06 May 2015

Warsaw conference to debate the core exhibition at the POLIN Museum – an interview with Antony Polonsky

Category: Conferences, Lectures, XXw, Holocaust, News, Social history, Political history, Cultural history, Memory studies

In Warsaw from 11–14 May, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Jewish Historical Institute organize an international conference to discuss the core exhibition at POLIN, which opened in October 2014, and topics including the role of historians in museums today.

Members of the core-exhibition team, including chief curator Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, will participate along with directors and historians from both institutions and several dozen presenters and commentators from Poland and abroad, for the public sessions at POLIN. The interview below is with Antony Polonsky, chief historian at POLIN, who will chair one conference session and the concluding round-table discussion.  


Alan Lockwood: The core-exhibition team at POLIN has been an international group from its inception. The upcoming conference, "From Ibrahim ibn Yakub to 6 Anielewicz Street,"  is an international conference – session chairs include Igor Kąkolewski of the Centre for Historical Research of the Polish Academy of Science in Berlin, Shaul Stampfer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Francois Guesnet of University College London, with participants from the States including Jonathan Sarna, director of the National Museum of American Jewish History, Jonathan Brent of YIVO and Marci Shore from Yale. What has the scholarly mission of POLIN and its core exhibition been, in terms of models, aims and the museum's position among other historical and cultural institutions?


Antony Polonsky: I think you have to take this in the context of the Polish-Jewish past, something that had been quite well developed before the Second World War. But the murders and deaths of many key figures, and subsequent political problems following the establishment of the unpopular communist regime in Poland, meant that this field was not properly investigated. It only began to be a subject of scholarly discussion in the 1980s, when the series of discussions took place that began in 1983, culminating in the Jerusalem conference in 1989.

From this period to the first decade in the 21st century, a huge amount of detailed research was undertaken. Many people felt that, given the conditions of postmodernism and the move away from the idea of overarching narratives, there was no need for an overarching narrative. The striking thing was that the first decade of the 21st century saw the emergence of an attempt to synthesize all of this material that had been re-studied in the two decades from the 1980s onwards. This led to a number of important developments: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, the two-volume, multi-authored Israeli history of Jews in Poland [The Broken Chain: Polish Jewry through the Ages], my own history of Jews in Russia and Poland [The Jews in Poland and Russia, 3 vols.].

The museum drew on all of this detailed scholarship, but was also part of a process of trying to establish a clear narrative. As I said, there was a time when people said these narratives are imposed on history, they don't actually emerge from it. The museum does reflect the attempt to tell a story, from the presence of the first Jews in Poland – from Ibrahim ibn Yakub, a trader and diplomat, to the present day, with the address of the site of the museum in the conference's title. I think one of the great virtues of the first director of the museum, Jerzy Halbersztadt, and of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the project director now and for a very long period, was that they were from the start very eager to involve scholars in this field on an international basis. I think it's true to say that the museum not only reflects current scholarship, but has also contributed to current scholarship. And I hope it will continue to do that in the future. We are hoping to publish the materials of this conference – it is a reflection on the current state of knowledge.


You will chair the round table "The Historian in the Museum" on 12 May, and for one session, Michael Steinlauf of Graz College has titled his presentation "What's in, what's out: a critique of the interwar gallery." How have historical approaches been taken at POLIN, with the view of the core exhibition's function at a popular institution? What are opportunities and compromises for the historian in the approach that Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett terms a "theater of history"?


— Everybody involved in the project shared certain common goals. First was to avoid apologetics, that is to say, to avoid making things look better than they were, which can be a besetting sin in both Polish and Jewish historiography. Secondly, to avoid trying to write history backwards: nobody who thinks about the history of Jews in Poland can exclude from mind the tragic end of this. But that was not a logical end, and one needs to get away from this teleological view. The third principle is that Jews were an integral part of the larger Polish society – the concept of Polishness is also a rather problematic one in the 18th century, when Polishness was identified with the szlachta, the nobility then ruling social, economic and political structures.

We have stressed the role of Jews in Polish society and the integral nature of Jewish history in the larger Polish context. In this context, we have also tried to show – avoiding apologetics, as I said – both good and bad sides. In terms of making this available, there is a difference in the way a person setting up a museum gallery and a historian operate. I had previously made a documentary film about fascism [Fascism (1980)], and making a film is also a different experience from writing a book. In writing a book, you can qualify everything you say, you can put footnotes in, you can acknowledge some of the people from whom you've taken some of your ideas and polemicize with others. This is not really possible in a museum.

I think what's really good is the way in which Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has conceptualized the museum. I'll give two examples of how she has done certain things, that is different from what a historian would do. Take the fourth gallery, my favorite gallery, the one with the synagogue in the middle. This gallery describes the movement of Jews from royal towns – Kraków, Vilna [Vilnius], Lublin – to towns owned and run by nobility, particularly in central and mostly in eastern Poland. Jews were an important element in these towns. They felt comfortable in them, they had been settled there by the nobility who felt less threatened by them than by the burghers. The nobility had nothing but contempt for anyone who wasn't noble, and Jews are included in this – on the other hand, there was a modus vivendi between them that some have described as a marriage of convenience.

In the center of this gallery, there is the reconstructed wooden synagogue with the painted ceiling. Around it are various aspects of the symbiosis of Jews and the surrounding society – nobles, peasants – in the 18th century. There's a marketplace, in the distance behind the marketplace you see a noble manor, a dwór straight out of Mickiewicz. There's a tavern – I have to say it's a rather clean tavern. There's also a church because there were churches in these towns, both Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic. This is a scene of interaction: interaction between Jews and the Church was more problematic because a number of bishops hoped to use the messianic movement of Jakub Frank to convert a significant number of Jews. There is a Jewish home that describes Jewish ritual and domestic behavior, and the beginnings of new ideas of transforming Jews into citizens, from a religious and cultural community transcending national boundaries. I think it's a very good way of describing in visual terms a complicated situation that in a book you would describe in a different way. The only problem with this is that, although I can describe it, I think we will need people – guides – in these galleries to explain what's happening. 

