POLIN Museum of the history of Polish Jews

 This is my third visit to the Museum of the history of the Jews, and the first time it’s been up and running. (For previous visits see here and here.) 

It takes me a while to get through security: I can’t seem to get my camera, my shoulder bag and my person in the right places for screening. When I finally get to the information desk with my 25 PLN at the ready, I discover that Thursday is free day.

There are 8 galleries in the museum to record the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland. I’m very glad I have 11 months to take it all in: I only had enough museum-stamina for the first and second gallery, and an enforced reconnaissance gallop through the remaining six because it was the only way out.

    

Down three flights of grand blond wooden stairs and you come to banks of forest panels with an account of the arrival of early Jews in Poland fading in and out on the screens. 

  
 

As I proceed, I realise yet again something that should not surprise me: complete ignorance is not a good springboard for learning. I find it very hard to navigate my way through all the information and the diversity of exhibition formats. My strategy is to pluck out familiar places – Poznań, Kraków, Warsaw  – and concentrate on their Jewish history, embedded in the histories of kings and the Catholic church. It may well have been easier if I’d gone round the exhibit in the right direction: I obviously need to pay more attention to the arrows on the floor. 

One of the earliest mentions of Poland appears in the writing of 10th century Jewish traveller Ibrahim bin Yakub. He makes it sound like the promised land: “It abounds in food, meat, honey and arable land.” In 1096, a Crusader attack on Jews in Prague led some of them to head for Poland “with their riches.” By the first half of the 13th century, Jewish minters were striking the official ducal currency in Greater Poland. In 1388 the ruler Witold decided “to grant the Jews of our towns a privilege and statute”, and for some time Poland was hospitable to Jewish communities.

The Poznań Jewish community was first documented in the 14th century, although it had earlier roots. By 1500 it was the largest Jewish community in the country, about 600 people.

  

 

In Kraków, Jews were traders, bringing pepper, spices and silk from the east and taking cloth, metal goods, wax, dyes and furs in the opposite direction. Kraków was also a stopping off point for  Jewish cattle dealers.

 
As early as the 13th century, the church wanted Jewish and Christian residences separated but this wasn’t enforced in Poland. Things changed, however. In  1453, Jews in Kraków were terrified by the thought of a visit from the Papal Inquisitor. In 1454, a letter from a Polish Cardinal to the King asked him to “abolish entirely the freedoms accorded to (the enemies of the church) the Jews, and oblige them to wear clothing that distinguishes them from Catholics.” By 1495, Kraków Jews were moved to Kazimierz. 

  

The first mention of Jews in Warsaw is in 1414. The Jewish community then was somewhere between 100 and 150 people, 5% of the town’s population. In 1423 Jews owned ten houses in Warsaw, according to the list of taxes recorded in the Warsaw court book.

 
  
By 1507, according to the coronation tax register of Zygmunt the elder, there were 49 Jewish communities in Poland, the largest in Kraków, Lwów and Poznań.

 

A small side note: The Poruguese explorer Vasco da Gama met a man off the coast of India. His parents were Jews from Poznań. He was baptised and named Gaspar da Gama: his knowledge of India got him a job on commercial expeditions and made him a knight of the court.

In 2016, this museum won the European Museum of the Year award. It’s easy to see why. The presentation is imaginative and varied, although the information is a bit dense for easy absorption. I didn’t master the interactive screens, or quite realise what was on offer, or how to read the exhibits. A virtual tour  of the highlights, watched after my visit, will make my next visit more productive. Having a year here gives me leisure to return and make up the deficits of this first somewhat scatty reconnoitre.
  

