so ephemeral, kids made them and threw them away. And so the only way to recover them is to have somebody who remembers how to make them actually make them. He taught me how to make them, and I taught our educators how to make them. And they are teaching our visitors how to make them. And our visitors are teaching their kids how to make them. And so these toys which, include one of the most interesting, which is a willow shofar or trumpet is now, if you will, back in circulation.
And in terms of the growing up story, one of the great prides in interwar Jewry was the creating of Jewish school systems-- in the plural-- a Zionist Hebrew school system, a Yiddish school system, the religious school system, and also Jewish high schools in the Polish language.
The last section of the interwar years is what we call Daily Life. And we were interested in how the sections that made up the new Second Polish Republic-- that is, three sections that had for the last 140 years been part of three different empires and countries-- how do they form now? Or what steps were taken to form one unified countries, and particularly from a Jewish perspective?
And it turned out that tourism was critical, and something called [SPEAKING YIDDISH] or if you will, local history was absolutely essential. And the feeling of rootedness, the feeling that Jews had a long history in this place, and that this history was reflected in monuments and historic sites. And so it was using that principle of [INAUDIBLE] to take our visitors if you will, on a kind of tour of Poland in the 1920s and 30s to small towns. That became the principle for daily life.
Now when our visitors look down that street, they don't see the Holocaust. They see the image of those people looking up. And it's only when they turn the corner that they see what they're looking up at, which is the dropping of bombs on-- my goodness gracious me. I don't know why it's doing this. It shouldn't time out like that.
They see the bombs dropping. And this is the American ambassador and his staff standing outside the American embassy, and they're getting ready to evacuate. It's just after September 1, 1939.
Now, there are several ways in which the Holocaust gallery is really quite unique, in terms of the way in which Holocaust is presented. First of the all, Holocaust is set within a 1,000-year history of Jewish life, not within a 1,000-year history of Polish anti-Semitism. And that's the first principle.
The second is that the story is told within the borders of occupied Poland, a Poland that was occupied first by the Germans and, about two weeks later, by the Soviets. And then what we do is to organize the narration along the principles of imposed reality, which you see on the left, in terms of the posters that the Germans put up announcing the various restrictions and laws, and Jewish responses through diaries. And so we begin with the process of separation and isolation and through a set of steps-- humiliation, marking, forced labor, separation in terms of occupying space on buses and public spaces, and plunder.
And just to give you a sense of what it meant to create the ultimate form of separation, the ghetto, and in this case, the Warsaw Ghetto, which was the largest ghetto in all of occupied Europe, basically that purple area represents the ghetto. And essentially a third of the population of Warsaw occupied a tenth of the area of the city. And the density of the ghetto was about 7 and 1/2-- I don't know how you get a half a person. But in any event, 7 and 1/2 people per room to give you a sense of what it meant. It meant that, at its peak, there were 400,000 people in that purple area at its peak. And this is a German map from the wartime period.
And so we chose the Warsaw ghetto because we are on the site of the Warsaw ghetto. It's what makes us a site-specific museum, but also because we had an extraordinary resource. And you can see many of our principles at work here.
So we have two narrators. We have Adam Czerniakow, who was head of the Jewish council-- of the Judenrat-- that the Germans used to organize the ghetto, run the ghetto, and have him ensure that their orders were carried out. And on the left, we have Emanuel Ringelblum, who was a left-Labor Zionist, and who kept a diary in Yiddish. So Czerniakow kept a diary in Polish and Ringelblum a diary in Yiddish. And their contrasting perspectives accompany the visitor through the story of the Warsaw ghetto.
Now Ringelblum was very, very exceptional. He was an historian who, before the war, had specialized in the history of Warsaw Jews. But once in the ghetto, he realized that the most important thing he could do was to organize an archive that would document everything that was going on in the ghetto and in occupied Poland, to the extent that they would be able to gather the material. Now he and his team-- they called themselves selves Oyneg Shabbos, which means joy of Sabbath, because they met on Saturdays. He and his team thought they would survive the war, and they would use this archive to actually write a book about the Warsaw ghetto.
