My second visit to Polin: Museum of the history of Polish Jews takes place just after the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and both the uprising memorial and the statue of Jan Karski are covered in flowers. ..
I am intrigued by the panels on the outside of the building, and finally investigate, discovering that they are made of glass fins and copper mesh, with the word “Polin” silk screened in Latin and Hebrew. In Hebrew Polin means either Poland, or “rest here”, an allusion to a legend associated with the first settlement of Jews in Poland.
The museum is a bit less daunting this time. I now have an overview of galleries and the way things are organised. I’ve watched a few brief videos of highlights to orient me further. I notice titles for each gallery, something I missed the first time; I follow the floor arrows; I master the touchscreens – a gentle touch, rather than a determined poke produces results; I have headspace to appreciate the many modes of presentation.
Gallery 3 is called Paradisus Iudaeorum or Jewish Paradise and covers the period from 1569 to 1648, still a time of relative harmony between Jews and other communities. Although the words “Jewish Paradise” are used ironically in lampoons of the period, suggesting that the Jews had it too good, this didn’t diminish Jewish rights to organise their own communities, practise their religion, earn a living and live in peace. In 1573 the Act of the Warsaw Confederation ordered that the “peace be kept between people of different faiths and liturgy”, the most tolerant position in Europe at the time, although Jews and Muslims were already protected by their own privileges. 200 delegates attached their seals to this act.
The highlight of Gallery 3 is a model of Kraków and Kazimierz, little buildings in white a bit like monopoly houses. On the edge of this model are interactive screens that enable you to trace Jewish-Christian relations, key Jewish figures, synagogues: choose a synagogue, choose a person and you get an image and a profile.
A whole wall of this gallery is taken up with a reproduction of a panorama of Gdańsk from a 1575 atlas by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg called Cities of the world. Gdańsk was the richest town in the Polish-Lithuanian empire and although Jews weren’t allowed to live there they visited as merchants and commercial agents. So many Jews transported grain and timber down the Wisła that Christian captains sometimes suspended unloading on Jewish sabbath and festivals.
The golden age for the Jews in Poland ended with the pogroms during the Cossack uprising, which also involved the massacre of Catholic clergy.
Gallery 4 is called the Jewish Town and covers the period from 1648-1772. As you enter it you get a view-in-motion of the landscape, projected onto a vast wall. Here are two clips from that landscape.
Then there are reproductions of paintings, one of a group of people in the street. Again thanks to the technology of projection, passers-by walk across the scene.
Sometimes a story is embedded in line drawings on the wall.
Glass cases contain Jewish artefacts from Poland – candlesticks, a Hanukkah lamp and a cemetery padlock (which is placed on the skull, pelvis or mouth to seal the dead and death in the grave, especially in times of plague.)
However the centrepiece of this gallery is the painted wooden synagogue, a meticulous reconstruction of a synagogue in Gwoździec, destroyed in World War 1 and recreated for the museum.