Poland and Polin

New Interpretations in Polish-Jewish Studies

by Konrad Matyjaszek (Volume editor) Irena Grudzinska-Gross (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 229 Pages


The contributions in this volume reflect discussions and controversies during the Princeton University Conference on Polish-Jewish Studies (April 18–19, 2015). The debates examined the politics of history in Poland, as well as the scholarly and pedagogical need to move beyond national and diasporic narratives in researching and teaching Polish-Jewish subjects. They focused on the role and meaning of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Editors’ Note
  • Conference Report
  • Part I: Politics of History
  • The Holocaust as a Polish Problem
  • Jews as a Polish Problem; and Why Not – as a Part of Polish History?
  • Polishness in Practice
  • Part II: Reading the Museum
  • Polin: “Ultimate Lost Object”
  • Wall and Window: the Rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto as the Narrative Space of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
  • The Rule of the Golden Mean
  • The Embassy of Poland in Poland: The Polin Myth in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews as Narrative Pattern and Model of Minority-Majority Relations
  • Part III: Problematizing the Jewish Turn
  • Problematizing the “Jewish Turn”
  • Toward a Diasporic Poland/Polin: Zeitlin, Sutzkever, and the Ghost Dance with Jewish Poland
  • Public Pedagogy and Transnational, Transcultural Museums
  • Appendix
  • Appendix I: Polish-Jewish Studies Workshop Participants
  • Appendix II: Polish-Jewish Studies Workshop Agenda
  • Index

← 6 | 7 →

Editors’ Note

This volume reflects discussions during the Princeton University conference on Polish-Jewish Studies held on April 18–19, 2015. The contributions focus on the meaning of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, on Polish politics of memory, and on the renewal in research and teaching of Polish-Jewish subjects. They position Polish-Jewish Studies at the intersection of academia and public history, highlighting the field’s ability to engage both intellectual and cultural production, history and contemporary politics. This vast potential for dialogue and cross-fertilization speaks to the dynamism and relevance of the field.

The opening report lists the conference participants and summarizes their interventions. Not all the papers delivered during the conference were presented for this publication, and none was submitted by the speakers professionally involved in the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Most numerous are the papers that interpret the Museum and look at the cultural policies behind its creation, as well as those that address other cultural initiatives connected with Jewish memory and cultural revival funded by Polish state institutions.

The conference was sponsored by the Princeton University Departments of History and Slavic Languages and Literatures, Program in Judaic Studies, and Council of the Humanities, by the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, the University of Illinois at Chicago Fund for Polish-Jewish Studies, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, and the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Irena Grudzińska-Gross and Iwa Nawrocki ← 7 | 8 →

← 8 | 9 →

Geneviève Zubrzycki

Conference Report

The Second Polish-Jewish Workshop, which took place at Princeton University on April 18–19, 2015, was organized around five main panels, focusing on presenting the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, critical readings of the Museum, Polish-Jewish memory work and cultural diplomacy, cultural and philanthropic institutions in a changing scholarly landscape, and the Polish-Jewish Summer Institute and other pedagogical initiatives. Approximately forty scholars, non-profit professionals, and donors participated in the two-day event. Many more were in the audience: faculty and students from Princeton University and other academic institutions, as well as members of Polish and Jewish communities from the greater New York area.

The organizers, Irena Grudzińska-Gross, Jessie Labov, and Karen Underhill opened the Workshop and presented the premises and objectives of the broader Polish/Jewish initiative they put together in 2014. They stressed the specific juncture that makes Polish/Jewish studies both vibrant and pressing.