But during the great deportation in the summer of 1942, when 300,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka, they realized there weren't going to survive. So they packed the archive into tin boxes, and they buried it in two places. And then the 60,000 Jews that were left in the Warsaw Ghetto after that deportation, when they realized that they absolutely wouldn't survive, then the team of those who were left buried the rest of the archive in milk cans, and they buried it in a third place.
And right after the war, in the rubble of the ghetto, in that big huge ocean of rubble, there were three people who had survived from the team. And how they were able to find the location of the first set of the 10 boxes, I have no idea. And the second cache that was found was found by accident in the 1950s, when there was an excavation of the rubble to actually build something, and it was found quite by accident.
So what we've done is we have created this gallery almost entirely from the materials from the Ringelblum archive-- in other words, from materials that were created on the spot and at the moment by the people who were there and whose story we are telling. And as a result, there is no postwar survivor testimony. There's no video testimony. All that material is in our resource center. And our visitors can go to the research center and have access to the Spielberg archive, to the Shoah archive. But here our idea is to keep them within the horizon forward of those who story we're telling, and only gradually, gradually lift the veil as those in our story begin to realize and to see what's up ahead.
A very important part of our story is set in what we call the Aryan side, that is to say, the area outside the ghetto. And it's here that we look at Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust from the absolute worst to the best and everything in between.
And there are those who said we should end the story with the Holocaust, and we said, no. There's a very, very important postwar story to tell.
And we opened the postwar story in this destroyed world, a world destroyed literally, physically, but a world destroyed in terms of people, individual survivors being the only person left in their family, or the only one from their town. So approximately 90% of Polish Jews were murdered. Most of those who survived, survived in the Soviet Union. They were, quote, "saved" by deportation. About 25,000 survived in Poland by hiding or by passing as Poles. And about 25,000 came back from concentration camps. So altogether, about 250,000 survivors were in Poland in the immediate postwar years.
The biggest question for them was whether to stay or to leave. And what we do is we tell the story of leaving on the right-hand side and the story of staying on the left-hand side. And of course, being a site-specific museum, we tell the story of the making of the monument itself, and the unveiling of it. And we have newsreel footage of the unveiling of the monument, and it's narrated in Yiddish. And you can hear native Yiddish being spoken in 1948 on this newsreel footage, which is really, I think, quite astonishing.
I think one of the most tragic moments in the story, in the entire 1,000-year story, but in particular, after the Holocaust, has to do with the period of 1945 to '48, which is a period of violence, generally. That is to say, the country was basically not fully demilitarized. People were homeless. It was just a very difficult period generally.
But for Jews, in particular, there were pogroms and violence. That is, I would say, the hardest to deal with. Here are people who survived the Holocaust-- the iconic example being the pogrom that broke out in Kielce on July 4th in 1946. It's just hard to imagine.
And in fact, the provocation for it was a blood libel. A Christian boy in that house, 7 Planty Street, where these young people were living in a kibbutz in the building, preparing to go to Palestine-- a Christian boy in the building had disappeared. And the rumor went out that the Jews had kidnapped him, killed him. And then a pogrom broke out.
And this is the iconic example. But on the right, we present many other examples from other locations of violence. And we treat this violence in a very particular way. And that is, after presenting what is a consensus about the bare facts, we present four interpretations from the period, but not Jan Gross, which we consider to be-- his book about this pogrom we consider to be emblematic of the post-'89 period of opening up these very, very dark moments to public and very, very vigorous intense and painful debate.
But here we're interested in how these events were understood in the period. What do the communists say? What do the anti-communist undergrounds say? What did the Bishop of Kielce say? He blamed the Jews. And what did the "moral voice" say-- that is to say, a sociologist and others who really looked at all of Polish society and said, how could we allow this to happen?
