Poland: POLIN – Ought and Can

Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw.

Does knowing how something ends, a book, a movie, a life, for instance, affect our experience of the thing? The answer seems obvious. Of course, it does. Ought it to affect our experience? The answer to this question is not as apparent. “Ought” is a tricky word. It is used to express an obligation. In ethics, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that “ought implies can.” To say, for example, that John ought not to steal, would require that it be possible that John not steal. Straightforward, right? But what if John suffers from kleptomania, the “irresistible” impulse to steal resulting from an emotional disorder? Is it possible for Jews, or anyone for that matter, to study Jewish history in Poland of any period before the Shoah and not be affected by their knowledge of what’s coming?


Monday, October 22, 2018. Today Beth and I will spend seven hours in the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The museum tells the story of a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland—the religious, cultural, economic, and political history of Poland’s Jews. The museum opened in April 2013. Its Core Exhibition, which is what Beth and I viewed, opened in October 2014. The building was designed by the Finnish architects Ilmari Lahdelma and Rainer Mahlamäki and is constructed of concrete, glass, and copper. Its appearance is striking.

At the museum’s ticket desk, we purchase our tickets and obtain audio guides linked to sixty stations in the museum. By the end of the day, I will make it through about forty-five of them at a comfortable pace, but the last fifteen in a bit of a rush.

Before starting our self-guided tour, however, we go to the cafeteria and order kosher meals for lunch. This is one of the services the museum provides for its visitors. The young woman taking our order is very diligent, and perhaps a bit nervous. She wants to make sure everything is set up correctly, that we get the right food, that we know what we are getting, that she knows the exact time we plan to eat, and what we would like to drink. The name of the restaurant is “Besamim,” the Hebrew word for spices.

One of the strongest points of the museum, in my opinion, is that it does not focus only on the ending, the Shoah, the six years from 1939 to 1945. It starts at the beginning of Jewish life in Poland, and even before that, with the legend of how Jews first came to Poland, a tale of walking through Polish forests fleeing western persecution and hearing the birds singing “Po Lin,” meaning “rest here.”

The museum is large. So here, I will mention, chronologically, only a few of the items from the museum’s core exhibit, items or areas that I found of particular interest.¹

  • The oldest item in the museum’s collection is a coin from the 13th century containing a Hebrew inscription. It is located in one of the rooms devoted to documentation of the earliest years of Jewish experience in Poland, from 965 to 1500. The coin is not like the coins we are used to today; it is engraved on one side only.
  • In an area of the museum called Paradisus Iudaeorum or “The Paradise of the Jews,” there is a scale model of Kraków and Kazimierz, Kraków’s historic Jewish quarter. Beth and I stayed in Kazimierz during our seven days in Kraków. Having just come from Kraków, we find the model of the city fascinating. It gives us an overall view of the town, the relationship between areas of the town that one does not notice while walking its streets.
  • The Gwoździec Synagogue was a beautiful wooden synagogue built around 1650. Its interior contained hand-painted flowers, animals, the texts of prayers. The synagogue was destroyed by fire in 1914. The museum houses the reconstructed roof of the synagogue and its central bimah. It is stunning! During the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, spanning the years 1569 to 1795, there were over 150 wooden synagogues in Poland. There are none today.
  • We walk on a Jewish Street modeled on city life during the Second Polish Republic, 1918-1939, also called interwar Poland. Approximately ten percent of Poland’s population during this period was Jewish. And most of that population lived in cities. Thirty percent of Warsaw’s residents were Jewish. In this exhibit, Beth and I get a feeling of what Jewish life was like in a Polish city during this period. There are exhibits on politics and culture, including Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish publications.
  • There is an exhibit documenting life in the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto in occupied Poland. Four hundred and fifty thousand Jews lived in the ghetto between 1940 and 1943 when the ghetto was liquidated. Documents created and stored in the ghetto by Emmanuel Ringelblum are the sources for the museum’s ghetto exhibit.
  • My favorite of all of the museum’s exhibits is the one about the renewal of Jewish life in Poland from 1944 to the present. It is a miracle it seems to me. Renewal is small, ongoing, but determined. Good people are working hard for its success. It gives me pleasure to think of a continued presence of Jewish life in modern Poland.

During our break for lunch, Beth and I sit next to two Jewish couples from Israel, speaking Hebrew. Our food is hot, kosher, and tasty.

When we leave the museum, there is a gathering of people in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. People are seated in rows on the ground, and a group of young people carrying Israeli flags are preparing to give a presentation. The presentation and songs are in Hebrew and based upon documents from the ghetto. The performers are from a school in Herzliya, Israel.

Students from Herzliya, Israel, giving a presentation at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Warsaw, Poland.

Beth and I are tired and the evening air is chilly. We walk back to our room in the dark. I was not able to view the history of the Jews in Poland without the Shoah peering over my shoulder. I wanted to view it without those glasses. But I couldn’t.

By the way, if you can’t get to Poland, you can take a virtual tour of the museum online.

Next time, something different: a visit to the Chopin Museum, and a fantastic food find.


¹The items in the list were selected by me. The historical details are from information obtained from the museum’s website.


Photos © 2018 Beth Ben-Avraham.

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