Nobody at Polin believes in miracles

Dariusz Stola in conversation with Karolina Wigura · 16 December 2014

Karolina Wigura: After November the 11th, a certain anecdote proved popular on Polish Facebook: three nationalists are walking down a Warsaw street, talking about recent construction projects in the capital. One of them says: “The Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, built by the president Lech Kaczyński, incredible!”. The others nod in agreement. The second says: “The Copernicus Science Centre, built by the president Lech Kaczyński, wonderful!” The others nod again. The third utters: “And, of course, there is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Finally, people can learn how, for many centuries, Jews could live here. And that they had it good”. The others nod once more…

Dariusz Stola: I know that anecdote. Quite moving, and so apt, I suspect someone must have imagined it.

Even if that is the case, it shows something which is very true and, for many, very surprising in the Polish consensus, from both ends of the political spectrum, about Polin being an important and successful project. Do you believe in miracles? 

I don’t believe, I depend on miracles. During the construction of the museum, so many miracles occurred, denying their existence is futile. One of these was the unexpected agreement about its mission, not only from our Left and our Right, but also from the tabloids and our broadsheets, all across Poland, Western Europe, Israel and America, from the New York Times to local papers. This is a mystery which cannot be unlocked with a single key.

And what sort of answers do you have?

I have several, but each one is fragmentary. The first is that perhaps it really is a very good museum? I value humility and skepticism, but I wouldn’t reject this thesis outright, seeing as everyone seems to be complementing us, including a number of very sensible individuals. The second answer that it is down to a feeling of relief. For many months, I had observed a sense of tension and fear around the Museum. This was not specific in any way, more a vague sense of worry, of unclear panic, that something will go wrong, though no one knew what. That the museum will utilise the pedagogy of shame, that it will attack Poles sense of honour, or the opposite – that it will try to cover up the dark aspects of our history? Today, the power of the compliments we receive is equal to our earlier concerns, which have not materialised. Relief is the outcome for us.

And yet there are people who think the Museum is not critical enough with regards to Poles. 

Let them think it – we don’t all have to agree a 100%. This is not a museum which is meant to please everyone. It is instead meant to present the best of our knowledge about Jewish history in Poland. Clearly, we can debate the concept of proportions, yet I challenge anyone to put forth a tangible criticism and say: here the Museum presents a falsehood. I have not heard one such accusation. If such flaws did crop up, this would be down to misunderstandings, oversights, or that whatever information was missing from one spot could be found elsewhere in the museum. There are mistakes here and there, after all, the place was built by imperfect humans, but no one has yet spotted any fakery in it.

You mentioned the idea of the mystery of Polin being a lock which requires many different keys to open. The transformation of fear into relief is one such key. What are the others?

The second is how authentic the experiences of those who visit the museum are and the respect they show to the exhibits. We are, of course, here talking about things which really arouse a number of emotions. The exhibition doesn’t have to scream and shout in order to say something important. The museum is only of of the fruits born of 25 years of discussions about Jewish-Polish relations. In the course of these discussions, we have developed a language of serious debate. Those who come to us with heavy prejudices should experience something of a curious dissonance. They can see that this history is not only different, but above all more complex than they thought. They write letters to us afterwards, usually starting with the words: “I had to think deeply…”. A lighthearted conclusion from all of this might be that we should invite as many people as we can with the strongest negative opinions and the least knowledge about the theme of Jewish history. The power of Polin will have the greatest impact on the likes of them… I don’t, however, think that it will convince everyone. In certain cases, antisemitism doesn’t occur due to a lack of knowledge and is stronger than any facts.

The third key are the changes which have taken place in Poland as a country. In order for such a museum to exist, a number of stages must be completed first. This museum could only be built in a different kind of Poland to the one we have today.

Could you explain?

