The effect of philanthropy is often tangible years after a gift was made. For this series, Arts & Science spoke with some of our internationally-based alumni, one of whom was invited to deliver a lecture at a centre made possible by philanthropy, and the others who, as students, had benefited from donor-funded scholarships.
Interview by Diana Kuprel
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who studied English at the University of Toronto, is the program director of the core exhibition for POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in Warsaw in 2014. In 2016, POLIN was awarded the European Museum of the Year Award and the European Museum Academy Award. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett delivered a special lecture at the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies.
DK: The site of POLIN 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.
BKG: 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 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. The museum has become a symbol of the new face of Warsaw.
DK: What did the originators set out to achieve?
BKG: Ninety percent 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. What we hope to communicate is that Jews were not only in Poland, but also of Poland. 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.”
DK: What is the museum’s curatorial strategy?
BKG: 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.
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.
DK: What has been the response to the Museum?
BKG: 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 and says, “The exhibit is beautiful. It gives me goosebumps.”
Photo: Jackie Shapiro