Skip to Content Skip to Main Menu

Faculty of Arts & Science

Arts & Science News

Alumni Interviews: Curating the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is the Program Director of the core exhibition for POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. She was born in Toronto to Jewish immigrants from interwar Poland. After spending a year in Israel, she enrolled in the honours English major program at U of T, completing the first three years of the four-year program. She earned her AB and MA in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and her PhD from Indiana University, Bloomington. She became a distinguished University Professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and is best known for her interdisciplinary contributions to Jewish studies and to the theory and history of museums, tourism and heritage. Among her books is They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, which she coauthored with her father and which won two Canadian Jewish Book Awards. In 2006, after consulting for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews for several years, she agreed to lead the team developing the core exhibition, a multimedia narrative experience dedicated to the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews, which opened in 2014. In 2016, POLIN was awarded the European Museum of the Year Award and the European Museum Academy Award.

A&S talked with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett at U of T’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies, where she was delivering a special lecture.

Your personal background and professional journey as a scholar seem to have led directly to your current appointment at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It’s almost a case of dramatic inevitability. What was it like to study English at U of T in the early ‘60s?

Challenging is one word for it. I did not know when I entered the English program that without an intimate knowledge of the New Testament you’d be lost — and I did not come with an intimate knowledge of the New Testament. That was a challenge.

I also did not realize until I got to the US that my honours degree would be so unlike the kind of breadth that the American university expected. Back then, the English lit curriculum was very, very British — there wasn’t even a course on Canadian lit and only one semester of American lit at the time. That meant I had a whole year of Anglo Saxon language and literature as two separate courses. When I went to UC Berkeley, they looked at my transcript and said, “By the end of your third year at U of T, you earned more credits than you need for our Masters. But what about breadth requirements? How about physics 101 and the social sciences?” Well I opened up the catalogue and I was like a kid in a candy shop. My interests are very broad and when I saw what was available to me, I realized, on the one hand, how confined I’d been, and on the other, the depth of knowledge I’d acquired in the fields I’d studied at U of T — it was a great privilege to have gained such systematic and deep knowledge of a field.

What took you to the United States?

I met my husband in 1963 and we got married in 1964. People of my generation in those years got married young, many straight out of high school. My husband is an artist and had apprenticed in Toronto with two potters: Roman Bartkiw and Milton Chambers. He discovered he was a painter and wanted to go to the Ontario College of Art, but he couldn’t because he didn’t have a high school diploma — his mother had pulled him out of high school and sent him to work in a factory to pay rent on his room, which was not uncommon in New Zealand, where he grew up. He liked the look of the San Francisco Art Institute, which admitted him on the strength of his portfolio.

I was mortified because I had always revered U of T as the absolute best university in the world and I wanted to get my degree from this university. When I discovered that Max didn’t have the option to study in Toronto, I approached my English professor and asked him, “I’ve applied and been accepted and I want to know if UC Berkeley is going to be a big comedown after U of T.” He looked at me and said, “You’ll be fine.”

It must have been an exciting time to be at Berkeley in the mid-60s.

It was. It was the height of the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the free speech movement — and I don’t recall anything like that in my days at U of T. The Vietnam War — draft dodging — was not Canada’s problem, except, of course, that we received people who objected to the war. I felt like I’d landed on a different planet and I didn’t understand how it could be so: everyone speaks English; they’re my age; it’s North America. How could it be another planet? Someone told me, culture shock. In second year, I figured out where I was.

I’d like to talk about your work at POLIN. The site of the museum in Muranów is quite extraordinary — standing in what was once the heart of Jewish Warsaw, an area that the Nazis turned into the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Tell us about the significance of the museum’s physical context.

I don’t think the museum would have the same impact were it situated anywhere else. It stands on a site of conscience. It demonstrates the power of telling the story in the very place where it happened.

The building itself, which was designed by the Finnish studio of Lahdelma & Mahlamäki, is glass-clad. It is inscribed with tangled Roman and Hebrew characters spelling out the word “Polin” — the Hebrew word for Poland, which, according to legend, means “rest here” in Hebrew. It is a gesture of hope in the face of tragedy. It stands in respectful relation to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, which on one side depicts the Great Deportation of the 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camp in Treblinka in the summer of 1942, and on the other the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943.

