FJC Grantees Reshaping Polish Jewish Culture
As the first visitors stream into the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which officially opened its doors in downtown Warsaw last week, they are encountering a bigger story than just the Holocaust.
“They’re responding exactly as we hoped for—seeing the Holocaust within the 1,000 year history of Polish Jews,” says Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. A 2008 winner of the FJC’s Jewish Cultural Achievement Award, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is one of the major forces behind the nearly decade-long development of the museum. She directs the museum’s core exhibits, which are expected to open in early 2014.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was chosen to head up the museum’s exhibition team in 2006, just as she was finishing up an illustrated memoir called They Call Me Mayer July. A look at prewar life in the Polish town of Apt, where her father had grown up, that book underscored what was already an entrenched, lifelong fascination with a lost Polish-Jewish world. She is Canadian by birth, has spent much of her professional life in the United States, but she’s lived nearly full-time in Poland for the past half-decade. In 2012, she applied and received Polish citizenship. In many ways, Kirshblatt-Gimblett, or BKG as she’s affectionately known to colleagues, hopes that the museum will prompt visitors—especially American Jews—to think beyond the Holocaust, or to put that event in a larger context. She also hopes the museum will help Jews from all over reflect on a small minority who, despite everything, decided to stay in that country.
“I think the most surprising reaction was how ‘at home’ people felt because this building is really monumental and dramatic,” she says. The nearly $100 million project was designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki.
“Most of all [there’s] the pride of those who attended – these are the people, these are the Jews, who are here, who stayed in Poland, who cast their lot with Poland, who have stayed the course. This museum can be a great source of pride for them, for everyone in Poland, for Jews around the world –for the world. This is a museum that matters,” she says.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is only one of several recent FJC grantees who work challenges popular misconceptions about Polish Jewry. Filmmaker Adam Zucker, whose documentary The Return was awarded a 2011 Kroll film fund, is another.
In this documentary, Zucker follows the journeys of four young Polish women, all of whom discovered in their teens about their Jewish ancestry. In many ways, their evolution of identity mirrors that of many young Poles, particularly those in cosmopolitan settings like Warsaw and Krakow, who are reaching beyond anti-Semitism and communism, who look to the legacy of Polish-Jewish culture for artistic and spiritual inspiration.
Zucker has traveled to Poland over half a dozen times during the shooting of The Return. He thinks there’s still a gap between American Jewish perceptions of Poland and the facts on the ground—a gap his film, like the new museum, hopes to challenge. “I find most American Jews are quite unaware that there are Jews in Poland today. I’m sure it’s changed a bit over the past 15 years, but don’t think it’s a whole lot. Part of the problem is that while American Jews continue to travel to Poland, either as part of youth groups or on their own, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in expanding itineraries beyond a historical tour, which is usually Holocaust-centric.”
Zucker, who also directed the 2007 documentary Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, is hard at work to complete his film as soon as possible. He recently screened a 28-minute shortened version of The Return at the 92nd Street Y for potential funders. And he’s raised about two-thirds of his $45,000 goal via Kickstarter.
For those interested in Polish-Jewish history, the work of two other grantees is particularly pertinent.
In 2007, the Gantz Zahler Grant was awarded to Antony Polonsky, a preeminent scholar of Eastern European Jewry at Brandeis University. Polonsky received the prize for a three-volume history, The Jews in Poland-Lithuania and Russia 1250–1914, published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Polonsky was most recently on the FJC’s academic selection committee for the 2013-14 Doctoral Dissertation fellowship in Jewish studies.
Also, don’t miss Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance after the Holocaust, by filmmakers Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, winner of the 2004 Kroll Film Fund. The documentary traces the encounter between Daum and his two sons, both highly religious Jews living in Jerusalem, and the family that helped to shelter Daum’s parents during the Holocaust. The documentary, which was broadcast on PBS’s Point Of View series, is a fascinating look at questions of the ethical legacy of rescuers and the complexities of Polish and Jewish identities.