While in Warsaw, the study tour group went through the Polin Museum. The museum showcases history of Jewish people in Poland, starting in the Dark Ages. The opening exhibition of the museum relays the story of the first Jew to come to Poland, said to be a merchant, and as he traveled through the land he heard from heaven: “Po-lin (Poe-Leen)” or in Hebrew “rest here.”
The museum continues to tell of special circumstances in Poland that made the country more welcoming to Jews than most other countries in Europe. These accommodations included protected ghettos or neighborhoods where Jews could live in their community without fear of persecution as here Jews were also given freedom of religion. This isn’t to say that Poland wasn’t without anti-semitism and hate-crimes against Jews, but many Jews saw Poland as safe for them and their families. An exhibition in the museum discusses the complicated relationship between the Church and the Jews; the exhibition included anti-semitic paintings found in cathedrals and crimes committed against Jews in the name of religion.
Polin Museum shapes what Jewish life would have looked like, complete with recreated sections of a medieval synagogue decorated with astrological animals painted in bright pastels. Here they chose to show some artifacts found in synagogues that survived World War II. The museum also highlighted religious life in Poland with digital reading rooms. The curators set up touchscreen desks with digital versions of the tanach, complete with commentaries written in Poland.
The different exhibitions detailed all classes of life throughout Jewish history, including a tavern, a train station lobby, a printing press office and the parlor of a wealthy household. Other exhibitions highlighted different famous Jews in Polish history, including painters, philosophers, and more.
This establishment of pre-modern Jewish life in Poland led to World War I and the inter-war period. The curators chose to showcase this with a common city street. The different shops detailed different aspects of modern Jewish life, such as a room with a record player and numbered footprints on the floor to learn how to dance. Across the street was a newspaper room, which specified events in the interwar period.
Finally, the students arrived at exhibitions of the Holocaust in Poland. Leaving Poland without a strong Jewish community, most of the surviving community migrated in the years after the war, leaving very few Jews in Poland. The closing exhibition in the museum looks out on a field in Warsaw, signifying the unbuilt Jewish future in Poland.
The entirety of the museum can be self-guided with audio tours. To learn more about the museum, check out their website. http://www.polin.pl/en
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