Special Tours

Polin Museum: An All-Encompassing View of Jewish Life in Warsaw

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Our students in front of a memorial to the Polish Jews outside of the Polin Museum.

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.”

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Student, Hana, poses with cutouts of Polish Jews from the 19th century.

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.

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Student, Alexa, walking through the Museum.

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.  

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Students, Hana and Tutti, learning about despotic monarchs who have conflicting interests in Poland.

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


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Faculty, Program News

Dr. Jan Grabowski’s New Course: The Extermination of Polish Jews, 1939-1945

grabowski_smallDr. Jan Grabowski visited the University of Haifa earlier this Spring. During his visit he gave a lecture on Jews in Poland to our students, and moreover he filmed the videos for an online course which will be available to current students. Dr. Jan Grabowski is a professor at the University of Ottawa, originally from Poland, he offers a growing network to our students.

The course will be on the extermination of Polish Jews, it focuses on German initiatives against Jews in Poland, and reactions from the Jewish communities. He will discuss the creation of ghettos, and the strategy of Jewish leadership within the Ghettos. The video lectures will include lessons on the escalation of German terror, and different Jewish responses including those that fled, those that stayed, leaders and the murder of 3 million Polish Jews. In specific, the topics include Aktion Reinhard, the Judenrat, survival strategies within Poland, the role of the Polish Catholic Church, as well as the story of Jews that returned to Poland. The course marries the focus on perpetrators and victims, while also including the narrative of the Polish bystanders, and collaborators.

We welcome Dr. Jan Grabowski to our faculty and we look forward to see where this partnership will lead our students.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Research Forum, Seminars

Attacks on Holocaust survivors and pogroms in post-war Poland – a lecture by Dr. Edyta Gawron of Jagiellonian University

Dr. Edyta Gawron from Jagiellonian University in Krakow is visiting the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies this week, offering one-on-one time with students who are particularly interested in her research, as well as giving two lectures to our students. She is an assistant professor at the Department of Jewish Studies, as well as the Head of the new Centre for the Study of the History and Culture of Krakow Jews.

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Dr. Edyta Gawron

 

In her first lecture, she discussed Jewish survivors in Poland and Jewish life in Poland after the Holocaust. Before the war, there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland who made up about 10% of the population; only 10% of the Jewish population survived the Holocaust. Approximately 250,000 Jews returned and stayed in Poland, after the war, while roughly 100,000 survivors found homes elsewhere. The majority (50-60%) of Polish Jews survived by fleeing to the USSR, which was by no means a safe haven, however it offered more security for Polish Jews during Nazi occupation. An additional 10% of Polish Jews survived German Nazi camps. 10-18% survived among Poles, meaning they could pass as Aryan, however they needed access to forged identification papers and they needed to remain anonymous: Jewish leaders or any other recognizable or renown Jew could not have survived among Poles. Another minority survived as partisans living in makeshift villages in the forests of Poland, such as the Bielski Otriad. After the war a minority of survivors fled Europe entirely to Asia, South America, Australia, Palestine, and more.

When Jewish survivors returned to Poland, they returned to a culture of survivors: six million Poles died in WWII, meaning that, on average, every Polish family lost as least one family member in the war, while among Jewish survivors on average only one family member survived the war. These survivors of war-torn Poland made for a hostile community for those returning to Poland.

There were challenges in identifying Jewish survivors returning to Poland. Among the surviving community, there was an extreme fear of registering with any Jewish organization because these registries were used by Nazis to round up Jews prior to the Holocaust. Furthermore, many of the survivors were forced to change their names with new identification papers, and giving up what had been their lifeline was difficult and sometimes impossible.

Within the Jewish survivor community there were further challenges of dissonance: those who survived camps felt their suffering was greater than those who had hid or those who were forced laborers in Gulags, and visa versa. Many Jews who were in the USSR had no knowledge of the gas chambers, and those who survived in Poland had no clear idea of the torture of the Gulags. These comparisons and lack of knowledge led to challenges in the organization of Jewish welfare groups and the revival of religious life after the war.

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Dr. Edyta Gawron speaking about “adult orphans.”

Yet, these organizations were desperately needed. All survivors, children and adults, had no one left; there were boarding houses full of children as well as adults, a phenomenon known as “adult orphans.” The Jewish organizations in Poland were needed to provide shelter, as well as food and government representation, all of which were sorely lacking.  These organizations also started the important work of starting the initial database of survivors and those who had perished.

These organizations also provided documentation for post war trials, which were held locally, nationally and internationally depending on the crimes and sometimes perpetrators were tried three times. These trials attempted to offer a sense of justice, which introduced the thought of normality through closure. The perpetrator’s punishment for these trials varied but the most common was exile from the community. Factors of normality included age, whether family members had survived, and the establishment of Jewish religious life. Still, the road to normality was long, and upon return to Poland most Jews still found anti-Semitism prevalent among their communities, and pogroms continued even after the war. (Dr. Gawron spoke more on this in her second lecture, which you can read here.)

After WWII, some 250,000 Jews returned and remained in Poland, and after several mass waves of immigration, only approximately 8,000 Jews remain in Poland today. Despite the numbers, the Jewish community is active within Poland, with many synagogues specifically in Krakow, Warsaw or Lodz hosting Jewish visitors every week, making the community seem larger than it is.

The Jewish Holocaust wasn’t at the forefront of discussion in Poland until after the collapse of communism in 1989, and as a result, Holocaust education was decades behind other perpetrating countries. Scholars, like Dr. Edyta Gawron and her research, continue to better Holocaust education in Poland. We were happy to host her and glean from her knowledge.

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In order from left to right: Anat Bratman-Elhalel (Director of Archives at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum), Lindsay Shapiro (Cohort IV), and Dr. Edyta Gawron.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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