“You cannot reduce the history of Polish Jews to the violent tragedy of the Holocaust, ” insists Dariusz Stola, Director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Opened in April 2013, the museum is both a powerful monument to the past and a thriving cultural hub with its focus firmly on the present.
Built on the site of the Nazi’s Warsaw Ghetto, it has recently been awarded both the prestigious European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) and the European Museum Academy Prize (EMA).
Stola (left), the museum’s Director since March 2014, is a historian, writer and professor at the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences. His research interests include the history of Polish-Jewish relations, the history of the People’s Republic of Poland and the history of international migration in the 20th century. He has published more than 100 academic articles, 10 books and three history textbooks for secondary schools.
He spoke to Blooloop about lifting the shadow of Auschwitz from the Polish Jewish story and shedding new light on a thousand years of history.
A Museum in Warsaw Without a Collection
“The whole idea of the museum started more than twenty years ago when a group of my colleagues from the Jewish Historical Institute was invited to the opening of the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum, ” he says.
“They were so much impressed by the power of the narrative exhibition that they began to desire to have a narrative exhibition here in Warsaw, not focusing on the Holocaust, but focusing on the whole thousand year history of the Polish Jews. And then it took twenty years to fund-raise, prepare, build the building and, eventually, open the museum.”
“So the origins are the idea of the narrative exhibition, as something very powerful. In most museums, museums usually start with a collection, private or public.” says Stola. “This museum had no collection at all.”
Warsaw’s POLIN forms part of a Holocaust memorial complex and stands next to the Monument to the Heroes of the Holocaust. The building was designed by the Finnish studio Lahdelma & Mahlamäki who were selected in an international competition. The design won the prestigious Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Award in 2008.
“Even before the building was ready, the museum had quite an extensive cultural programme: there was a tent here, for concerts, public debates, temporary exhibitions, ” says Stola. “So the museum had existed as a programme before it had the building.”
“When I took the position (of Director), the key challenge was to complete the production of the core exhibition on time. There had been some delays previously.”
Years of Reflection and Research
Stola doesn’t view the long and laborious process, characterised by delays in funding, as a bad thing:
“Today, I see the insufficient funding for many years as a blessing, because there was insufficient money to start construction, but enough to start research and reflection.
The core exhibition is very well researched.”
At the time, Poland was in the throes of some uncomfortable debates about its Jewish past, in part fuelled by the publication of a book by Jan Tomasz Gross, a political exile from Communist Poland, now a professor at Princeton.
His book explored the mass killing of Jews in the small town of Jedwabne in Eastern Poland. His research uncovered the fact that the killing was committed mostly by local Poles, the neighbours of the Jewish victims, with the limited participation of the German officers.
“That was a shock for public opinion, that Poles actively participated in killing of Jews, ” says Stola.
“Poland was under German occupation; millions of Poles lost lives, and while we know that some Poles betrayed the Jews to the Germans when the Jews were hiding, or did not extend help, we had not known about direct participation in mass killings.
“Massive debate followed, which included public figures from presidents to ministers, public intellectuals, church leaders, down to ordinary people, and this debate largely facilitated the continuation of the project and the successful opening, because it made the politicians sensitive to the issue, and much more willing to cooperate than they had been before.”
The Holocaust: A Chapter in a Much Bigger Story
While the Holocaust is a deeply shocking chapter in the history of Polish Jews, Stola is adamant that it is viewed as part of a much bigger story.
“For most of the visitors, the only thing they know about Jewish history is the Holocaust, ” he says.
“The challenge was to introduce to the general public, in Poland as well as abroad, because even in Poland the degree of ignorance is quite high, that there had been a flourishing, rich, long-lasting Jewish civilisation – indeed, a whole culture – which had existed in the historical land of Poland, since the tenth century to the present.”
“You cannot reduce the history of Polish Jews to the violent tragedy of the Holocaust.
“The second challenge was that Nazi Germany not only killed some six million European Jews, but also made efforts to destroy the material Jewish culture.”
There are eight galleries in the core exhibition and while the Holocaust gallery is the largest, it takes its place within the chronology of the story rather than being the main event.
“The exhibition starts in the early middle ages, then develops through the early modern period, the 19th century and modernity, the inter-war period, ” explains Stola.
“Then we have the Holocaust gallery, which is not the last one. There is also the post-war gallery, and the last exhibit that we show [is some] interviews with Polish Jews today – namely two years ago – which show that the history that we have on display has not ended.”
“Five or ten years from now we’ll have to add some new exhibits, because this history is ongoing.
