Journeying Through 1000 Years of Polish-Jewish History at Warsaw’s POLIN Museum

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The first gallery of the core exhibit is the “Forest” and marks the beginning of a 1000 year journey through Polish-Jewish history. Photo by Rachael Cerrotti.

I close my eyes and imagine walking through a forest, the wind whispers in my ear telling me that I am home. I should rest here. If you allow yourself the freedom to put yourself in this place, you could be in Polin. And if you have the desire to open your mind and expose yourself to a story untold, you can take a journey through 1000 years of Polish-Jewish history.

Polin is the Hebrew word for Poland and translates to “rest here.” The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened its core exhibition in October 2014,  is not what you would expect. As was said hundreds of times in the reporting and discussions that surrounded the highly anticipated opening, the museum is about celebrating life rather than focusing on death.

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A guest experiences the “Encounter with Modernity” gallery which covers the history of Polish Jews from 1772 through 1914. Photo by Rachael Cerrotti.

The History

For many centuries, the Polish lands were home to the largest and most significant group of Jewish people in the world. Up until 1772, with the Partitions of Poland, Jews lived in peace; they had religious tolerance and social autonomy. And, although anti-semitism and discrimination increased after the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided and allocated to the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and Habsburg Austria, the Jewish community remained an integral part of the cultural landscape. Prior to the start of the Holocaust, 3.3 million Jews livied in Poland.

In Your Bucket Because…

  •  You consider yourself a history buff.
  •  You want to see a one-of-a-kind replication of a 18th century synagogue reconstructed using the same tools, materials and methods as the original building.
  •  You have an appreciation for art and innovative museum exhibitions.
  •  You are interested in Polish-Jewish culture.

Most people know the fate of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. We read about it in books, it is etched in some of our family histories, we learn it in school. Museums and memorials throughout the world have been erected in its memory.

In Poland, the Jewish population was almost entirely wiped out. But in this museum– in Polin — I am not burdened by the reality of recent history and I am not overwhelmed with the images of my own family perishing in death camps set up by the Nazi’s on Polish land. In fact, it is the opposite: Here, I am surrounded by the depth of Jewish culture.

I am the grandchild of European immigrants who left their homelands in search of a more tolerant atmosphere, a land of opportunity and comfort. But much of my extended family stayed in Europe — and perished.

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The reconstruction of the wooden roof and ceiling of the Gwoździec synagogue was recreated using tools, materials and methods from the 18th century. Over 400 volunteers from around the world made this project happen. It was carried out over two years in eight Polish cities. Photo by Rachael Cerrotti.

None of my family was ever in Poland until the transports came and brought them in cattle cars. This fact alone makes my stomach churn; they never had a life in the place of their meticulously planned death. This museum offered me a window into Jewish life here and helped establish an empathy towards the people of Poland that I didn’t know I was lacking.

The Highlight

The highlight of the core exhibit is the replica of the roof of the Gwoździec synagogue from the 18th century. Using traditional tools and painting techniques, it was built specifically for the museum’s exhibit. The project, which was spearheaded by a couple from Massachusetts, and created by over 400 volunteers from around the world, is one of a kind. You can stand underneath it and look up to see images of the past.

You don’t have to be of Polish descent or have a Jewish identity to appreciate the extent to which this gallery gives respect to a culture that has existed here for over a thousand years. Perhaps it will stir up feelings about your own heritage and history. This museum reminds us that to understand the death of a people, you must know the life.

The main exhibit is comprised of eight interactive galleries that take you from the Middle Ages to Poland today. The exhibit doesn’t end at the Holocaust and doesn’t focus on the number of Jews lost, but rather it shows the richness of a culture that not only continues to exist in Poland today, but is actually having a time of revival.

Practicalities

  •  POLIN Museum is open from 10am through 6pm on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. It is open from 10am through 4pm on Saturday. It is closed on Tuesday. The last entrance for the core exhibit is an hour and a half before the museum closes.
  •  Give yourself at least two hours to tour the core exhibit.
  •  Tickets average around $10.
  •  The exhibit is interactive and kid friendly.
  •  You can find more information about events and hours on the POLIN website : http://polin.pl/en

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