On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Betting on Hope

It’s not often that a museum makes history as well as chronicles it, and rare too when otherwise cautious observers, chastened by the repeated experience of expectations gone awry, remark at the opening of a new museum that it may prove a source of hope and pride that propels an entire society forward. Both of those things happened this week in Warsaw, with the opening of Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the stunning museum erected on the site of the ghetto where, 70 years ago, Jewish history seemed to come to an end. I travelled to Poland for the event, as did Reuven Rivlin, the new president of the State of Israel, and hundreds of other Jewish leaders, scholars, and activists from around the world, including several members of the Jewish Theological Seminary family. The occasion was not only moving but portentous. A once-ravaged and much-reduced Jewish community, and a long-suffering country far from innocent in the suffering of its Jews, had come together for a moment, in a joint project of ambition and consequence. The two seemed to be grasping—simultaneously and together—at new life. I wanted to be there to cheer them on.

The museum’s opening has received enormous press coverage, both in Jewish and non-Jewish media. I will therefore say little about the building itself (placid, graceful, light-filled, and dramatic without a hint of pretentiousness) or its creative engagement of visitors through ingenious storytelling, state-of-the-art technology, and—in the galleries devoted to the modern period—utterly riveting photography and film. I went through the 43,000 square-foot core exhibition from start to finish three times, and would happily return to spend entire days in the sections devoted to the shtetl and yeshiva; the inter-war years; and the tragic, ambiguous tale of Jews in post-war Poland, to which the museum has added another chapter. The years of Nazism and the Holocaust are captured with power and restraint, I think, neither overshadowing all that precedes them nor downplaying the magnitude and horror of the Shoah. Anyone who has ever taught a class will marvel at the thoughtfulness and consistent high quality of the museum’s “lesson plans.” Teachers of Jewish history will likely take special note of the pedagogy on view. The museum owns few items from the past: its point is not to preserve and display objects, but to tell a story that it wants its visitors to carry forward.

That objective struck me forcibly again and again. Committed Jews have far more at stake in the telling of Jewish history on this site than mere recital of facts and dates. Poles committed to the rebirth of their country as a liberal democracy in the heart of Europe likewise have much at stake in the recognition that Jews have long played a major role in their history and must be welcomed now if the current experiment is to succeed. Polish Jews perhaps have the most at stake, betting with their lives that their community has a future, despite the recent past of Holocaust and Communism, and in the face of anti-Semitism that has not entirely disappeared. They hope to build on a thousand years of life that was far more than persecution, including centuries of real cultural and economic flowering, as basis for renewed achievement.

I was hard-pressed to remain unmoved by this effort, which speaks through gallery after gallery of the core exhibition, and I doubt that Polish visitors will be able to preserve distance either. The Jews who walked through the museum with me wiped back tears and commented about how much the experience meant to them. Words such as “exhibits” or “galleries,” which connote viewing a spectacle apart from oneself, do not capture the emotion elicited by the place. This is true even as one admires the exquisite craftsmanship in evidence throughout and nowhere more visible than in the already famous reproduction (at 80 percent scale) of the wooden synagogue of Gwozdziec. Its gorgeous colors and zodiac designs held me for long moments. I did not want to move. The museum’s curators have made it the literal centerpiece of the story they tell: halfway point on a march through Jewish history and perhaps a pointer, in a way only time will reveal, to the future of that history.

This is the point at which I want to pause as well. JTS, to my mind, represents a similar commitment to building a vibrant Jewish future by reaching deep, again and again, into the Jewish past. We too disdain mere nostalgia for the past, because rosy pictures of what was allegedly easy and nice will not help us navigate conditions that, like all human conditions, and certainly all Jewish situations, are difficult and complex. We prefer engagement, critical inquiry, conservation, and transformation aimed at giving the past new vitality. Like the new museum in Warsaw, JTS rejects the picture of Jewish history as entirely one of suffering and loss, and has no interest in elegiac approaches that consign Jewish history to a past that makes no claim on you and me, here and now. At JTS we feel that claim and act on it every day. We take the past seriously enough to understand its complexity, challenge its assumptions, and dare to change its rules.