And then we offer our visitors an opportunity to look more closely at the documents, themselves, of these other forms of violence. On the left side, we look at those who stayed. And in particular, what was Jewish life like under communism? And we set this in the one institution that was allowed to function after the onset of Stalinism, which was the social and cultural association of Polish Jews, and the one space that was considered legitimate, which was something called The Club.
And it becomes very interesting-- you might not realize that after the war-- anybody know where most of the Yiddish books were published after the war? What country was the biggest publisher of Yiddish books after the war? Anybody know? Argentina. Buenos Aires. And the second largest? Communist Poland. And because it was a policy. The policy was national in form, socialist in content. And so it was a really important period, and a very important area for Yiddish book publishing.
But I think the most painful of all, not because of the violence, but of what it represented, was the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic campaign of March 1968. And it was after the Seven-Day War, when, if you will, the communist bloc basically sided with the Arabs, and saw it-- or at least treated Jews as a fifth column and said that they had divided loyalties, that their loyalties were divided between Poland and Palestine, and used it, really, as an excuse for other political ends to make their lives very difficult, to harass them, to force them to leave their jobs.
And as a result, by this time there were 20,000 Jews in Poland. 13,000 left. There were 6,000 left. And there have been 3,300,000 before the war. And these were the Jews who had stayed and wanted to stay, and who identified with Polish language and Polish culture. And many of them had never thought of themselves as Jews.
But interestingly, some of those younger people who had never thought of themselves as Jews, said, you know, if you're going to call me a Jew, I'm going to be a Jew. But I have no idea how. And I call them Jews from scratch, because they literally have to figure out how to be Jewish. They can't go to their communist parents. They can't go to their assimilated parents. They don't have grandparents in many cases. And so they turn to the Jewish catalog. They turn to their Jewish peers in North America.
And it's when we come to the period after 1989 that we actually hear their voices. Because after 1989, there is-- the beginnings of the renewal of Jewish life began actually in the late '70s. But after 1989, that renewal really takes off. And even though it's small in scale, it's extremely important.
And there are two developments. There's, on the one hand, the renewal of Jewish life. And on the other hand, there is enormous interest on the part of the Polish public in all things Jewish. In fact, the first major Jewish culture festival, the Krakow Jewish culture festival, began in 1988 before the fall of communism. And it is now one of the most important Jewish culture festivals, not only in Poland, but in Europe.
And so what we do at the very end is we hear from Polish Jews living in Poland today. And we asked a series of questions. Now some of the questions you would expect. Is there a future for Jews in Poland? Is there anti-Semitism in Poland? What does Israel mean to you? Is religion important? Who can make Jewish culture?
However, the single most interesting question is did you always know you were Jewish? And that's a question that I would not normally think to ask, certainly not in North America. But it's a very meaningful question, not only in Poland, but actually in Europe more generally, and especially in post-communist Europe.
Now the story is not complete if we don't expand the geography to the places where Polish Jews went and to the lives they created in the places where they settled. And as of 2013, there was an estimated 40 million Jews in the world. And according to Zvi Epstein, who is the preeminent Jewish demographer, about 70% have their roots in Polish lands, which is that big red map that you saw, which includes countries that are today Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, and of course, Poland. So that's about 9 million people.
So where did they go? What do they take with them? How does the legacy of Polish Jews shape their lives today? Now what is this photograph?
Jews who left Poland-- and also other parts of Eastern Europe-- they formed Landsmannschaften. They formed hometown societies. And of course, for new immigrants, they provided support for one another-- burial plots, interest-free loans, a place to socialize, be with each other. But as they aged, of course, and as time went on, their ranks became smaller and smaller.
I would say 10 years ago, when my father would go to a meeting, there were eight or nine people at the meeting on a Sunday. However, one of the younger generation decided to revive the Landsmannschaften. And of course I joined. And he sent out a message. And the message was, on Sunday at 10:00 in the morning, here, whatever, everybody from Opatow, from Apt-- from my father's town-- come. We're going to make a group photograph. 90 people showed up, including infants.