The museum completes the memorial complex: we go to the monument to honour those who died by remembering how they died; we come to the museum to honour them by remembering how they lived.

This is a story of a thousand years, which we begin with the travel account written in Arabic by Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, a Sephardic Jew who was sent by the Caliph of Cordoba on a diplomatic mission across Europe in the 10th century. His account is the earliest extant source to describe the Poland of his day. The museum has become a symbol of the new face of Warsaw and just received the 2016 European Museum of the Year Award and the 2016 European Museum Academy Award — the first time in the history of these awards that a museum in Poland has been so recognized.

What did the originators set out to achieve?

Ninety per cent of the 3.3 million Jews living in Poland before the Holocaust were murdered and the world that they created vanished with them. Our mission is to recover that world and to transmit the legacy of the civilization that they created to future generations. The history has been overshadowed, understandably, by the cataclysmic event of the Holocaust. All the more important was it that we help our visitors experience that history in its own terms, without foreshadowing the Holocaust or viewing that history through the lens of the Holocaust. It would be a mistake to reduce the history of Polish Jews to a lesson in intolerance.

We also wanted to offer “a history of Polish Jews,” which we distinguish from “a history of Polish-Jewish relations,” which is the dominant approach in Poland. A history of Polish-Jewish relations is largely a history of antisemitism, and the history of antisemitism is largely a history of Poles not Jews. A history of Polish Jews, in contrast, is a history in which Jews are agents in their own history and not simply objects upon which others project their fantasies and fears. Of course, the relationship of Jews with their neighbours is an important part of that story. Our approach is to present a spectrum of relations: coexistence and conflict, cooperation and competition, separation and integration. At different times and places, one term or the other in the relation was dominant.

What we hope to communicate is that Jews were not only in Poland, but also of Poland. They created a civilization that was “categorically Jewish and distinctly Polish,” to quote the historian Moshe Rosman. In a word, the history of Polish Jews is not a footnote to Polish history but an integral part of it.

As Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, wrote after attending the grand opening in October 2014, “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.”

Where was the original idea for a Jewish museum in Warsaw born?

In 1993, Grażyna Pawlak, who was involved with the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute, a Jewish NGO in Warsaw, attended the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. She thought that if there was a Holocaust museum in Washington, there should be a museum of the history of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

The Association is located in a building that once housed the Central Judaic Library, which was part of the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street, which opened in 1878. The library building is one of the very few structures left standing after the Germans destroyed the Warsaw Ghetto. Today, this building houses the Jewish Historical Institute, which is the custodian of the Emanuel Ringelblum archive, which was formed in secret in the Warsaw ghetto to document everything that happened. This archive, which contains letters, diaries, reports, ration tickets, photographs and much else, has been designated a UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

How did you come to lead the development of the core exhibition?

I first heard that there was the idea of creating such a museum in 2000. Then, in 2002, Michael Steinlauf, an American historian working closely with Jerzy Halbersztadt, who was leading the project, suggested that he be in touch with me. We met in New York City and I was impressed with the project. Soon after, he invited me to spend a week in Warsaw reviewing the project, and then in 2006, after the museum was formally established and the architect chosen, Jerzy invited me to lead the development of the core exhibition. I consider him the visionary behind this project and especially appreciate his efforts to defend the intellectual independence of our work. Thanks to him, the team had the luxury of workshopping the development of the exhibit collaboratively with the designers, Event Communications in London and Nizio Design International in Warsaw. We went through multiple iterations of each gallery before finding the right solution.

The result really shows the value of an international and multidisciplinary approach. The team was made up not only of historians, but also of art historians, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a social psychologist, a philosopher, a philologist, a literary scholar and a performance studies scholar. It was a great dynamic: the scholars wanted to pack in more and more; the designers less and less. It was a steep learning curve. I led by consensus insofar as possible.

How you exhibit the work is as important as what you are exhibiting. You’ve extended the idea of performance to think about the museum and the exhibit.

