By Lindsey Stoll, Class of 2016
On March 6th, 2016 I had the pleasure of attending a symposium titled “Jewish Life in Poland: An Enduring Legacy” at the University of San Francisco. The event was presented by the Taube Study Seminar, a project of the Teen Curriculum Initiative TCI/Jewish Learning Works, and was co-sponsored by the University of San Francisco’s Museum Studies and Jewish Studies & Social Justice Programs.
Adrian Schrek, director of the Teen Curriculum Initiative at Jewish Learning Works, began by sharing a recent discussion with colleagues engaged in Holocaust education: “We’re always teaching about how Jews died, but maybe we should be talking about how Jews lived.” In response, Schrek approached Taube Philanthropies about funding a trip for these educators, both Jews and non-Jews, to deepen their knowledge of Jewish life in contemporary and prewar Poland. The symposium at USF was an opportunity for these six Holocaust educators (Taube Fellows) to share their discoveries and thoughts regarding their recent trip to Poland, and to dialogue and network with the community of approximately 100 attendees.
The event was empowering, as it dealt with both prewar and contemporary Jewish life in Poland. As someone who has a strong interest in commemorative spaces and memorial museums, I was amazed by the insight these individuals provided on these topics. The introductory session began with a screening of a short film featuring two stories: an American Holocaust survivor returning to Poland to attend the opening of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and efforts by a young non-Jewish couple to preserve their town’s Jewish history. In response, attendees were asked to break into groups and discuss the film and our thoughts on Jewish life in Poland, as well as our reasons for attending the event. This activity proved extremely powerful, as it resulted in a meaningful discussion on how Jewish Poles are often seen as the Other within a country they call home.
Following the introductory session, we separated into breakout discussion sessions. I chose to attend Encounters with Commemorative Space in Poland: An Exploration of How We Experience Jewish Sites and Museums, facilitated by Rabbi Batshir Torchio, senior educator at San Francisco Jewish Community Center and Maia Ipp, associate director of creative writing at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. Their presentation raised points on how museums in Poland are currently presenting Jewish culture and life through commemorative spaces. Examples of commemorative spaces they discussed were the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, the Galicia Jewish Museum, the Auschwitz Jewish Center, and the POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Both speakers engaged us to think about the idea that museums and commemorative spaces have the opportunity to present Poland and Jewish Poles as intertwined subjects rather than separating the two. Additionally, the session addressed the idea that Jewish life in Poland can, and should be, explored in terms of the present rather than just the past.
This being my first introduction to many of these museums, I was struck by the POLIN and the ways in which this museum chose to commemorate Jewish culture and life in Poland, not only through their exhibitions, but also through their architecture, landscape, and location. The space itself is located near what was once the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII and is across from the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. The POLIN is unique in that it discusses not only the history of Jews in Poland, but also the present lives of Jewish Poles today. The POLIN was recently named the 2016 Museum of the Year by the European Museum Forum, a prestigious distinction in the field, and is known for its groundbreaking core exhibit, developed by a collaboration of more than 120 international scholars under the direction of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Chief Curator, museum visionary, ethnographer and distinguished New York University Professor. Kirschenblatt-Gimblett recently spoke at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, taking the audience behind the scenes of the POLIN Museum and her tireless efforts to reanimate a vanished Jewish world.
I left this symposium with a new understanding of what it means to create an effective commemorative space in the museum world. These types of institutions have the opportunity to create spaces of collective memory, meaning, and inclusion. “Jewish Life in Poland: An Enduring Legacy” opened my eyes to how museums can work as not only storytellers, but also as advocates for identity and culture.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program click here.