“In a sense, it’s truly a contemporary museum, because our time horizon is moving every day.”
How was it possible to record and commemorate a culture with such a lack of material evidence?
“For example, we have reconstructed a wooden synagogue, ” says Stola. “Before the war, Poland had some 200 wooden synagogues, something very typical for the Polish landscape and for Polish Jewish culture. Poland has many wooden churches, Catholic or orthodox, and it had had wooden synagogues, but none of them survived the Second World War. So we have reconstructed the synagogue, which originally was built in the 17th century.”
“We reconstructed it the way the Japanese built the wooden temples, that is by using only techniques and technologies available in the 17th century: no electric tools, only tools that existed in the 17th century. So the project took three years and was relatively costly, but the degree of authenticity of this reconstruction is greater than it would have been using contemporary technologies. It’s somewhere in between the original object and a regular contemporary reconstruction.”
Words are Relics of the Past
“In a way, we had to make a virtue of necessity, because so many artefacts of Jewish culture had been destroyed. For example, for the first 500 years for the Middle Ages, we have only two kinds of artefacts, and these are coins with Hebrew letters, and tombstones.
“Thinking about a medieval gallery, we reached the conclusion that we should treat words as relics of the past.”
The word Polin itself, the Jewish name for Poland, is deeply entwined in the story of the arrival of the first Jews in Poland. Legend has it that Jews fleeing persecution in the Middle Ages came east and when they arrived in a forest, they heard the word Polin, which they interpreted as Po-lin which means “Rest here” in Hebrew. They took this as a good omen and decided to settle.
“We use quotations coming down from all the documents, ” explains Stola. “We always give them in their original language, so, for example, for the Middle Ages is mostly Latin, royal documents, church documents. And, then we translate them into Polish and English.
“So we treat this Latin quotation – Latin or Hebrew or German or even Arabic – we have Arabic quotations, too – as relics from the past, very much like archaeologists treat what they excavate when they work.”
Technology: A Tool for Telling Stories
The museum in Warsaw has also embraced technology as another tool for telling stories. But, says Stola, it is something of a mixed blessing.
“In the core exhibition we have some 250 computers that control overhead projectors, touchscreens and other screens.
“And we have passive and active multimedia. For us, multimedia is kind of the fourth dimension.
“Because the space of the core exhibition is limited, and we know that some visitors would like to expand their knowledge of specific topics, in every gallery we have several stations with multimedia where one can expand knowledge by going deeper and deeper; diving into this experience.
“In total, we have some 5000 pages of text and pictures in the multimedia.
“But there is a small problem – I think this museum is a child of its time nearly some ten years ago, many people believed multimedia [technology] to be the solution to all questions.”
“Today, paying for the maintenance of all this multimedia which is costly, I see that nothing is getting old faster than the new technology. So, what was the newest technology two or three years ago is no longer, and two or three years from now will be old: obsolete or, at least, perceived as anachronistic.
“So, younger visitors especially will immediately notice that we have touchscreens that are five years old. So we have to think already now what we are going to do three or four years from now to replace them.
“So the multimedia elements are really helpful, and enhance visitors’ experiences in ways that were impossible before modern technology, expanding the visitor experience and providing visitors with an opportunity to go deeper into elected topics, but their maintenance and replacement in the future is costly.”
Warsaw’s ‘Total Museum’
The museum recently won the two most prestigious European museum awards: the European Museum of the Year Award, and the European Museum Academy Prize.
The judges described POLIN as “not just an excellent museum but a state of the art cultural institution which reaches diverse publics all over the world. That is why it deserves the title of a ‘Total Museum’.”
Stola agrees with this evaluation, describing the museum’s offering as ‘truly comprehensive’.
“We have a massive outreach programme, both digitally via the internet, and via our modern exhibitions, ” says Stola. “We have a cultural programme within the museum – we have a nice auditorium for concerts, so we have hosted philharmonic orchestras, as well as rock bands: it depends on the audience we would like to address.”
And Stola believes that as those audiences change, so the museum will change with them.
“I see the museum as a process. It never has a fixed shape. It may be evolving slower or faster, but it will be evolving, ” he says.
“To give you an example, as we opened the core exhibition, we invited our visitors to comment, especially to comment critically. This way we could spot a number of errors, simple spelling errors sometimes; sometimes major errors which are inevitable when you have such a big project.”
Visitors As Participants
“I have established a special procedure –
“I have an advisory body of eminent historians who are reviewing proposals for various changes in the core exhibition.