One success in this context is the interwar gallery, a reconstruction of a key street in the northern district of Warsaw where most Jews lived. Like the tavern, it's a pretty clean version of Nalewki Street. One side describes interaction between Jews and the Polish political scene; the other side, contributions of Jews to Polish cultural life, in Yiddish or Polish, with a little cinema as Jews were active in Polish cinema. You can see the concept very clearly, and I'm excited by the ways these concepts are shown for the general public.

We need now to evaluate, and have been taking questionnaires since the opening of the permanent exhibition in October 2014. We need to get feedback from our audience – from schoolgoers, adults, potential historians – to know how they see it.


The conference occurs along with the opening of POLIN's temporary exhibition "Roman Vishniac: Photography, 1920–1975," the eighth of the museum's temporary exhibitions. How do the core exhibition and these temporary exhibitions interrelate in the functions of the institution? Can the latter be seen as encouragements to visitors to return to the enormous depth that the core exhibition presents?


— Obviously that's one goal of these temporary exhibitions. Another goal is to illuminate certain problems that could not be fully developed in the core exhibition. In the case of Vishniac, there are a number of questions about what he photographed and what he didn't photograph. Our core exhibition's interwar gallery, in addition to the two sides of the street, has upstairs a description of Jewish education and Jewish life in different environments that draws on photography of more modern aspects of Jewish and Polish life. Vishniac, partly because of his commissions, partly because of what he threw out, photographed more traditional aspects of Jewish life, so there is a dialectic between the temporary exhibition and the interwar gallery.

The exhibition of Jews in Polish Legions ["Jew, Pole, Legionary 1914–1920," July–Oct. 2014] had been set alongside the abbreviated account in the core exhibition of Jewish experience during the First World War. I would like to see a temporary exhibition on Jews and the left. I don't think the issues of Jews on the left should be avoided: why Jews were attracted to socialist movements of all sorts, including communist movements, is a question that is valid and should be asked. These are questions that can be dealt with in more detail in temporary exhibitions. I think what's good about the Mahlamäki-designed building is that there's a lot of space, both for educational activities and for temporary exhibitions that show we are thinking about key problems raised by the core exhibition, about which there are no final answers.


For the conference's opening on 11 May, Paweł Śpiewak, director of the Jewish Historical Institute, will speak along with you and Dariusz Stola, director of POLIN. The closing round table on 14 May will then focus on the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI) and POLIN. What is your view of a dual mission between the two institutions, in terms of collaborations and the future?


— A very high priority for the museum has been to establish the closest possible cooperation with the Jewish Historical Institute. For us, close cooperation with JHI is not only natural, but essential. This conference is jointly organized by the museum and JHI, and the executive committee in charge of inviting participants was jointly organized. The two institutions are complementary: we have a large building and a permanent exhibition, they have many artifacts, an archive and a great history. They also have a larger research team – I'm involved in the project organized by Eleanora Bergman from JHI, to publish the Ringelblum Archive papers, which of course are at the Jewish Historical Insitute. Indeed, you can walk from the museum to JHI in ten minutes [the conference includes this walk, on the evening of 12 May]. One goal of the conference is to lay foundations for future joint projects. A thing to always avoid is institutional chauvinism – we don't think we're the only player in this field. We want to cooperate with JHI and other Jewish studies programs in Poland, we want to establish cooperations with other Jewish museums and non-Jewish museums and scholarly activities both in Poland and outside.


"From Ibrahim ibn Yakub to 6 Anielewicz Street" has been organized "to mark the opening of the core exhibition" at POLIN, and the conference includes focused discussions with curators of the exhibition's individual galleries. How can the conference be seen, in your view, in terms of the museum's self assessment, now that it's open to the public and to scholars?


— Through the development process, POLIN has intended to evaluate the exhibition; this has always been part of preparing the exhibition's acceptance by the museum council, which will be meeting the day after the conference, chaired by the director. We'll be looking at the reception of the museum, problems in displaying the galleries in the museum, the selection of guides, and the question of how the exhibition can be modified if conditions require this.


Your birthday will be celebrated as part of the conference, along with the volume The Jewish Metropolis: Essays in Honor of the 75th Birthday of Professor Antony Polonsky. How do you see POLIN and the core exhibition, among your career accomplishments?


— I started as a historian of Poland. In the late 1970s, I was very much involved first in the Committee for the Defense of Workers then in the Solidarity movement. It was then that people first began to say the first Solidarity failed because it had not made adequate reckoning with chauvinistic and anti-Semitic elements in Poland's past. This was not the main reason it failed: General Jaruzelski had an army, Solidarity did not. If one had said in 1983 or 1984, when we held the first of these scholarly conferences, that today we would have this remarkable museum reflecting huge changes in our understanding of the Polish-Jewish past and reflecting also, in its way, the posthumous integration of Jews into Poland – obviously, there are still disputes between the more apologetic and more self-critical elements within the Polish historical profession and in the wider Polish society – but if you'd said that POLIN would happen, I would have said this was a dream that is not realizable. Yet today it's there. Yes, it's the culmination of everything I've been doing these last 30 or 35 years. For me, it's a very great moment and I'm pleased to be part of it.    



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