Mutual Visibility: Ukraine and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
by Alla Marchenko, Ph.D. in Sociology, Memory Scholars at Risk Fellow
Between June 1, 2022, and October 9, 2022, I had the extraordinary experience of working closely with the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews to develop permanent and temporary exhibitions drawing on Ukrainian history and geography as well as walking tours for Ukrainian participants. Not only did these activities raise awareness about various episodes of Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish history, but they also offered valuable lessons for developing culturally sensitive programming since the project period coincided with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the rapid influx of war refugees into Warsaw.
A brief description of my activities will be helpful for understanding the reflections that follow. I developed a permanent exhibition entitled “Searching for a Better Fate: Jewish Stories in Polish Lands”, covering one thousand years of Jewish life in Poland. I also developed a temporary exhibition entitled “Sunday Visits: Jewish Cuisine”. I led eight tours of the POLIN museum in Ukrainian as well as a tour in Polish for certified POLIN museum educators in which I presented my research findings on the preconditions, emergence, and transformations of Hasidism in the context of historical and contemporary Poland and Ukraine.
Photo: POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. A round monument in the center is the first monument dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1946). A monument on the right side represents Jan Karski, a Polish diplomat who served as a courier during World War II. Photo taken September 4, 2022.
Walking tours were a natural outgrowth of museum tours since the permanent collection includes objects connected to spaces in Warsaw, such as Jewish neighbourhoods and cemeteries. Indeed, many participants requested walking tours, so I developed three walking tours conducted seven times. “Stories of Old Ochota” featured dense, interrelated Polish-Jewish-Ukrainian stories of the historic Ochota district in Warsaw in the twentieth century. “Jewish Warsaw” featured the first documented traces of Jewish life and subsequent milestones of Jewish history in the Środmieście and Muranów districts of Warsaw up to 1939. “Ukrainians in Varsovian History” took place in the Mokotów district and showcased important Ukrainian figures and institutions of the twentieth century. I supplemented walking tours with visual materials since many places related to Jewish history no longer exist due to wartime devastation and population shifts, while places related to Ukrainian history are unmarked. Regardless of the topic of the tour, people asked about the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and its meanings. (Symbols and references to the Uprising can easily be found in each district.)
Finally, I wrote project proposals for the Scientific Council of the Museum. In these proposals, I suggested providing more context surrounding the social tensions of the seventeenth century and the appearance of the first known map of the Ukrainian lands to further elucidate rebellions led by Cossacks. I also proposed highlighting the extraordinary role of the “black gold” industry in the economic development of Boryslav and Drohobych, now Western Ukraine.
Photo: An introductory talk about the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Photo taken August 15, 2022.
Who Were the Participants?
The vast majority of participants were Ukrainian. This is unsurprising since the tours were in the Ukrainian language. However, there were also some Poles who joined the tours to practice Ukrainian. Also, most participants were women. This is also unsurprising since Ukrainian war-time law prohibits men from leaving the country. While I had initially developed tours with an adult audience in mind, some mothers brought children along, so I had to improvise quickly to maintain the attention of the children. This was easiest to do for the exhibition on Jewish cuisine since the topic was child-friendly and there was an area for entertaining.
Before and after the tours, I had informal conversations with attendees lasting at least half an hour, so I got to know a bit about their backgrounds. Most of the adults were well-educated, middle-class professionals or university students in the fields of science, culture, and languages; some were even associated with Ukrainian museums. Some participants were Ukrainian Jews — Jewish organizations in Poland took an active part in helping both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees – but most were not. Among the Ukrainian Jews, it seemed none were observant. For example, rarely could they name the current month of the Jewish calendar, not to mention the date.
Many thanked me for speaking Ukrainian, openly expressing their desire to hear Ukrainian even if they were native Russian speakers. They explained that in the context of war, language was a symbolic shield separating what was Ukrainian from what was Russian. I interpreted these comments as a sign of trust and an indication that the museum and walking tours were safe spaces.
What Draws Ukrainians to a Museum of the History of Polish Jewish?
Although Jews have a long history in both Poland and Ukraine, most Jews perished during the Holocaust, and Jewish history is not a hot topic in either Poland or Ukraine. In Ukraine, Jewish museums are mostly private and relatively small. Meanwhile, Warsaw boasts dozens of museums, and many of them advertised special offers for Ukrainians during the program period. With so many options, why did Ukrainians flock to the POLIN Museum of Jewish History? Indeed, all tours were sold out in advance. Some even registered a month in advance due to “word of mouth” while others who had not registered still dropped in, hoping to get a place if someone did not show up.
Photo: Discussions about communal practices connected to kosher food during my tour “Sunday Visits: Jewish Cuisine”. Photo taken June 19, 2022.
Interest in the museum can be explained by many factors. Most people were simply curious about a large museum dedicated to Jewish history. There is no equivalent in Ukraine, so the museum could be interpreted as a novelty offering a totally new experience. Also, the narrative of cultural survival against all odds seemed to resonate with refugees; many wanted to learn more about a nation that survived many waves of persecution, even the Holocaust, yet managed to preserve its identity. Moreover, there was a general understanding that Jews were an immanent part of the ethnic landscape of both Poland and Ukraine, so Ukrainians wanted to learn about them. They posed questions such as: What defines a Jew? What was my favorite Jewish dish? What were the differences between Yiddish and Hebrew? What was the social context of pogroms?