I confess I felt the claim of the Gwozdziec Synagogue and of the house of study attached to it most keenly. (So did JTS Professor David Roskies, who like me sat long in that exhibit and kept returning to it, notebook in hand.) How could we not? The synagogue’s soaring but fragile wooden roof made me feel privileged to serve the same God, and be part of the same people, as the Jews who inhabited the original. I carry their path forward, with a comparable mixture of love, self-concern, anxiety, and imperfection. History is the story of change, of course, and the move from gallery to gallery, and within galleries, drove home the fact of change for me better than any lecture on the subject. No differences are denied at Polin, and no conflicts pampered-over. But these are my ancestors, I kept thinking to myself. My history has been shaped by theirs in ways too numerous to count. By bringing their story to life with such care and quality, the museum had brought those Jews home to me—and me to them. I am grateful for that.

At Tuesday’s opening ceremony, held on the plaza outside the museum, the theme of continuity with the past, along with marked contrast from it, was paramount. The presidents of Israel and Poland together, flanked by a Polish honor guard and numerous members of the Polish and Israeli security forces, laid wreaths at the monument honoring the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto. As if that symbolism were not powerful enough, the Polish president, Bronisław Komorowski, then confronted the horrors of so much Jewish history on his soil and the complicity of Polish bystanders to the Nazi murders, while also paying tribute to Poles who had risked and lost their lives while protecting Jews. He also cited the interdependence of Jewish and Polish cultural achievement over the centuries, and pointed out that only in a free Poland, resolutely committed to democracy, to the West, and to Israel, could this museum have been dreamed or built. (It represents an unusual partnership among private donors and foundations, the government of Poland, and the city of Warsaw.) Marian Turski of Polin’s Museum Council quoted the refrain of Zog Nit Keynmol: Hymn of the Jewish Partisans over and over again: “We are here!” (“Mir zaynen do!”). He himself had survived Auschwitz and then Communism. Now he was presiding over a museum that contained that past—his personal past, his people’s past—inside the larger frames of the thousand years of Jewish life that preceded it and of this ceremony, taking place on the site of the ghetto uprising, with the participation of the president of the reborn State of Israel. Jews and Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, had partnered in mutual hope carefully poured into concrete and glass. Amazing things do happen sometimes.

I too have a personal, though far less substantial, connection to the museum: my friend Tad Taube, a longtime supporter of the Jewish Studies program at Stanford University and now a supporter of JTS, worked and dreamed tirelessly for about 20 years to bring the museum into being. The opening was a personal triumph for Tad, and I wanted to be there with him. But to me the museum seems the fulfillment of another prayer, said by Jews repeatedly during the High Holidays: Zochreinu L’Chaim (Remember Us for Life). Jews address that prayer to God when we recite it in shul. During my three days of visits to the museum, I heard in my head the voices of Polish Jews from centuries past, including those who lived and fought in the ghetto, directing those words at us—and I heard Jews and Poles directing the prayer to one another. So many people have told me over the years that it is folly to invest in the future of Poland or its Jewish community, and many more have told me that it is folly to invest in the future of non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism in America. Wrong on both counts, I believe. We Jews remember for life, live through memory, and—at our best, with God’s help—transmute memory into life. We bet repeatedly on a future that breaks with, as well as continues the past, and sometimes that bet succeeds.

Tuesday’s gathering in Warsaw gave voice to a silent resolve to give hope a chance once more.

9 Comments

  1. Jack Berger says:

    If after five hundred years, Jews have not returned to the Iberian Peninsula, why should anyone harbor illusionas that Jewish life can be restored to a place where the greatest mass murder of Jewish people in all of history took place?

    I would not think twice about giving hope another chance; it is a waste of time, and energy that could be better applied to strengthen Jewish life in places where it has proven to be welcome.

    It is the voice of a Holocaust survivor, who, upon returning to Poland after the liberation, and discovering the extent of the catastrophe, said of his native country: ‘Dos erd brennt mir unter die fiss.”

