Polin Jewish Museum, Warsaw

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May 31st 2018
Published: May 31st 2018
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This new museum, opened in 2013, is beside the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.

The museum is a glass box penetrated by a atrium tunnel by which you enter a story-line corridor telling the History of the Polish Jews. This stunning ‘core exhibition’ opened in 2014.

We arrived yesterday just after ten in the morning and stayed until round 4 o’clock, and felt exhausted and that we had only tickled the surface of what is to be learnt.

A bit like a trip to IKEA, the trail meanders snake-like through themed rooms, and an audio guide keeps you focussed. Then the lighting, projections, sound and design of the exhibition entice you to investigate a wealth of detail and to interact with touch screens.

Polin, means ‘settle here’ in Hebrew some say giving Poland its name. It was for centuries the best place in Europe for the Jews. They arrived via Spain as traders and began to settle in the 12C soon recruited by kings and nobles to help improve the economy of the country. They were offered a good deal of autonomy, allowed to live their social and religious lives according to their customs and beliefs.

Their success extended east to Lithuania and continued so long as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lasted, till the partitions of the country in the late 18th century.

But in 1795 after three partitions and a century of wars with Cossacks, Swedes, Ottomans, the nature of Poland changed and the tolerance of Jews in the Austro Prussian Empire soured, with imposed disintegration in society.

We headed to the museum restaurant around 1.30pm, realising that we needed a break. Excellent hummus falafel, tahini, pickled lemons and a choice of four salads from a salad bar, on a pitta flatbread!

The continuing exhibition portrayed the 19C as the time when Jewishness broadened, and this is explored in the run up to 1st and 2nd world wars. From Hasidic Jews, whose dress, customs and beliefs arose earlier in Ukraine but spread to become a large force in Poland in the 1800s ……… to fully assimilated secular Jews who did not attend the synagogue, some of whom were active members of the avant garde where creativity, debate and response to the modern industrial world and all its invention.

The grimness of anti-semiticism, and the holocaust is well treated, not softening the awfulness of WWll transportation of Jews to death camps by any less detail than previous Jewish museums we’ve been to.

But by the understanding of this period and its place in history given by Polin’s thorough treatment of a Millennium of European Judaism, the shame of the atrocities seems even greater.

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