“Some of them we have already implemented; some of them are waiting for their turn – of course, we haven’t accepted all of them. But we are in a constant dialogue with the visitors, both experts – historians or curators – as well as lay public.”
Inevitably, he says, the core exhibition in Warsaw will be updated.
“When historiography changes – and it will change, certainly, because this is the nature of historiography, that you have new perspectives – we will have to adapt the core exhibition, because the veritable ability of our narrative is the key factor.”
“This is a public museum – we are under the Minister of Culture, so we serve all Polish citizens, but we have a special relationship with the people from our neighbourhood, and [of paramount significance] is our relation with the Polish Jewish community – they have special symbolic rights to this museum; this is their museum.
“But this museum is addressed equally to non-Jewish Poles, and to Jews living in Israel and the other regions of the diaspora, and we are trying to establish contacts with various organisations – local, national or international.”
Stola and his team in Warsaw organise conferences for historians, and invite various organisations to visit and have meetings in the building, because he strongly believes that continuous, open dialogue is key.
“The museum works. The museum operates. Even people who visit our core exhibition – we treat them as participants in the programme.
In fact, the museum experience emerges not from the exhibition, but from the perception of the exhibition.”
Different groups may perceive the exhibition in a different manner and, for this reason, Stola says it is vital to consider every influence down to the taste of the coffee that is offered, “…because it may affect the perception, too.”
Because historical debate was so important in preparing the ground for the establishment of the museum, Stola is committed to encouraging public debate on relevant topics.
“So, either we give a floor to speakers coming from outside, or we express our own opinion in a debate that we organise.”
Last year was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the number of surviving witnesses is dwindling.
“I think that to some extent that the creation of this museum here in Warsaw already has been a response to this fact, ” he says.
“We have in parallel in Poland – a major Museum of the Second World War under construction. The reasons are similar: the coming to an end of eyewitness narration, not only of the Holocaust, but of the last eyewitness of the great Jewish culture in Poland, that was almost completely destroyed by Germany. So, the museum is an answer to this dwindling number.
“But, there are some specific issues that we need to address. For example, we used to invite all Holocaust survivors or Righteous Among the Nations (those who worked to save the lives of Jews) for meetings with our visitor groups, school groups and so on. This is increasingly difficult because they are old.
“But what kind of replacement can we find? Of course, it’s a partial replacement, but we have access to many thousands of interviews with Holocaust survivors as well as Righteous Among the Nations and other witnesses to the Holocaust.
“But yes: it is a challenge. The moment you can no longer call an eyewitness to confirm something is approaching fast.”
A Broad Visitor Demographic
Since the opening of the core exhibition 18 months ago, the POLIN Museum in Warsaw has had over half a million visitors.
There hasn’t been time to study the visitor demographics in detail, but it is clear already that the museum has a universal appeal.
“70% of the visitors are foreign; 30% are Polish. In summer we have many more foreign visitors; in winter they are mostly Polish, and in Fall and Spring we have many school groups.”
“We have visitors of all ages. We have workshops for families with small children and groups of small kids coming from kindergarten.
“And we have special programmes for old-age pensioners, too. But, of course, the biggest group of the visitors are between fifteen and thirty-five.”
In a time of unprecedented human migration and when religious and cultural diversity are at the forefront of politics, Stola believes the museum’s mission has never been more relevant.
Warsaw’s POLIN Museum: a Simple Message
“Our mission is very simple: to protect and recover the memory of the history of Polish Jews, full stop. And by this work, we are exposing our visitors, participants in our programmes, to [an] experience of the past. Of course, this experience is mediated, by the core exhibition; by temporary exhibitions; by lectures – everything we offer. But we believe that this way, we work towards a better understanding and mutual respect, and not only among Poles and Jews, but in general among the societies of Europe.
“Because, the history of Polish Jews is a history of a minority in a highly diverse society. Poland was one of the most diverse countries in Europe after the Second World War. Now it’s one of the most homogenous. But the question, the challenges of diversity remain, as the recent refugee crisis has shown us very clearly: it’s a very contemporary challenge, and not only for Poland, but for Europe and maybe the world in general – how to respond to cultural, religious and ethnic diversity?
“And in our exhibition and our programmes we show that diversity is, so to speak, natural: it’s God-given, because the world is diverse, ” says Stola. “And, this may sound a very simple message, but especially in the Europe of today, its conclusions are not so simple.”
All images kind courtesy POLIN Museum/M. Starowieyska/D. Golik/J. Nowotynski