The first dimension is the opening in Warsaw of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews; the second is the political push in Poland for the politics of history; and the third is the scholarly and pedagogical need to research and teach about the region in a way that is inclusive of different points of view – to move beyond the national, and also beyond diasporic narratives. While this specific confluence of academic and political factors makes Polish/Jewish studies especially relevant, one question posed to all participants was whether the “Polish-Jewish debate” was exhausted; whether the opening of the Museum might serve as a form of “closure” to almost three decades of intense discussions of Polish-Jewish relations. Have the issues been exhausted? While the Museum could act to close a chapter, Karen Underhill stated that it could actually serve as a catalyst for an emerging field. Even the naming of that field is complicated: is it Polish-Jewish Studies? Jewish-Polish Studies or Polish/Jewish Studies? What do those names imply, in terms of focus and prevalence?

Rather than summarize each panel or panelists’ respective presentations in detail, I discuss the political-normative, scholarly, and pedagogical-institutional themes that shaped the conversations, and the ways in which they intersected throughout the meeting. As one impetus for the Princeton Workshop was the recent inauguration of the core exhibit of the POLIN Museum of the History of ← 9 | 10 → Polish Jews, which took place on October 27, 2014, discussions of the Museum’s mission, its core exhibit, and future directions were at the center of the Workshop.

A first panel presented the Museum. Composed of the Museum’s Director, Dariusz Stola, as well as Samuel Kassow and Marcin Wodziński, the panel discussed some of the key challenges scholars faced in preparing the core exhibit and how they resolved them. Marcin Wodziński stressed that the exhibit is mostly free of “Polish obsessions”; that it tells the story from a Jewish perspective, but also without “Jewish obsessions” – that is, it does not solely focus on the Holocaust, and does not tell the story of Jews in Poland following a Holocaust-centered, teleological narrative of “before-during-after-the Holocaust” which, he pointed out, is a major museological achievement in itself. Samuel Kassow mentioned how the interwar gallery also tells the story of different Jewish communities, political parties, and social movements “of the moment” – without writing the Holocaust into the narrative. The interwar period was “a laboratory of experiments” for collective life and for individuals as well. Kassow also insisted on the “de-centering” vision of the exhibit; how Poland, for example, is presented as part of the broader Jewish world. That work, which fits neatly into the “spatial turn,” was relatively easy since, as he pointed out, the region was already “spatial.”

Dariusz Stola emphasized the fact that as important as the core exhibition is, the Museum cannot be reduced to it: the Museum is a major cultural and pedagogical institution and has been active long before the opening of the exhibit, first through its “Virtual Shtetl” project, and then by offering a wide range of workshops and sponsoring public lectures, film screenings, and discussion forums on Polish-Jewish related themes as well as on diversity, multi-culturalism, and democracy more broadly. The exhibit, Stola stressed, was twenty years in the making, which gave its makers time to reflect on many recent controversies, such as those surrounding the publication of Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland and the role of ethnic Poles in the Holocaust, and engage some difficult questions head-on. The making of the exhibit was a transnational undertaking involving scholars from several nation-states, with a wide range of expertise. The result, he argued, is a highly reflexive exhibit that aims to change mainstream understandings of Poland’s Jewish past. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and her team of world-renowned experts worked diligently to render the complexity of history intelligible for diverse visitors without oversimplifying it.

The Museum, Stola concluded, is both an experiment and a model; it is not an academic or research institution, but a pedagogical one. The Museum administration has already been conducting “exit surveys” with visitors to learn about the ← 10 | 11 → reception of the exhibit: what people have learned, what they did not know, and what surprised them.

Jan T. Gross, the panel’s discussant, agreed with the characterization of the Museum as a cultural center rather than just a Museum. The space itself is used beyond the core exhibit and is certain to have a broad impact. Besides, the Museum’s mandate is broader than Polish-Jewish history; it is transnational history, covering Germany and Ukraine, as well as North America and Israel, to a certain extent. Gross pointed out that it is impossible to visit the core exhibit without thinking of the Holocaust, that the Holocaust is present in the mind of any visitor. The important question to pose, then, is what place the Holocaust should have in the Museum’s activities? The Holocaust remains the key issue that still needs to be addressed in the public sphere.