Once people learned that my scholarly interests were connected to Hasidic pilgrimages, I usually got dozens of questions about Hasidism and pilgrimages to Uman, my home town and the destination of the biggest Hasidic pilgrimages in Europe. In fact, several people from Uman who came to my tours were motivated by local discussions about these pilgrimages. On the other hand, I did not get much feedback on the Cossack uprisings of 1648-1649 led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky – a tragic but key event for later developments in Judaism in Eastern Europe. It seemed people needed more time to reflect; its significance was not obvious to them.
Photo: Discussing the first Jewish settlements in the Old Town in Warsaw. Photo taken September 25, 2022.
What are some methodological tips for doing memory work with Ukrainian refugees?
This project forced me to confront the difficulty of communicating sensitive aspects of Polish-Ukrainian-Jewish cultural memory in Poland to an audience of non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I developed various strategies to adapt the tours to the audience.
First, I made connections between the audience and the museum through various tools: historical maps, names that are well-known in Ukraine, and the geographic location of certain events. Visitors were curious to find their hometowns in Ukraine on maps in a museum in Warsaw dedicated to the history of Polish Jews. Many visitors were particularly impressed by French-Polish cartographer Guillaume Le Vasseur de Beauplan’s map of the Ukrainian lands in the seventeenth century. As another example, I linked the Hasidism to the Ukrainian lands to make this topic less alienating for the audience. They were impressed that Hasidism developed in so many places in contemporary Poland and Ukraine, and people asked questions about Hasidic pilgrimages to the Ukrainian city of Uman and other towns in Ukraine. I also situated the development of the oil industry in in Boryslav and Drohobych, two towns in Western Ukraine. Most visitors were unaware of, and intrigued by, the role of the oil industry in this region.
Similarly, I sometimes incorporated Ukrainian topics into tours focused on Jewish history, and vice versa. I identified Jewish-Ukrainian linkages to make topics significant, relevant, and accessible, permitting reflection on questions such as: “What makes someone a Jew?” “What makes someone Ukrainian?” “How is it possible to preserve your culture under conditions of persecution?” “What is the role of language in identity formation?” and “How could the world stay silent during the atrocities of the Holocaust?” It was clear issues such as identity, language, persecution, and emigration were important to most visitors, and quite possibly the reason for their interest in Jewish-Ukrainian topics. In some groups, visitors found parallels between the fate of Ukrainians and Jews since both groups belonged to ethnic minorities living among a Polish majority.
Photo: Discussing the complex identity and cultural belonging of the famous Polish-Jewish painter, Maurycy Gottlieb. Photo taken August 15, 2022.
Second, I skimmed over topics likely to re-traumatize war refugees or avoided them altogether. I avoided discussing the Holocaust in detail, instead jumping from interwar Poland to post-war Poland, only briefly mentioning the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust and the museum’s exhibition on the Warsaw ghetto, Europe’s largest Jewish ghetto. I offered to organize a separate visit for those who wanted to explore this topic further. I also passed over the immediate post-war destruction in Poland. Walking tours excluded the area of the ghetto (with some exceptions for the “small ghetto” with the remaining buildings) and focused on more distant history. The exhibition on Jewish cuisine was less complicated and more pleasant, but I still skipped the part about wartime food. People were grateful to me for not re-traumatizing them with war atrocities. Indeed, some explained they had avoided the museum because they did not want to be immersed in the Holocaust.
Third, I emphasized resilience and proactive choices in difficult situations rather than negative scenarios. A millennium of Jewish life on Polish lands enabled me to emphasize certain aspects of various periods such as the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, Modernity, etc. During walking tours, I focused on the preservation and restoration of cultural heritage rather than its destruction. In this regard, Warsaw stands out as a paragon of restoration from wartime ruins. In fact, many said they felt encouraged and empowered by its example, especially after seeing old photos of its wartime devastation. For those fleeing the war in Ukraine, Warsaw has become a symbol of revival and strength.
How do participants benefit?
The walking tours helped to orient visitors to Warsaw and understand the city better. After the tours, visitors frequently made comments like “Warsaw is much more familiar to me now” and “I remember all of these stories as something very meaningful.” They gained new information free of charge that expanded their cultural capital, spatial awareness, knowledge of important historical milestones, and personal enrichment.
For many refugees, the tours were therapeutic. This was especially true for tours through the city as compared to the museum, due to the topics, physical activities, and the opportunity to be in a safe space. I tried to create an encouraging and welcoming atmosphere to support the psychological comfort of participants. As participants got to know each other, a community emerged and developed. This is significant since social capital is as important as cultural capital, especially in times of major life changes.
I benefited, too. The experience was extremely valuable both professionally and personally, enabling me to develop a new social role as tour guide. I plan to continue developing similar activities in the future, expand my Facebook page with more recommendations on routes and places of my life, and stay in touch this new Ukrainian community in Warsaw.
This project was supported by generous funding from the Memory Scholars at Risk Fellowship Program. For more information, visit the Facebook page, “Alanissima: Walking Tours in Ukrainian”.
Photo: Near the monument to a famous Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Warsaw. Photo taken October 9, 2022
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