And so you had this multigenerational, I would say, gathering of people who continue to feel a connection to the places from which their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents came. And it is our intention to tell their story in a circulation space at the very, very center of the exhibition, and to do so in a way that is as poetic and evocative-- not didactic, not like a normal exhibition-- but to do so in a very, very evocative and poetic way that is very much in the spirit of the forest that visitors entered when they first came into the exhibition. And I invite you all to Warsaw and to POLIN Museum.
AUDIENCE: I can't help but wonder whether parts of this [INAUDIBLE] accomplished in terms of the incredible arduous work, [INAUDIBLE] shared [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 2: You have to come to Warsaw.
No, seriously. I would say this. You know, there are people who are making museums, for example, the National Library in Israel. There is a museum that is about the experience of Orthodox Jews in the Holocaust and is intended to actually meet their needs as a museum. And they wanted our yeshiva film. Everybody wants our yeshiva film.
And we said no. Because all of these elements are set within the-- it would be like saying-- you know what it's like? It's like people who go only to hear that one aria that they like from the opera. They don't want to hear the whole opera. They just want to hear that one aria. So for us it's very, very important that these elements be experienced as part of the whole that we've created.
So if we-- and we will probably create some kind of traveling exhibition-- oh, and we do have material online. So, for example, we created thematic paths through the exhibition. And they're online. And you can download them. You can print them. You can have them on your phone-- for example, Jewish religious life, Jewish women, the story of Yiddish, eight highlights, one hour, for those who have no time. But basically, basically we want you to come to Poland. That's the answer. The question at the very back.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] museum, was there any effort or aim to incorporate access to Polish life or Polish architecture [INAUDIBLE], obviously, that are maybe at risk of being destroyed or lost?
SPEAKER 2: Do you mean the actual elements?
AUDIENCE: Yes. Like from buildings [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 2: No. We didn't do that because this is so story driven. It's so story driven, that we were always looking for original objects that would support the story. So we didn't, but I can imagine-- it would just depend on what it was. But for us the story came first, and the coherence of the narrative was absolutely primary. And everything and anything-- text, image, object, scenography-- had to support the story. That was the key. So the answer's no.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] I'm John McKinsey.
SPEAKER 2: Oh, John McKinsey!
AUDIENCE: I studied with her at NYU.
SPEAKER 2: Oh, my god.
AUDIENCE: She also helped create a field called performance at the time. And my question has to do with a site specific here in the US. So higher education is under new distress in the age of Trump. But your storytelling and performance, how do we teach that to folks that are primarily trained in logic and argumentation, especially [INAUDIBLE], where it is things like public history and public humanities are not catching on as fast as in other places. How do you do that?
SPEAKER 2: OK. Oh, my god, the brilliant John McKenzie-- unbelievable.
So let me put it this way. I've been recently looking at the situation here, with Jewish museums, because that's the stuff that I know. And one of the things that strikes me is that recent history seems to matter more in Europe, and even more in post-communist Eastern Europe than here. I don't even know-- what is recent history here? You know what I mean I mean?
The Holocaust didn't happen on this soil. World War II was not fought-- Pearl Harbor is one thing-- that island in the ocean. But World War II was not fought on Polish soil. I think that the most powerful war was the Civil War, which is a long time ago. And of course it's very much alive, particularly in the South. But still it's not-- in Europe, history is so immediate that it feels like it happened yesterday. And what's more, it's not settled. It's very, very unsettled. And as a result, there's a huge interest in it. But there's also huge stakes in it.
So, for example, in Poland, the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Education are working according to something called "historical policy," which can also be translated as politics of history. And they want to control the historical narrative. They want to control it in the school system. They want to control it and textbooks. And they want to control it in institutions of public history. It's a very, very different situation.
So the Museum of Polish history-- what is its motto? Its motto is freedom, the fight for freedom. I mean all those fights for freedom that were a catastrophe from a military point of view, but are considered to be a moral victory-- you know, victories of heroism, martyrdom, etc. The Museum of the Second World War, the Museum of Katyn, the Museum of the Warsaw Rising, the Museum of Krakow under the German occupation-- so there's a proliferation of history museums.
