I’ve followed the development of this museum, which opened its doors in April but minus its core exhibition, since the mid-1990s, when the idea of such a museum was first broached, and I’ve written about it on various occasions — including a JTA piece when the building opened.
Since the core exhibition won’t be open to the public until probably next fall, I focused my Hadassah piece on the broader context of the museum: how it fits into Poland's developing museum landscape; how it fits within the context of the search for national and individual identity.
The museum is not an isolated institution, nor is its mission totally unique. Though its scope and prominence far surpass other initiatives, it is representative of a new crop of Jewish exhibits and venues that focus not on static displays of Judaica and not on the Shoah but on the living Jewish world that was destroyed.
This trend has been exemplified most recently by the new permanent installation “Shoah,” curated by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and opened in the Block 27 barracks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This, like “Letters to Afar,” employs a variety of prewar film clips showing Jews carrying out all sorts of activities. Its soundtrack merges spritely music with sounds of celebrations, street life and snippets of conversation.
Nearby, in Oswiecim, the town where the Auschwitz camp was built, a small museum at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, located in the town’s one surviving synagogue, presents prewar Jewish life in a town that before the Holocaust had a predominantly Jewish population. “No one knows that there were Jews here before the war—they only know the death camp,” noted Shlomi Shaked, a volunteer at the center. His mother, born in Oswiecim in 1949 and a resident there until her family immigrated to Israel in 1962, is featured in the exhibit. “I think people who visit Auschwitz should come here first to see the life before they visit the camp,” he said.
A new Jewish museum housed in a restored synagogue in the small town of Chmielnik, north of Krakow, also showcases prewar Jewish life: After all, noted local historian Piotr Krawczyk, before the Holocaust, 80 percent of Chmielnik’s population was Jewish. That means, “local history is Jewish history,” he said.
One of the key roles of the Warsaw museum will be to support local initiatives. “Until our museum was established there were no proper models in Poland for what to do,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “We can open a new perspective on how Jewish history and heritage can be presented to the public.”