We’ve created a theatre of history: the story unfolds in 3-D space using every and any material and technique. We realized from the outset that we could not tell the story through objects alone.

Let’s take the reconstruction of the timber-frame roof structure and polychrome ceiling of the lost 17th-century wooden synagogue of Gwoździec as an example. There were once hundreds of wooden synagogues across the length and breadth of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. All of them were destroyed during World War II. We worked with Handshouse Studio, an educational non-profit in Massachusetts whose mission is the recovery of lost objects. They say that you can never recover the original object, in the sense of the original materials, but you can recover the knowledge of how to build it by building it using traditional materials, tools and techniques.

And, that is what we did — with a team of about 300 volunteers and experts during workshops at the folk architecture museum in Sanok and in existing masonry synagogues in towns and cities across Poland: in Rzeszów, Kazimierz (the historic Jewish neighbourhood of Kraków), Wrocław, Gdańsk, Sejny, Kazimierz Dolny, Szczebrzeszyn and Warsaw. So the physical object is the outcome of the process of recovering the knowledge of how to make it.

The learning comes in the making — this is a very tangible transference of knowledge. How did you come to this approach?

I think this is something that I learned in my childhood. My father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, came from Opatów to Toronto in 1934, when he was 17 years old. He was the original DYIer (do it yourself-er). He knew how to make toys out of nothing — a willow twig, paper, string, a button, a hankie, a scrap of rubber or tin. He and his friends played with these toys and threw them away because they could always make them again. I learned how to make these toys from my father and found a way to include them in our core exhibition in the section about growing up in the 1920s and 1930s. I taught our educators how to make them, and now they teach our visitors.

What is the museum’s curatorial strategy?

We wanted to create an open narrative told in multiple voices and to avoid a master narrative. We wanted to be authoritative without being authoritarian. Our approach is predicated on an active learner and pedagogy of inquiry, exploration, discovery and critical thinking.

It was also important to keep our visitors in the historical present of the story and to bring them into intimate contact with those whose story we are telling. This is why we drive the narrative with excerpts from primary sources. These quotations are a way of bringing unique voices from the period into the room.

Most important, we have aimed to create a zone of trust, a safe place for dangerous ideas, a space where our visitors will be better informed and more open to engaging difficult aspects of this history. A colleague with Facing History, an American organization that visited POLIN Museum, questioned our approach: “Are you prepared for visitors to create their own errant narratives?” she asked. Yes, we are willing to take that chance, and we believe that dialogue and debate are a better way to address “errant narratives” than a master narrative.

How would you characterize the gift of the exhibit?

The gift of the exhibit is providing our Polish visitors with a history that they recognize as a history of Poland that is not a history of the nation and the state, our Jewish visitors with perspective on their own history that goes beyond the Holocaust, and our international visitors with an example of how a people can be part of the wider society and also a community in their own right. For Jews living in Poland today, the message is especially important — many of them discovered only recently that their birthparents or grandparents were Jewish. This information was kept secret, in many cases out of fear and shame. POLIN Museum’s message to them is that there is nothing to fear, nothing to be ashamed of and much to be proud of.

What has been the response to the Museum?

I was sitting in my favourite café in Warsaw, and a waitress who recognized me said that her husband has been to the museum more than 20 times. He is a first-grade teacher and brings his pupils there all the time. There are no compulsory school visits, but he comes so often because he loves the museum and knows how to make the visit meaningful and pleasurable for the children.

That said, we are very much focused on lifelong learning, from the smallest children to the elderly. We are also committed to open access for people with disabilities. Each year, Theatre 21, most of whose performers are adults with Down Syndrome (21 refers to the Down Syndrome chromosome), performs at the museum. The director, whose approach to theatre is experimental, has produced deeply moving performances with this group.

Visitor response has been most gratifying. I am always heartened when Jewish visitors say, “There is more to the history of Jews on Polish soil than the Holocaust,” when Polish visitors say, “This is a museum of Polish history,” and when a woman on the cleaning staff comes in one morning after cleaning the exhibition and says, “The exhibit is beautiful. It gives me goosebumps.”