The discussion that ensued concerned the place of the Holocaust in the Museum and its activities. Jan Grabowski concurred with Jan Gross that there is a tendency in the exhibit to domesticate and tame the Holocaust. For example, the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto (by Germans) is marked, but massacres and pogroms (by ethnic Poles) “float under the radar.” Shana Penn pointed out that the Museum’s pedagogical activities are centered on issues of diversity and tolerance, that these are Holocaust-centric. For Bożena Shallcross, the very location of the Museum, on the grounds of the former Warsaw ghetto, compensates for the relatively scant attention to the Holocaust in the exhibit; the site itself is powerful enough to put visitors in the right mental location. Marcin Wodziński added, however, that the Museum should not only be read in relation to the Holocaust via its location: before being a ghetto, that space was a Jewish neighborhood and its history should not be reduced to its tragic destruction.

Other questions focused on the media chosen for the exhibit: without a collection, how were the materials chosen to tell the story? Samuel Kassow explained that without artifacts, emphasis is placed on texts but also on iconic spaces: the synagogue, the shtetl, and the street. Stola assured that the Museum is in the process – slow, difficult, and costly – of constituting a collection, and that some artifacts will be added as they become available.

Another thread in the discussion concerned how to update the exhibit: how to make sure the knowledge it is based on and that it imparts to the visitors does not remain static. Stola guaranteed that the Museum has planned for revisions, especially since the technology through which the narrative is told will be obsolete relatively soon.

The second panel, “Polish-Jewish Memory Work and Cultural Diplomacy,” touched on several issues discussed in the first, most importantly the silences of ← 11 | 12 → the Museum and the still problematic rapport of Poles to the Holocaust and their role in it. The recent politicization (and instrumentalization) of the Righteous is problematic: Jan Grabowski calls it the “Righteous Defense,” a strategy to detract from crimes committed against Jews, allowing anti-Semitism to grow in several corners (and at the center) of Polish society. Geneviève Zubrzycki pointed to a blind spot in the current “Jewish turn,” namely the fact that Jews and Jewish culture serve to build multiculturalism, but as such Jews must necessarily remain Other. She asked how Jews can be rediscovered without being exoticized, fetishized, and othered? One solution might be to work harder at problematizing the Catholicity of Polishness, so that Jews can be Jews in their own right, for their own sake, instead of being a proxy for the agenda of progressive Poles. Erica Lehrer discussed critical museology in Poland: its commitment to exposing conflicts, multiple narratives, and critical scholarship as well. She asked what kind of shrine POLIN might become, despite the efforts of its designers? Museums are sites of possibility, institutions of learning that may make social change possible. If that is the case of POLIN, what transformative impact might we expect to witness in Polish society? And in the ways in which foreign visitors apprehend Poland? That last question is at the heart of Nancy Sinkoff’s pedagogical approach. Her goal is to get American Jews to understand the Polishness of Ashkenazi culture, and her point of entry into that problématique is usually her students’ Holocaust consciousness. Her teaching therefore seeks to debunk widespread myths about Polish Jewry: persecution, passivity, piety, and poverty. The Museum, according to her, does a good job in the process of demystification since it shows the diversity of Jewish communities and experiences.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
representations of Polish Jews politics of memory state propaganda history of Polish Jews
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 229 pp., 2 coloured ill., 3 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Konrad Matyjaszek (Volume editor) Irena Grudzinska-Gross (Volume editor)

Irena Grudzińska-Gross teaches in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University and is also Professor in the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Science. She studied in Poland, Italy, and the United States. She researches issues of war and violence in modern and contemporary European literature. Iwa Nawrocki is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Princeton University. Her research examines the interplay between national and transnational intellectual activism in campaigns for democracy, human rights, and social justice with a primary focus on Brazil, Nicaragua, and Poland, and parallel interests in the Southern Cone, Cuba, and the Soviet Bloc.


Title: Poland and Polin
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