I can imagine a number of possible Polands, in which this museum would never come to be. For example, a Poland which was poorer, in which the expenditure of 180 million zlotys, out of the budgets of Warsaw and the Ministry of Culture, would not be possible. Waldemar Dąbrowski told me that when he was Minister of Culture, back in the days of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, he had a fraction of that sum at his disposal.

Or I can imagine a Poland in which there is a lack of people with experience of managing complex projects. The creation of a museum – the construction and of the institution itself – such as Polin is a very complex undertaking. 20 years ago, there were few people who could meet this challenge. And so, the completion of this musueum was also a test of our organisational and collaborative working abilities, and not only an ideological exam.

But is Polin a gesture of forgiveness and unification? Małgorzata Omilanowska said, during the grand opening in Teatr Wielki, that donations made for the Museum are exactly this sort of gesture.

I think that this speech was more subtle than that. It is not possible to summerise it using this one sentence, but it is interesting that you see it this way. I was also asked recently whether political support for the Museum and so many private donations comes from a sense of guilt. Perhaps many people do support us because they feel guilty, but I haven’t yet met them. And do I look like a person who is the product of a sense of guilt?

Perhaps you’re not, but I think that there might be a lot right in that statement. There is an undercurrent of a complex, evasive feeling here. We don’t have to call it guilt. We can say it is regret. The feeling that finally we are filling a void left behind by something which was torn from us. Something of great value. 

The words “grief” or “regret” are much more apt than “guilt”. We regret losing something which is valuable, to us especially. The Museum will not fill this void, but it can help remind us what was once there. Showing the Jewish part of history of Poland, we can help reclaim its widespread multicultural diversity, one which, for 95% of the time our nation has been here, was a key quality. Among the many strange and dangerous drives of the 20th century was the attempt to reduce the degree of diversity among various groups of people, and our part of Europe was affected by this drive with a great degree of brutality. And yet, as a poet was once heard to say, God “created the world beautiful and full of variety” [Zbigniew Herbert, trans. note].

And what if the Museum is so appealing because at heart it fulfills everyone’s expectations? To those who come from Jewish backgrounds it provides a hint of nostalgia, which was so very much needed over the last few decades. For Poles, on the other hand, it says that 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland was good, overall. And hence perhaps arguments over Poles’ conduct with regards to their Jewish neighbours in 1939 can be shelved. “We are OK, after all”. 

I can’t agree with that last sentence. The fact that Jews did live in Poland for hundreds of years in no way changes the nature of the arguments over the Holocaust. But if you are right, that different people leave the Museum with the sense that the history of Polish Jews is rich and worthy of their attention, then I am very pleased.

Previously, you seemed concerned when I said something I thought was positive, and now you are pleased when I least expected it. 

Exactly, even you are surprised by this. Can one reduce the history of the Polish Jewish community to the relations with their non-Jewish neighbours, relations with those neighbours to relations with Poles, relations with Poles to conflicts, and the history of those conflicts to the Jedwabne atrocity? How demeaning would this be. Jedwabne cannot be omitted, but that sort of reductionism would give not just an incomplete history, but one which would simply be a lie, in which Jews appear out of nowhere, suddenly, and only just so they could be killed. For many people, and young Poles among them, the topic of “the history of Polish Jews” is only connected with the Holocaust. If they see our Museum, they will realise there is much, much more to it than that. Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the director of the permanent exhibition, told me that after one of her public presentations a question was asked: “Which period in the history of Polish Jews do you consider to be the most important?”. Whoever had asked the question was clearly expecting that answer to involve the Holocaust. And yet she countered: “The most important period of this history is 1000 years long”. There is no such history in Spain, or France, or England, or Russia, all countries which had expelled Jews in their pasts. For a few hundred years, Poland was home to a substantial majority of the world’s Jewish community. Here is where they created a highly original culture: became not only Jews, but Polish Jews. Why would we trivialise all that? Why would we only focus on six years out of that millennium, and bury the rest in the shadow of the Shoah? Life is in no way less important than death.

translated by Marek Kazmierski