    He then got the hell out of there as fast as he could manage.

    Others would do well to emulate that initiative.

  2. Wendy Jacobs says:

    Thank you for the link to this superior essay.

  3. Elzbieta Tracewicz says:

    Great text! Several sentences in the text have moved me as so much true. They also represent my way of thinking. With pleasure, I noticed the sentence: “Jews and Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, had partnered in mutual hope carefully poured into concrete and glass. Amazing things do happen sometimes”. I have been waiting for the day in Poland, when all Poles will admit that all “Jewish and non-Jewish Poles” constitute the same nation; and antisemitism, and anti-Judaism will disappear from Poland for ever. It is painful to know that there is no way to turn the clock back, to prevent Holocaust from happening. It is painful to know that the great, 1000 years old culture of Polish Jews, cannot be revived in the form that it had in 1939. And that those people lost their lives and can not enjoy the present time. There is future for Jews in Poland, a bright future, I believe.

    I hope I will have a chance t visit the museum soon.

  4. Barbara Jolson Blumenthal says:

    From: Barbara Blumenthal
    Date: October 29, 2014 at 12:30:47 PM GMT+1
    To: Barbara Jolson Blumenthal
    Subject: Thoughts from Warsaw

    It has been quite an interesting few days,
    As you might know I am here in Warsaw. I tried to coordinate my trip with the opening of the new museum of the History of the Polish Jews.
    Over the past few years I have made some wonderful friends here as well as with Rabbi Schudrich, so I was able to partake in the festivities from a VIP position. It’s been very interesting and exciting.
    My first evening here I organized, with the help of my dear friend Etel, a dinner for some of the tenants in the building at #4 Kopernika street. I continue to work at this project of renovating the hiding place in an apartment my parents hid in during the war. As most things in Poland it has not been easy. I am at the point now where the previous resident of the apartment has been evicted and prosecuted for the damages he made to this previously designated historical site. I have been granted, by the city, the right to restore the hiding place to its original state. ( I have detailed pictures taken by my father) and I now have the key! But I do not have the right YET to make this apartment an historical exhibit. Apparently I need a certain consensus from the tenants in the building……this is not an easy process …but I am a patient person. We met with some of the tenants and had a lovely friendly dinner. I was able to express to them the importance of this apartment. That they should feel privileged to live in such a building that is an example of the cooperation of non Jewish Poles saving a Jewish family. There is so little left in Poland that exemplifies this and in fact this cooperation is what they are trying to show in the museum. The buzz words now in Poland are” there is no Polish culture with out the Jews and the Jewish culture is forever tied to the history of Poland”. These were the words expressed by the President of Warsaw and the minister of culture, Sunday night at a commemorative concert presented at the Warsaw opera house! Quite a strong statement! I have no doubt that ultimately I will be successful …..I have the support of many important officials as well as the museum. The government could not allow the loss of this important site which is the only known one still in existence.
    It is so strange…I have this uncanny tie to this city…..I was here first in 1977 with both my parents and my sister Dorothy. My parents loved Warsaw. They were real city people. Maybe that is why they loved New York so much!
    When I come to Warsaw I try to visit the synagogue. It is the one my fathers family frequented before the war. This week there was a celebration for the naming of a Jewish baby being born in Warsaw!! How exciting! What a celebration! To watch a baby being named in a Shul that was destroyed, in a place that was destroyed , to a people who were ALMOST DESTROYED! But as I stood in the balcony of this reconstructed old synagogue and they lifted the Torah and sang my heart spilled over with joy…..because we were NOT DESTROYED! That sence of tradition, belonging and being a Jew is so strong we can’t and won’t ever let it die! Just watching from above the men singing “Siman Tov Mazel Tov” brought tears to my eyes! And I am so proud to consider myself a friend of Rabbi Schudrich who singlehandedly breathed life into this corps of a community !
    On Sunday the museum was opened to the Jewish organizations and the local Jewish community. There were hundreds of people ….I must say it felt good to be surrounded by ” my people” ! As I listened to the chatter around I could almost hear my parents speaking with their friends! The language is so familiar to me….even though I don’t understand every word, I seem to understand the general conversation…..it feels like it is all part of me.
    I had the opportunity to roam the museum. It is not really a museum filled with artifacts, although there are many to be seen. But rather a museum that tries to tell a story of 1000 years of Jewish and Polish history and how it is intertwined . It was all very interesting and wonderfully displayed much of it interactive. But I must admit that the portion dealing with the Jews in Poland from the early 1900’s till the Holocaust was of the greatest interest to me. I wanted to see how my parents lived , the streets, the houses, the schools,the people. At each turn as I looked at pictures of groups of people…..I looked for my mother! I have a few pictures of her as a young girl…..but I have never seen a picture of my father under 30! I checked out papers and many scenes…. Nothing. But it gave me a glimpse into what it was like to be young ,Jewish and live in what was thought to be one of the greatest of Jewish cities, Warsaw,
    I moved rather quickly through the Holocaust portion; after visiting Yad Vashem and and many Holocaust museums I knew that this portion would be somewhat sanitized. It was done well but it certainly wasn’t handled in a manner that gave a visceral feeling.
    This is a museum that should be on everyone’s list who is interested in their Jewish heritage. It is not a place for a fast hour but rather a place to be visited more then once and it is important to allow time , since the amount of information is amazing. On Tuesday at the official opening for VIP’s the President of Poland as well as the President of Israel attended and once again they reiterated the bond between Polish and Jewish History in Poland. This concept is not new to me. My parents spoke to me about what Jewish life was like in Warsaw before the war. It was somewhat similar to New York but even more so.!! Jews and Jewish life was all over, intertwined with the everyday secular life. One of the dignitaries who spoke, Marian Turski,the chairman of the Council of the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, kept repeating in his speech ” we are still here” . And it is overwhelmingly true….THE JEWS ARE STILL HERE. WE WERE BROKEN, AND MAYBE STILL ARE, BUT WE ARE STILL HERE!
    During my stay I also filmed a video piece in the apartment at Kopernika street. My plan is to have a video diary as we progress in the renovation of the space. I also hope to post the video on u-tube to promote some interest in the project. What a feeling it was to actually stand in that small closet space and imagine how my parents felt wondering if the soldiers standing just on the other side of the closet might find it and them!!
    I will be back in Warsaw soon. I am pleased that I have a project to work on here. It gives me a purpose, a focus. It allows me to explore my roots . And when I am successful in completing my project of making #4 Kopernika a historical exhibit, I will truly feel fulfilled.

