Life & Culture

The empty museum...


A new Jewish museum has opened in Warsaw. It sits in the centre of what used to be the ghetto, and some see that fact as a cause for celebration. Here, in the heart of the city, is a museum which tells the thousand-year story of Jewish life in Poland unrestrained by the limiting prism of the Holocaust.

Instead, one can celebrate the amazing life of the many Jewish communities in Poland and the huge contribution that Jews have made to the nation.

Surprisingly though, there was an almost complete absence of original objects or authentic relics from the past. The story is told mostly through written quotations inscribed on the walls, combined with reconstructions and multimedia. The experience for the visitor is loud, ambitious, visually very busy - it is overwhelming.

The other visitors I saw when I was there seemed engaged and involved in getting to grips with this fascinating but largely forgotten story. But my response to the exhibits was clouded by a complex emotion. Of the objects on display, few are authentic, many are reconstructed. And this mattered to me. The display of the rubble that was all that was left of the ghetto is fabricated. The real rubble was not thought to be sufficiently effective.

The Ringelblum archive is memorialised by the museum: a professionally organised group of scholars, in full knowledge of their fate, worked tirelessly to preserve an archive of documents recording the Jewish community in Warsaw. I started to weep as I looked at the boxes in which they had buried these documents in the earth of the Warsaw ghetto.

And then I realised these were not the real boxes and the intangible emotional power of the authentic moment vanished.

The lack of authentic objects is a problem, partly because it makes the exhibits crowded and unrelenting: there is no object set apart to really look at, just because its authenticity insists on its being given pride of place. But the hollow sense of absence I felt during my visit points to a bigger, truly existential problem.

There is a huge lack in what remains of Polish Jewry: almost no objects exist. There were over three and half million Jews who were murdered, and alongside their deaths was the annihilation of the culture and communities they had created. Maybe the museum should have highlighted, rather than tried to cover up, this absence. Maybe there should have been a hole in the centre of the building where you could see the real rubble of the ghetto remains. You would have seen the rubble, it would have been real and you'd have seen a hole. Because that was what I came away with. The museum is trying to fill a hole which is vast and void-like.

On the last day, we went to the only surviving synagogue in Warsaw. A fabulously energetic woman called Helise Lieberman has been involved in building up the community for the past 20 years. She excitedly told us of the day school, now thriving, with 250 pupils of different communities - Reform, Orthodox, Chabad. It is fantastic and I was also overwhelmed with grief. At the last census she said there were 7,000 adult Jews and now there are at least double if not treble that: 20,000 Jews left out of over 3.5 million. And so few material objects to remember them by.

The Jewish Museum in London might be smaller, but we have thousands of objects. What you see on display is a tiny percentage of what we have in our stores. And the objects engage people in different ways. Even young children recognise how wonderful it is to see something real, an authentic object that, when looked at properly, can reveal its story layer upon layer.

Returning from Warsaw, I realised once again how special the Jewish museum is in London; how it tells a story with amazing objects; how it tells a story of a community which is living, vibrant and confident, and unbroken since 1660. And how important our work is to educate the thousands of students who visit each year; who look and handle objects, and through them get to know about Jews and their history. Objects which help break down prejudice, and ensure the events which destroyed the Polish Jews and the objects they cherished won't happen again.

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