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Exhibition recreates prewar Polish Jewish life

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Yeshivat Or Chaim Choir led by Cantor Tibor Kovar. They performed “O Canada” at the beginning of the official part, “Ani Ma’amin during the candle lighting and “Elie, Elie” just before the talk.

TORONTO — Toronto-native Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was back in her hometown last week to talk about her latest accomplishment as the program director of the core exhibition for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews – the only museum of its kind in the world.

“Until now, it was only possible to honour those who died by remembering how they died… But now there is another way to honour those who died… by how they lived,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who addressed hundreds of people, some spilling into Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue’s balcony, for Holocaust Education Week’s closing ceremony.

The museum, which stands on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, opened in April on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The museum presents temporary exhibitions, films, debates, workshops, performances, concerts, lectures and more. The opening of the core exhibition, developed by an international team of more than 120 scholars under Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s direction, is scheduled for early 2014.

Born in Canada in 1942 to Polish immigrants, the New York University professor said the interviews she conducted with her father since 1967 about his childhood in Poland contributed to her work on the exhibit.

 “He had an extraordinary memory, and it is thanks to him that I really got a sense of not only what life was like before the Holocaust, but I also heard it from someone who had experienced the loss of his family but had not himself directly experienced the trauma [of the Holocaust]… That was a great gift that he gave me, and together we were able to give the world.”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett complemented her lecture, which coincided with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, with a slideshow and a video that she narrated. It took viewers on a virtual tour of the 43,000-square-foot museum, highlighting its unique architecture and the core exhibition.

She explained how they reconstructed the painted ceiling of a 17th-century wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec, before the Germans destroyed it.

 “We took historical documentation from before World War I, photographs, renderings… and we proceeded to use traditional tools, materials and techniques… and through a series of painting workshops, [an international team of students, historians, architects and artists] painted all the panels of the wooden ceiling.”

The result is a ceiling where every square inch is painted and is reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who urged her audience to come to Poland to experience the museum first hand, said, “Only in Poland could this museum have the power and impact that we hope it will have. We believe the void created by the Holocaust will be felt even more deeply [in Poland], the sense of the magnitude of what was lost, the lives that were lost, the world that was lost.”

In spite of the tremendous loss of three million Polish Jews during the Holocaust, she insisted that Jews are still an integral part of Poland.

“They are not only in Poland, but of Poland. The history of Poland is not complete without a history of Polish Jews, and Polish Jews are not a footnote in Polish history.”

Before Kirshenblatt-Gimblett took to the podium, five Holocaust survivors – Yael Spier Cohen, Martin Maxwell, Alexander Eisen, Miriam Rosenthal and Joseph Gottdenker – took part in a candlelighting ceremony. Peter Jassem, who only learned of his father’s Jewish roots later in life and has since assumed a position as the Polish Jewish Heritage Foundation chair, also lit a candle in honour of the victims of the Holocaust.

Germany’s consul general, Walter Stechel, addressed the gathering about the events leading up to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent systematic persecution of Europe’s Jewish population.

He said the anniversary of Kristallnacht is a reminder that Germany’s history “carries the burden of guilt, but since [the fall of the Berlin Wall in] 1989, we can perhaps hope that this date might one day stand not only for guilt and atonement, but also for redemption, because how can we live without hope for redemption, and what would be the value of redemption without the weight of memory?”  

Since the fall of communism, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, there has been a revival of Jewish life in Poland, and she hopes the museum will contribute to that renewal.

“Generally, Holocaust memorials begin with hate and end with genocide. But the Museum of the History of Polish Jews… begins with a revival of Jews coming from the West, settling in Poland, taking the history all the way to the present. There is a Jewish community in Poland. It is small, but there is a renewal of Jewish life on a small scale. I believe that the museum is going to play an important role in the renewal of Jewish life.”

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