I don't see that here. I mean, I think that what's interesting is the Museum of African-American History and Culture. That would be-- because that's a story that's a story the telling of which was already imagined 100 years ago. There was already a proposal to create such a museum 100 years ago. And finally, finally it's there. American Indian-- but I don't know. Somehow I think-- but those are long time periods. American Indian-- long time period. African-American-- long time period.
Poland is the country of museums of short time periods. The Warsaw Rising-- 61 days. Chopin-- 39 years. World War II-- you know, what is it? How do you get five, six years? Krakow under the occupation-- it's a few years. There are some other-- Katyn-- a week. The Museum of Westerplatte-- one week.
So there's a way in which that those sites form a kind of a network that tell the whole story, but I don't know. It just feels as if history matters more, and public history there's more stakes. On the other hand, here I think there's a greater openness to how the story can be told. I think it's a different kind of thinking. Yeah.
SPEAKER 1: Can we have at least one question from a student?
SPEAKER 2: Oh, thank goodness.
SPEAKER 1: And Barbara, can you just step aside from the microphone for a few minutes so people can take photographs?
SPEAKER 2: Sure. Oh my, god [INAUDIBLE] photographs.
AUDIENCE: Yes, you mentioned this idea about the Polish people being able to find ownership and take pride in the cultural aspects of the museum and be involved [INAUDIBLE]. And i was just curious if the museum [INAUDIBLE] part of Jewish groups [INAUDIBLE] people in the integration, the intersection of what [INAUDIBLE] appropriated [INAUDIBLE]?
SPEAKER 2: I would say this. When I used to present this, in the beginning, my Jewish audiences would say this museum is going to whitewash Polish history. It's a tool of the government to make money, to try to attract tourists, et cetera. When I would present it in Poland, I would hear, it's going to be a museum of the history of anti-Semitism-- period. And of course, it's neither. I mean, it never would be. It never would be.
But I did hear from a Holocaust survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto. And she was very uneasy about the museum, because she was afraid it would bring too much attention to Jews, and that would be dangerous. That's her experience. That's her experience. And then, I would say, there is what I would call, maybe, indifference, or the sense that it's not a museum for me to go to. So, for example, 65% to 70% of our visitors are from Poland, and most of them are from Warsaw, understandably. But the greater metropolitan area of Warsaw is three million people. Like, where are the rest of them? Not only why are they not coming, but why have they not yet come? Because they will. I think many of them will come.
So I would say we're doing market research, and we're doing visitor surveys. So we'll hopefully know more about this. But for me, coming to it with my international perspective and with my concern for how this museum is and should be meaningful for our Jewish visitors-- because I figure the rest of the staff at the museum will worry about the Polish visitors-- then I think of it as actually supporting the renewal of Jewish life in Poland and how.
When asked why parents and grandparents did not share with their children and grandchildren that they had Jewish birth parents or Jewish grandparents, the answer is usually out of fear-- like the woman who said don't draw too much attention to this, because it will create anti-Semitism-- out of fear and out of shame. And one of the things this museum does is to say there's nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be ashamed of, much to be proud of.
And it offers something much richer and deeper than the Jewish catalog out of which to create a Jewish life and a way to turn to the legacy, the civilization that was created by Polish Jews. And it's happening. And so I think that there's a lot of interest, actually, in how much Yiddish there is in the Polish language, for example, and a lot of discussion about whether food is Jewish or Polish or whether it matters, for instance. But I don't think there's a sense-- I don't think there's a worry about appropriation or anything like that. OK.
SPEAKER 1: What a lovely note to end on. We have a modest reception outside. We can continue the conversation if you haven't been to a Jewish studies event before, For Pareve kosher cookies, the chocolate chip cookie are remarkably good. And let's continue the conversation. Thank you so much.
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Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, chief curator, Core Exhibition, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and University Professor Emerita at New York University, delivered the University Lecture at Cornell on April 27, 2017.