Third visit to Polin Museum of the history of Polish Jews

I was inadvertently wise beginning my visits to this museum before excursion time. Last week, it was thronging with school groups who filled the narrow corridors of the later galleries and made it both claustrophobic and hard to move. If I understood their guide’s commentary my feelings may have been different. 

This visit I combine with a visit to the Frank Stella exhibition so I only attempt one gallery.

And a difficult gallery it is. When I scramble around in my head looking for a theme, two emerge: in this period, the  golden age for Jews in Poland shows signs of ending; and the Jews are dealing with questions of identity – can we be both Poles and Jews? Which are we foremost?

An early sign of problems to come for the Jews is the emperor of Austria’s Edict of Toleration in 1789, the aim of which is to “eliminate the social and cultural practices that differentiate Jews”: Jews must take surnames, have a secular education, serve in the army, just like Christians. The payoff? They can live in cities and join guilds. 

In 1853, laws move on to attack dress. Women are forbidden binde, turbans, Jewish style dresses, colourful slippers. Men are forbidden the long silk kapote with satin threads, the fur cap, the yarmulke, short trousers, flat boots. A rotating panel in Gallery 5 shows Jewish dress on one side, and permitted garb on the other. 

In the 1860s the Polish-Jewish Brotherhood is keen to preserve the Jewish faith, but its members also want to be, culturally and nationally, Poles. In 1878 in Warsaw when a spectacular synagogue is opened in Tłomackie Street, the preacher hopes “that the ceremony will become a signal for mutual harmony and love, and that Jews, after accepting the benefits of civilisation and enlightenment, would merge with the community among whom they live into a single whole;  in this way they would work together for the common good with the children of the one mother, Poland, who would be willing to accept them as equal with her other children.” So reports the Warsaw Courier.

In 1883 the first anti-Semitic magazine in Poland begins publication. In 1900 when  Jews in Chojnice are accused of ritual murder, there is a major outbreak of anti semitism, a localised indicator of the end of “harmonious coexistence.”

Exhibits representing everyday life are easier to get a handle on: cardboard figures depict a Jewish wedding; a Jewish band playing “a melancholy march” accompanying the wedding procession; a brustukh, which is that rectangular apron tied around the neck of traditionally dressed Jewish women;  a decorated walking stick such as Hasidic leaders carried, often with an amulet in the head of the cane.

The centrepiece of Gallery 5 is the round room imitating a railway station waiting room (shown in the first photo in this post), a circular bench with red plush cushioning in the middle, and annotated figures of travellers standing around: merchants, travelling salesman of the textile industry, young women wanting to escape the smallness of their home town.

There is a whole room devoted to the textile industry in Łódź. This is like meeting an old acquaintance in the middle of a crowd of strangers. I watch the documentary avidly. I note the fact that Jews were often not employed by Jewish factory owners for two reasons: the factory owners couldn’t afford work stoppages for the Jewish sabbath as well as the Catholic one; and  Jewish workers were too demanding. Poznański was reported as saying “I need 6000 workers, not 6000 partners.”

In Łódź too there is  a small indication of the contribution made by Jews to the health and welfare of workers. Towards the end of the century, Seweryn Sterling opened the first ward for sufferers of TB in Poland.

This post has been torture to write. Next time I visit, I think I’ll take advantage of a guided tour by headphone, and see if this makes it easier to navigate my way though complexities.

Footnote: I mentioned last year after my walking tour of Praga the “I miss you Jew” campaign.  A few days ago, the slogan was painted on a wall near the Warsaw University library. It was left unfinished when the paint ran out, and Legia football fans came at night and completed it.

About morselsandscraps

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

  1. Rosemary Barnard says:

    I don’t know about Poland, but in Bohemia the new Austrian Emperor Franz Josef was considered enlightened in his treatment of the Jews compared with his mother the Empress Maria Theresa who had been responsible for ordering pogroms and various other restrictions such as a prohibition on marriage for all males except the eldest son of each family. So there was a lot of movement by Jews to more tolerant parts of Europe, such as the Netherlands, during her reign. It is interesting that the old Jewish quarter of Prague is still known as Josefov, after the Emperor Franz Josef. Yes, I am always banging on about the Jews of Prague, but that is because I am a direct descendant of two of them who left Prague during the 1780’s. I really enjoy this blog as my own family history has given me a special interest in the history of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just lost my reply, dammit! See if I can remember what I said!

      Pogroms don’t seem to feature in this history, unless I’ve missed something, which is always possible, although there was certainly anti-Semitic feeling. On a number of occasions Poland, or whatever it was at the time, seemed to feature as a refuge for Jews suffering elsewhere. I suspect you’d make more sense of this museum than I’m managing to do, and I don’t even claim to have represented what it says truly.

      Were your mother and father aware of this part of family history?


