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.