    Sent from my iPad

  5. Remarkable article, Arnie.

    Like the museum, perfectly restrained in the beauty of its expression, overflowing with meaning, and resplendent with the vibrant life at the core of Jewish destiny.

  6. Laurie Heymont Weinberg says:

    The museum and this post represent the triumph and survival of the Jewish people. Thank you –

  7. Benjamin Lapkin says:

    May the Memory of the Polish Jews be a blessing to all of us.

  8. Elsa Solender says:

    Thank you for your eloquent and moving account of the opening of the core exhibition of POLIN, which brilliantly rewards the commitment of those who stayed with the project from the time it was only a dream for a drab field on the site of the destroyed Warsaw Ghetto to its highly successful opening festivities last week. It has been an honor for my husband, Stephen Solender, and myself to support the project for over a decade and help celebrate its success. Two New Yorkers, Victor Markovicz and Sigmund Rolat, along with Tad Taube, are credited by the museum as Founding Donors and also deserve prominent mention for their vision and generosity. American visitors will discover an excellent English language audio-guide and equally good signage to enhance their museum experience . The museum director assures us that the last incomplete gallery — on contemporary developments — will soon be operative. Thank you for encouraging visits to Poland to learn how Jews lived for a thousand years as well as how they perished under German Nazi brutality and the indifference of all too many other nations and peoples.

  9. Juan Miguel says:

    Thanks for share this interesting post about The Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

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