Maciej Golubiewski, recently appointed consul general of the Republic of Poland in New York, welcomed an overflow audience to the Polish Consulate in New York April 5 to celebrate the opening of a photography exhibit at the POLIN Museum of the History of the Jews. The exhibit is titled “The Righteous Among Nations: They Risked Their Lives— Poles Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust.”
The exhibit features images of the wartime lives of Jan Karski, the Polish patriot who revealed the horrors of the concentration camps to President Franklin Roosevelt, and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a hero of the Zegota, the Polish underground that worked to save Jews. The exhibit documents the Polish government- in-exile and illustrates life in occupied Poland. It is the culmination of a series of more than 400 interviews with Poles who saved Jewish lives during World War II.
Dariusz Stola, director of the POLIN Museum, and Shimon Mercer Woods, counsul of Media Affairs at the Consulate of Israel in New York, were featured speakers.
Woods recalled, “on a personal level, the state of Israel owes a great deal” to the Righteous Poles and “places great value on documenting every individual and telling their story.”
Many, said Woods, “ask, ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ The more present question is where was humanity? Where was the human spirit?”
“Those who are honored here were humanity,” Woods asserted. He emphasized that both on a national and universal level, “all of us as human beings owe a great deal to these people for saving the spirit of humanity. Nazism denied the universal humanity of all living people. The Righteous Among the Nations risked their lives to save the spirit of humanity.” The state of Israel formally recognized the Righteous Among the Nations in the 1960s.
Concurrent with the Exhibit of the Righteous, the POLIN Museum has initiated an education program about the Righteous Among the Nations. The museum recognizes the great work of the Zegota, which provided escaping Jews with food and documents. Stola said that there is “a growing interest in Poland” about the World War II era.
“How representative of the Polish population were the Righteous?” Stola asked rhetorically, answering, “They were not…The Righteous shine even greater against the darkness of the era and the loss of human life…the dark conditions created by the Nazis…The Righteous reach the highest levels.”
Planning for the creation of the POLIN Museum, which opened in December 2014, began more than 20 years ago. The award-winning structure is a result of cooperation between the Polish government’s Ministry of Culture, the city of Warsaw and the Polish Jewish diaspora (especially in the United States), which has provided signi cant support.
The museum faces the statue commemorating the heroes of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when the ghters of the ghetto battled the overwhelming Nazi forces. The museum was designed by the Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, whose “jewel in a box” concept was chosen in an international design competition. It is conceived as a “place of meaning” and contains symbolic and color references to the splitting of the Red Sea and the Judean desert.
The museum’s core exhibit, curated by Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, follows a linear progression chronicling the 1,000-year history of the Jews in Poland, beginning from the transplanted Jewish immigrants to a court-protected minority to the “Golden Age” between the wars. A rare coin, dating from the 12th century and containing Hebrew engraving, testi es to the early Jewish presence in Poland and to the community’s participation in the Polish economy. Despite this shared history, Jews in Poland were always a parallel population, living generally full lives alongside their Polish neighbors.
One of the most striking exhibits is the re-creation of the 17th-century Gwozdziec Synagogue. This 85-percent-to-scale recreation represents more than 200 painted wooden synagogues destroyed by the invading Nazis. To climb on the bimah (pulpit) of this extraordinary connection to history was an intense emotional experience for this writer, one of the 70 percent of the world’s Jewish population who trace their roots to Polish Jews. To imagine the prayers and supplications ordered in the original structure that this exhibit mirrors provides a deep connection to one’s emotional Jewish genes. Each of the painted images has a theological meaning or a Torah reference.
The POLIN Museum’s display of the “great explosion” of the culture, literature and life of the Jews of Poland has been recognized internationally. The European Museum Academy prize recognizing “pioneering museums…destined to influence the development of museological discourse at the international level” was awarded to the POLIN Museum in 2016. The academy called the POLIN Museum “a state-of-the-art cultural institution that reaches diverse publics all over the world.”