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.