A museum built on a cemetery
The museum is located in Muranów in the heart of Warsaw, on the symbolic site of the former ghetto. As over 80% of the city was destroyed during the 1944 uprising, almost nothing remains of the Jewish district that was home to 40% of Warsaw’s population before the war. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish writer and Nobel literature prize winner in 1978, lived here and his description of a vibrant, thriving community is difficult to reconcile with what remains today.
The district, built over the ruins and corpses in the socialist style prevalent in the 1950’s, is comprised of bland, 5-6 storey buildings set around a vast square, park and sports facilities. The museum stands, like a cube of cut glass, in the heart of the square, with the word “Polin” in Hebrew and Latin engraved on its surface. The work of Finnish architect, Rainer Mahlamäki, the minimalist structure is split in two by a giant gorge, officially symbolising the Biblical tale of the Red Sea Crossing. However, many visitors seem to interpret this huge crack as a historical metaphor for the Shoah.
A museum called "Polin"
The Polin Museum, devoted to 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, features an interactive exhibition that conjures up everyday scenes and atmospheres from the past using multimedia tools. As a result, there are few authentic exhibits, books or documents.
The mystery surrounding the museum’s name is revealed at the entrance to the exhibition and related to a legend. In the 10th century, while the Jewish people were crossing the immense forests of Poland, fleeing persecution in Western Europe, they heard the sound of birds chirping “polin”, which means “Poland” and “Here you will rest” in Hebrew. This divine command ordered the Jews to settle in Poland and await the coming of the Messiah.
A few dates…
In 1264, the Jewish community of Kalisz was the first to receive a privileged status, granting them the freedom of worship, permission to trade and lend money and ducal protection by the Charter of Kalisz. This enviable status was one of the most favourable towards Jews in Medieval Europe.
As a result, between 1569 and 1648, the Polish Jews experienced a Golden Age under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which encompassed modern day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and a few Russian regions. At this time, Poland was the most tolerant European country and the Jewish community thrived as a result, with some 750,000 people living in over 1,100 communities.
This period of prosperity ended in 1648-49 in the wake of the Khmelnytsky uprising by the Cossacks who slaughtered the Polish aristocracy and the Jews, whom they held responsible for the peasants’ poverty. Depending on the source, between 60 and 100,000 Jews died during this event.
If we now take a leap forwards in time, in 1939, Poland was home to 3.3 million Jews – 90% of whom had been assassinated by the end of the war. Today 8,000 people of Jewish descent out of a total population of 39 million still live in Poland.
Vestiges of the jewish neighourhoods
In the wake of a visit to the museum, it is particularly moving to search for traces of this history in the city today. They are of course infinitesimal, yet this may be precisely what makes them even more poignant. On Grzybowski Square, where the Singer Festival of Jewish culture takes place every year in summertime, stands the Jewish Theatre and a little further away, hidden by buildings, is Nożyk synagogue (20th century), the only one still standing in Poland.
A few streets from Polin Museum, Umschlagplatz (which literally means collection or loading point) is the name of the square in the ghetto from which the convoys left for Treblinka. A short car journey will take you to Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, the largest in Europe with 200,000 graves, further illustrating the size of this community before the war. Frequently packed with visitors from all over the world, it is strangely poetic and paradoxically one of the liveliest testimonials to this bygone era.
Just west of the Palace of Culture, the last two remaining fragments of the ghetto wall are preserved at 55 Sienna Street. Venture into the inner courtyard to see these remnants encased in the apartment blocks. Like the visible part of an iceberg, this hidden page of history suddenly rises up to confront our modern world.
Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Anielewicza 6 - 00-157 Warsaw
Subway : Ratusz Arsenał
Tramway : station Anielewicza, lines 1, 17, 33, 41
Bus: station Nalewki – Muzeum, lines 111, 180
Audioguides in english
Bus : station Plac Grzybowski, lines 102, 105, 160, 174
Tramway : station Stawki, lines 1, 17, 31, 33, 37, 4
The Jewish cemetery
Street Okopowa 49/51
Tramway : station Cmentarz. Żydowski, lines: 1, 22, 26, 27, 28, 41
Fragment of Ghetto Wall
62 street Złota / 53-55 street Sienna
Tramway : station Rondo ONZ, lines : 1, 10, 17, 31, 33, 41