      • Rosemary Barnard says:

        It was never spoken of when I was young. Sadly, even then, it wasn’t the done thing to have a Jewish ancestor, any more than an Irish, Catholic, convict one, and I had one of each in my paternal great-grandparents. I don’t think I knew anything until I was in my late teens, at which stage it was something only of incidental interest, though Jewish friends were certainly intrigued. I only found out the details in the last ten years or so when I began researching family history, starting with birth, death and marriage records where I could discover them. I had no idea about Prague until I explored what had to offer, and then it all began to make sense, my (non-Jewish) paternal grandmother’s record about grandfather’s great-grandparents having come to England “from Austria as refugees from political persecution”. Of course “Austria” was close enough in her mind to the Austro-Hungarian realm of which Bohemia was a part . The names she gave matched family details recorded in the death certificates issued in Victoria during the 1880’s and the 1851 UK Census records. While I now feel I know a great deal about this branch of my family, I have not been able to follow the Australian story of those family members who did not marry out of their faith, as my great-grandfather and at least one of his brothers did. The younger generation is fascinated. Actually, Meg, your journey through the history of the Jews in Poland might also tell a part of the history of my family if Poland was a temporary refuge on their way to England.


  2. restlessjo says:

    This museum reminds me a little of the Oskar Schindler museum in Krakow, Meg. Maybe because it’s the story of the ghetto there it’s more easy to follow, but harrowing if you let it be. The Jews didn’t, and still don’t seem to, make it easy for themselves. The traditions and taboos have a logic that makes little sense to me but is strangely compelling. And we really, in Europe, don’t like anyone to be too different, do we? Sadly!
    I love your happy ending though! What a great story that is 🙂 Monday hugs, sweetheart!


    • I haven’t even got to the ghetto yet, but things are moving on towards horror. You’re right about not liking difference – a human trait, not just a European one. I wonder if things are made hard for Jews, not so much by themselves as by their success. They always seem to have drawn persecution to them. I know that Poland is poorer for their loss here in so many ways, although countries like Australia have benefited massively from the diaspora. It’s a pretty mono cultural country here I think. The scope of this museum is vast, both its benefit and its failing. Schindler should go on my list.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lucid Gypsy says:

    This makes me realise what a massive knowledge gap I have Meg. There’s so much to learn isn’t there and, never enough time to satisfy the hunger for knowledge.


  4. Suzanne says:

    My earliest known ancestor on my father’s side was called Isaac Sida. He came from Poland to England in the 1640s. In England he became known as Isaac Strange because he, like many Polish refugees who came to England at that time, was considered to be very strange (because of dress and language I imagine). His name suggests he was a Jewish and the date suggests he was fleeing persecution in Poland. In England he married an English woman and became a member of the Church of England so the Jewish line was lost – or so the story goes according to the family genealogist.


    • I’m very interested in the story of your ancestor, especially mention of persecution in Poland. The narrative in the museum seems to suggest that Poland was quite welcoming of Jews and that it was a sanctuary for Jews from elsewhere. I love the existence of counter-stories: they challenge easy belief in any story-line.


      • Suzanne says:

        Years ago I read the novel Exodus by (forget Christian name) Uris. From memory it tells of the story of Jewish pogroms in Poland from the 1600s.


        • You’ve got me investigating. I found this

          Because the threat of persecution and expulsion constantly hung over their heads, beginning in the thirteenth century large segments of the Jewish population moved farther to the east. The Polish kings encouraged the settlement of Jews and guaranteed their security and economic privileges. The Jews soon became indispensable for the Polish economy, mediating as traders and brokers between town and country. The Polish nobility came to prefer leaving the administration of their property to Jews, which dragged the latter into conflicts between nobility and peasantry. In 1648 these tensions finally resulted in a pogrom of hitherto unseen magnitude, when Ukrainian peasants joined with Cossacks, Russian cavalry, led by Hetman Bogdan Chmelnicki (1595–1657) and attacked Polish cities. As many as 125, 000 Jews fell victim during these massacres. As a rule the Jews could not count on the support of their Polish neighbors, and it took decades for the Jewish communities to rebuild.

          Source: International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences | 2008
          COPYRIGHT 2008 Thomson Gale. This was online.

          This would be the period when your ancestors left, I think. Thank you for broadening my sense of history.


          • Suzanne says:

            That’s fascinating. My ancestor must have fled to England because of this persecution for he appears on a census in the 1650s. I really enjoy talking about this ancestor of mine for it is example of the idea that if your dig deep enough we can all find refugees within our own families.


            • Rosemary Barnard says:

              I was very surprised to learn that it was Oliver Cromwell who tacitly encouraged Jews to come to England, purely for pragmatic reasons like their ability to pay large taxes from incomes acquired through hard work. The 17th century marked a reversal of the bans on Jews enacted in the 12th or 13th century when they were all expelled from England by order of the monarch. Many of those fleeing Eastern Europe came to England via Amsterdam.

              Liked by 1 person

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