Born in Toronto to Polish émigrés who arrived before the Second World War, academic and author Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is chief curator of the Core Exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Opened in 2014, the 15,000-square metre museum explores Polish Jewry’s 1,000-year history and has quickly become a world-class facility and a top attraction.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who lived in Poland for a decade but is now based in New York, will speak at Toronto’s Adath Israel Congregation on Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m.
What has been the reaction in Poland to the museum?
Since we opened, we’ve had more than 3.5 million visitors and we’re averaging around 600,000 visitors a year. That’s extraordinary. There’s not one Jewish museum outside Israel that has numbers like that, except for the Jewish Museum of Berlin, and I’m not talking about Holocaust museums. I’m not talking about Yad Vashem. Holocaust museums are one thing; museums of Jewish history are something else. So it’s really very extraordinary.
In the off season, our visitors are maybe 70 per cent Polish, 30 per cent international. In season, it could be as high as 50-50. Among our international visitors, approximately half are from Israel and Jews from the Diaspora. We’re servicing between 40,000 and 60,000 students a year.
We also have a museum on wheels that goes to small places all across Poland with a population of less than 50,000 people. These are towns that have no Jews living in them, but once had Jewish communities. They apply and prepare for our museum on wheels to come there, and I think that says a lot. We’re on the list of the top five things to do in Warsaw.
You once called the museum “a bridge across time. It’s the best you can do. You can’t heal the rupture and put the pieces back together, but you can build bridges.” Is it turning into the bridge you envisioned?
I think so. One of the things that’s really important for me is to reconnect Jews around the world to the places where their families came from, and to the legacy of the civilization that Polish Jews created that was abruptly cut short by the Holocaust. That process of reconnection is terribly important, and especially because not only was there this cataclysmic event that brought this incredible 3.5 million-strong community to an end and destroyed the world they created, but the memory of the Holocaust and the moral responsibility to remember it has completely overshadowed that 1,000-year history. When I think of a bridge across time, I mean a bridge that would connect this 1,000-year history and restore it. So being able to recover it and transmit it seems to me to be a bridging gesture.
How do you handle the often negative image Poland and Poles have in the Jewish world? What do you say to Jews who refuse to visit Poland?
The single best way to address the negative views of Poland is to visit Poland. No amount of talking, describing or arguing will have the impact that visiting Poland can have. It’s one thing to be living with stories that you were told, or memories of very bad experiences right after the war, but it’s a completely different story to be in Poland and to meet people.
Of course, there are people here in North America who you would not want to have representing you. And there are people in Poland who would not be representative of the Poland that I love. The biggest issue is generalizing about a whole people. If someone were to say, “Jews do this, Jews do that, Jews will always …” we would be offended. We would say, “How can you generalize? That’s racist.” I think that it does Poland and Polish people a great disservice to speak about them as a monolith and to generalize. I would say, “Come to Poland and experience the best and then let’s talk.”
For those who say they’ll never set foot in Poland, I can give you so many examples of people who said that and then there was a transformative moment. It varies for each person, and it was a difficult decision, but they decided to come. Nobody can be browbeaten into coming. They can’t be dragged, but they have to be given a kind of preparation and an opportunity and an incentive to overcome, which is a very strong barrier to coming to Poland. What’s fascinating is that some of those very people have no problem going to Germany. They say, “Well, the Germans, they know how guilty they are and they keep on dealing with their guilt, but the Poles aren’t dealing with their guilt.” That’s not going to take us anywhere.
I found that when I’ve had the opportunity to present the POLIN museum and what it stands for, it comes as such a total surprise. In a number of cases, people have said to me, “We always said we would never go to Poland,” or, “I always promised my father I would never go to Poland. But now I’m thinking, you know, going to see that museum would be a reason to go.” That’s astonishing.
And of course, there’s an enormous interest in genealogy. There are a lot of people who are motivated to come to Poland because of their interest in exploring their family histories, which then extends to the places where the families lived. That’s best done in Poland, and we help with that. We have a resource centre. We help people do their family histories. We help them find out more about the towns where their families came from.
I think that it’s a process. I like to think that the challenge of not generalizing about Poland is a lesson to be learned for not generalizing about any group of people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity