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The Warsaw Voice » Society » September 29, 2014
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Museum of a Thousand-Year History
September 29, 2014   
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Prof. Dariusz Stola, director of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Marcin Mierzejewski.

When did Jews become part of Poland’s history?

The beginnings of Poland as a state are lost in the mists of time. It is symbolic that the first document mentioning the Polish state was drawn up by a Jew. Every schoolchild in Poland learns about Ibrahim Ibn Yakub, a Jewish merchant from Cordoba in Spain. His king sent him on a kind of reconnaissance or diplomatic mission to Slavic lands, from which he wrote reports. The medieval gallery of our exhibition features extensive quotes from those reports, which he actually wrote in Arabic. This means we have this absolutely fantastic story of a Jew traveling across Europe and becoming the first person to mention Poland’s Prince Mieszko, the ruler of a cold and snowy country.

Ibrahim Ibn Yakub came from Spain and was a Sephardic Jew. Meanwhile, the Jewish settlers in early Poland were Ashkenazi Jews. How did they end up here?

We don’t really know very much about the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Poland. Hardly any documents exist. That’s why we begin our narrative by citing legends, because those have survived. For example, there’s a wonderful legend that was recorded in Yiddish in the late 19th century, about how Jews persecuted in Western Europe fled eastwards, and when they arrived at a forest in Poland they heard a voice from heaven saying “Polin,” which means “you will rest here” in Hebrew. As a historian, I suspect they may have misheard the Polish word Polanie, used to describe one of the tribes living in what later became the Polish state, but that’s how it stayed and to this day Polin is the Jewish name for Poland. These legends are the focus of the first gallery of our museum’s permanent exhibition, the Forest Gallery.

Thus, we don’t know exactly where the first Jewish settlers came from. There are several theories on this. We know that those who ultimately settled in Poland were Ashkenazi Jews from Western and Central Europe who spoke a variation of German. But there are also rival theories about the Jews having come from the east. What is important for us is that Jews settling in Poland, who were initially treated like foreigners, gradually became part of the Polish landscape. Already in the 13th century, a period from which many documents survive, the presence of Jews in Poland was considered natural. Coincidentally, we are opening our permanent exhibition in the year of the 750th anniversary of Duke Bolesław the Pious of Wielkopolska issuing of a document known as the Statute of Kalisz, which was the first privilege granted to Jews on Polish lands and a kind of constitution about Jewish life. It guaranteed Jews basic rights such as physical security and permission to freely conduct business.

Didn’t European countries in those days pursue a policy toward Jews that involved establishing special laws?

It wasn’t quite like that, because this applied to everyone, not just Jews. There were no universal laws at the time, only laws applying to different classes. It’s worth noting that Jews in Poland had the status of a separate class, like the gentry, peasants, townspeople and clergy.

Was the policy of the Polish state toward Jews at that time similar to the policies of other European countries?

It was similar to the policies of other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, but not like the policies of Western European countries – in the sense that Polish policy toward Jews was very favorable.

Does this mean Poland never had any decrees to banish Jews?

There were decrees that gave individual towns the De non tolerandis Judaeis privilege, for which Christian townspeople applied so that they wouldn’t have Jewish competition. One town that received this royal privilege was Warsaw. Consequently, Jews couldn’t settle within the city walls, and that’s why Jewish settlements sprang up outside them. What is important is that from the early Middle Ages, Polish rulers granted Jews class privileges that constituted a set of rights, which was attractive enough – when coupled with business opportunities here – to draw many Jewish immigrants from Western Europe to Poland. The role of these Jewish settlers was very important for Poland’s economy because first, as merchant financiers, they integrated banking services and then ultimately integrated Poland with European markets. Apart from financial services, the main activity of Jews was working as craftsmen.

That suggests that economic matters were the basis of relations between Jews and Poles in that early period.

Of course. Always when there is mass immigration, the economy has to be involved. It needs noting, though, that this was part of what today we would call an influx of refugees, related to several waves of anti-Jewish violence in the west of Europe. Jews were accused of things like ritual murder and desecration of communion wafers. In the 14th century, during the plague, Jews were accused of spreading the disease. The Statute of Kalisz, meanwhile, guaranteed Jews the king’s protection, and therefore favorable and safe living conditions. The statute was confirmed by all subsequent Polish rulers, all the way to the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski. This means that this law remained in force unchanged – though that seems impossible today, when laws can be changed three times a year – for 500 years. Actually, Jews found not only a favorable environment here but also a very convenient niche as the “middleman minority” between the Polish gentry and the peasants. Not being allowed to own land and not being gentry, they focused on trade. Interestingly, the notion of Jew and shopkeeper was one and the same for quite a long time in Poland. In eastern Poland not long before World War II, 90 percent of small trade businesses were Jewish.

So relations built on business developed; can we say that these became the basis for the development of cultural relations between Jews and the rest of society in Poland?

Jews became a lasting part of Polish economic life. More and more of them arrived in Poland, the population expanded. The solid legal status they enjoyed translated into their growing importance, as shown by the fact that Jews not only managed the Wieliczka salt mine, an important element of the royal treasury, but also served as advisers to Polish kings. Physical proof of this community’s position in medieval Poland is found in one of our exhibits: a small silver coin from the 13th century on which the words “Prince Mieszko” are stamped in Hebrew letters. It is a little-known fact that the first mints in the Kingdom of Poland were operated by Jewish minters who came here from Western Europe.

How did the Polish and Jewish cultures influence each other?

If people live in the same village, on the same street, from generation to generation for almost a thousand years, such mutual influences must be huge. You can see this in the languages, for example: Polish has traces of Yiddish, and there are signs of Polish in Yiddish. If you look at Polish literature, you can see that Jews are a regular part of the landscape. And these are not figures of strangers but people living here for six or more generations.

Our museum shows a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland – from the beginning to this day. The last part of our exhibition will comprise interviews with present-day Polish Jews, exploring the question of what it means to be a Jew in Poland. And we start from Ibrahim Ibn Yakub, around the year 960.

Will the exhibition present economic, political and cultural aspects?

These aspects intermingle. Let me give an example: In the gallery of the 19th century we describe the foundation of yeshivas, or Jewish religious schools, but one of the rooms is a railway station. The first encounter with modernity is an encounter with railways, which revolutionized transportation. At this station, besides excerpts from a diary about a first railway journey read out from loudspeakers, we present the stories of three gentlemen: Moch, Apstein and Kronenberg – three entrepreneurs who built the first railroads in Poland. In his time Kronenberg was the richest man in the country, a shareholder in many companies, founder of Bank Handlowy, which still exists today, but also a very generous philanthropist who, among other things, financed hospitals, both Jewish and Christian.

When the idea of the museum emerged, there was a debate about what it should focus on. The suggestion that it should focus on Polish Jews in the Holocaust gave way to a concept of depicting the one thousand years of the Jewish presence in Poland. This presence included both harmonious relations and tensions. Will the latter also be documented at the museum?

Of course. You cannot recount the history of Jews in Poland, or any other country, without mentioning anti-Semitism. Naturally, that does not mean that our museum will be “a museum of anti-Semitism,” but the late 19th and the 20th century cannot be understood without modern anti-Semitism, just as the 17th and 18th centuries cannot be understood without the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on Judaism at that time. This is why in the Into the Country Gallery, where there is a beautifully reproduced wooden synagogue from the 17th century, we also have a room reminiscent of a chapel in which we display fragments of papal documents as well as copies of paintings from the Sandomierz cathedral portraying a Jewish “ritual murder.” But we also show the 18th-century story of Jakub Frank, a religious reformer dubbed the Messiah, who ultimately converted to Catholicism with a group of about 3,000 Jews. Of course we show the Holocaust as well. The gallery devoted to World War II is extremely powerful in its expression. The important thing is that, as opposed to the Holocaust Museum in Washington or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which are strictly speaking Holocaust museums, here the topic is the seventh and not the final part of the exhibition. It would be impossible not to show it, especially since the museum lies at the center of the old Jewish quarter established by the Germans in occupied Warsaw and opposite the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. The point is, however, for the Holocaust not to overshadow a thousand years of extremely rich and fascinating history before then, and also afterwards.

Do you think that someone with no knowledge at all about Jews in Poland will understand anything of that history after seeing the museum’s exhibition?

My wish is for people to leave the museum with three feelings. First, with curiosity, wanting to learn more. I want them to either return here or read a book, watch a movie, look for information on the internet. We want to show that this history is fascinating, because it really is. Second, I would like our visitors to leave here with a sense of pride – not only Polish Jews and Jews from other countries, but other Poles as well. Because this is a part of our history and culture, because this was a fantastic civilization that is part of our heritage. It forms the heritage not only of Poles but Europeans. Third, I would like to evoke a feeling of empathy, in the sense that the exhibition presents people from distant centuries who are very much like us. They were people who faced certain choices similar to ours and were guided by emotions like ours. Though they wore different clothes and had different customs, they were not aliens from space.

Can we say, based on the museum’s exhibition, that as a result of a thousand years of living together, the ethnic category of Polish Jew emerged?

Of course, you can already see it in the 16th-17th centuries and there is strong proof. This category can be understood in two ways. These were Jews who were similar to other Poles, for instance because they spoke Polish and followed similar customs. But they could also be Jews who were different from other Jews; who had a sense of this and openly admitted it. Polish rabbis would say to other rabbis, “You think this way, but we here in Poland think differently.” This shows Polish Jews’ level of intellectual autonomy even in distant centuries. I’d like to underline that our museum is not called the museum of “Jews in Poland” but of “Polish Jews.” The Jews we are talking about remained Polish Jews even when, for example, they emigrated to America in the 19th century.

To conclude, a question you don’t have to answer: Are you Jewish yourself?

Not as far as I know. Such is my reply because, as we know, there have been cases in Poland when people found out about their Jewish descent quite late in life. I myself have a friend who went through this when his mother told him before she died, when he was fifty-something, that she had fled from the ghetto, something she had kept secret since 1943. Through my grandparents I am of modest peasant descent, a Polish Roman Catholic. But I consider it an honor that my grandfather’s sister was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In addition, as a historian I spent 25 years studying Polish-Jewish history.

The main exhibition at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, scheduled to open Oct. 28, comprises eight galleries with a total area of over 4,000 square meters. The galleries explore different periods in the history of Polish Jews, including legends of how Jews first arrived in Poland, the first Jewish settlements, the emergence of Jewish culture, the social, religious and political diversity of Jewish communities, turbulent historical events from centuries ago, the Holocaust and contemporary times. The multimedia exhibition was designed by an international team of academics and curators headed by Prof. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. The exhibition was designed by Event Communications from London and Nizio Design International from Warsaw.

Museum Founders
Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage
The City of Warsaw
The Jewish Historical Institute Association in Poland, courtesy of private donors from around the world

Founding Donors
Monika and Wiktor Markowicz
Zygmunt Rolat
Hon. Tad Taube

Distinguished Donors
The Koret Foundation
Jan Kulczyk, Ph.D., on behalf of Kulczyk Holding
Zygmunt Rolat
The Taube Family Foundation
Monika and Wiktor Markowicz
The Parasol Family and the Bonita Trust
Irene Kronhill Pletka and The Kronhill Pletka Foundation
Janette and Aleksander Goldberg
Tomek Ulatowski with Carmit and Ygal Ozechov
The Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany
The Oliwenstein and Radzyminski families
Jeanette and Joseph Neubauer and The Neubauer Family Foundation
The David Berg Foundation
The Nissenbaum Family Foundation
The Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco
The Hellman Family
Klara and Larry A. Silverstein
Helen Tramiel, nee Goldgrub, and Jack Tramiel, born Trzmiel
The Government of Germany

Eric Benhamou
Michael and Bonnie Berkowicz
Maurice Bidermann
The Boeing Company
The Ryszard Krauze Foundation and Prokom Investments
James and Linda Law
The Przezorno¶ć Foundation on behalf of Prudential
Andrzej Rojek and family
The Rothschild Foundation Europe
Weil, Gotshal & Manges
Myron Zimmerman
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