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About morselsandscraps

A retired Australian who spends a lot of time in Warsaw, and blogs as a way of life.
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8 Responses to POLIN Museum of the history of Polish Jews

  1. Tish Farrell says:

    Well, very well done for grasping and sharing as much as this, Meg. Clearly there are many fascinating and important stories here. I wouldn’t have been able to cope with all those galleries. Even though for many years I was a museum professional in education and interpretation, I have a great problem absorbing much of the information that is presented in museums, however award-winning. I certainly can’t cope with wodges of text on the wall, or lengthy descriptive labels in cases. And too much interactivity is also very disruptive of the brain waves. One problem I think is designing a museum as a complete entity, which I know scores on grounds of coherency. But this does lead to curatorial tendencies to attempt to cover all angles of a story/stories all at once. I long ago came to the conclusion that instead of being overwhelmingly ‘well-designed’, museums might try a different approach – i.e. for a specific period of time feature only a single artefact, (or related small group) in a gallery, and spin out one vivid story. If you hook people with one good yarn, they are more disposed to follow the thread – either to come back for more, and/or pursue the topic in their own reading. Anyway, this is my theory. It’s good you have plenty of time for repeat visits. Visually, the galleries look fantastic, and I love the town maps. Also these are stories that need to be told, just not sure that this is the right medium. See, I’ve set you an argument now…

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    • You have indeed set me an argument, one that was faint at the back of my mind in the flurry of trying to encapsulate my visit. What would’ve been my ideal? I hadn’t articulated it, but you did for me. I would’ve liked an overview at the entrance to each gallery: “In this period …” And I really like your idea of the single artefact and the vivid story. The problem is a similar one to the “if I had more time I’d write a shorter letter” paradox. It’s illuminating to think back to memorable museum experiences. In the Cairo museum it wasn’t so much the splendour of the then-new Tutankhamen gallery as a sandal and a piece of bread, and a jumble of unsorted mummy cases that caught my imagination. In the immigrants museum in Melbourne it was a suitcase belonging to a travelling salesman that stayed in my mind – the beginning of an emporium empire. In another Warsaw museum it was an exhibition of artefacts excavated from recent road building against a background photo of the landscape. In Kraków it was the preservation of labelled layers of an archaeological dig under the town square. Somehow all of these were single-focus and not too glossified or wordy.

      I love the way blogging gradually uncovers the layers of other bloggers’ life stories. I knew you had an archaeological background, but I didn’t know you’d been a museum professional. Nor did I realise that other people found museums daunting. Thanks for setting my mind ticking over!

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      • Tish Farrell says:

        The artefacts you mention, Meg, are just the kind of things I had in mind. Connections between people past and present are made through an affecting experience, not by being talked at – no matter how well-meaning the exposition. As a child I used to visit the local museum often simply to look at the Bronze Age dug-out canoe. It was wondrous. That and the Roman lady’s hand mirror made from highly polished silver. As to my museum life, I spent a good decade at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum – birthplace of the industrial revolution and world’s first cast iron bridge and all that. Not really my era, but it was interesting, learning a bit about industrial archaeology.

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  2. Lucid Gypsy says:

    What a lot to learn there Meg, best of luck, I predict many hours spent there. Interesting that by 1495 the Jews were being moved out of Krakow.

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  3. Rosemary Barnard says:

    I tried to write something earlier but somehow it was lost before it could be posted. I think that in cases such as this one can very easily feel emotionally overwhelmed by the subject matter, quite apart from the volume of exhibits and accompanying information. So it was for me when visiting Prague’s Jewish Museum and the former Jewish quarter of Josefov, which the Nazis intended as “a museum to a vanished race”. Who would not be moved by the poignancy of children’s drawings of their life in a concentration camp before they were sent to their deaths, retrieved from a buried suitcase after the war? One story repeated many times over.

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    • I’ve only visited the early history, which was mainly positive, although you could see the beginnings of anti- semitism, chief proponent the church. The quick glance at later galleries was heartbreaking. As for children’s drawings, I wonder what’s coming out of our refugees in detention.

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      • Rosemary Barnard says:

        It shocked me to discover how long anti-semitism has been happening in Europe. A case in point is the tiny Jewish cemetery in Josefov, where burials occurred up to eight deep because for centuries they were not permitted to take place anywhere else. Children’s drawings coming out of detention centres for irregular (but perfectly legal) refugee arrivals in Australia have already been published on social media and if anything are even more distressing as they do not show any semblance of a normal life. Both the Warsaw and Prague Jewish Museums will succeed very well if they raise in our minds comparisons with today’s injustices.

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  4. pommepal says:

    What a monumental museum covering such a huge slice of time and history. I would find it very hard to absorb and retain. Impossible to appreciate in one visit so it is a place you will be able to visit through the year and really get to know the history and stories.

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