Like most tourists I walked in the streets of Warsaw-Center and visited shops like a souvenirshop and a antiquitiesshop. Well, that was quite a surprise.
In the souvenirshop it was possible to buy magnets with symbols of Poland, like one finds magnets with canalhouses, tulips and wooden shoes in Amsterdam. One magnet was a yellow ‘Jewish’ star that mentioned ‘ghetto Warsaw’. I couldn’t believe my eyes, stood there thinking for some time considering whether I should buy it as proof. But I did not want to buy and thus encourage such souvenirs so I ended making a secret (and not well succeeded) photograph. I am sure that this yellow star would not be sold in the Netherlands but maybe this had a different meaning for the Polish people. I asked in the Jewish museum, showing the pictures but they reacted in a very neutral way, telling that they couldn’t read that it said ‘ghetto Warsaw’ which was true of course 🙂
In the antiquitiesshop it was possible to find all kind of symbols and pamphlets from the last century: communist and anti-communist posters, lots of stuff. I even found a poster in Dutch mentioning ‘Indonesië moet bevrijd worden’ showing an Indonesian guy in chains resisting against a Japanese soldier. As said it was in Dutch and not in Indonesian, this is a real historic thing as Indonesia was freed from the Japanese but then subject to a colonial war with the Netherlands, this poster maybe symbolized that already. The shop also offered Nazi objects. The picture on top and the one below were made secretly in this shop. Maybe it was not necessary to make them secretly, I didn’t know; as a Dutch person I had the feeling that it was a risk to take those pictures but maybe it wasn’t in the Polish context.
All together this tourist street gave me many reflections about the context of the new and beautiful Jewish museum in Warsaw, Poland.
Creating a completely new museum comes with lots of opportunities (that the Museum for the history of Jews in Poland discovered well) and also with dilemma’s. From my visit to this museum I remember two of them.
1. How do you present your history when it has got possibly unfavourable elements? Especially in the light of a history where others have tried many times to present your people as bad people and that this had fatal consequences. The first image of the Jews in Poland happens to be one that connects them to trade of slaves. It was by the way for the first time for me that I learned that the word ‘slave’ is actually connected to the Slavic people, that they were the slaves of the Middle Ages. The image shows Jews trading slaves and a bishop protesting against it; not because he was against slavery as such but because he was against the trade of Christians as slaves. Slavic people were already Christians by that time. Jews are recognizable with a 2-pointed hat. Could this image make actual prejudices increase? Is a scientific approach ‘this is the very first image and thus reality’ the correct one or should the museum be more careful and avoid a possibly bad image? The museum chose to show the 12nd century reality…
2. During war, the Polish were the only people to have an organizational structure to help Jews and this shows their heroic side. Opinions differ on the scale of effectiveness of the organisation. How small or large should that part of Polish resistance take in the presentation of the 2nd world war part of the museum? You can imagine the discussions…
Most probably there were many more decisions to take that were a dilemma. What I like about this museum is that the makers are not afraid of decision making and also not of discussing the decisions made afterwards.They are transparent and they are accountable; a great sign of modernity that one can only appreciate!
28 October 2014 Warsaw could open the doors of the brandnew Museum of the History of Polish Jews and for certain, that museum is a beauty.
First of all it is a beauty from the point of view architecture. The size of the museum is enormous which offers opportunities for spectacular projects like: telling the story of the Jews coming to Poland 1000 years ago with moving images on glass walls; rebuilding an old wooden synagogue with all its special paintings; and redesigning a street in a Warsaw Jewish neighbourhood in the 19th/20th century with all its cultural and political activities, see these 3 pictures for an impression.
Apart from the special projects you can find interactive expositions for all centuries (I loved the medieval ones), and learn a lot about Polish history in general, too. The way the partition of Poland among other countries in the 18th/19th century was symbolised by a big and empty throne, overlooked by foreign rulers is impressive. Of course many people like to have their picture taken at the throne so it is never empty for a long time. The museum allows this kind of jokes and activities which is very nice.
This is a museum that deserves your time, wandering from one room to another through 10 centuries of history. It is different from other museums: it is an impression, not an explanation. It is an atmosphere and a way to live the lifes the Jews in Poland lived since the Middle Ages. If you visit Warsaw, remember to go there!