In a frank response to Jewish remembrance, Polish-Jewish journalist Konstanty Gebert noted, “people tend to forget that the important thing about Polish Jews is not that they waited 900 years for the Germans to come and kill them, but that they actually did something for those 900 years.” And indeed they did. However, despite the fact Jewish presence in Poland began over a millennium ago and played a significant role in Polish history, most Jewish memorials (over 2100 according to the state’s count and more than any other European country can boast) sustain Holocaust memory while falling short of illuminating other dimensions of Poland’s Jewish community. Poland’s tourism industry follows suit – focusing largely on Holocaust sites and less on contemporary interaction or dialogue with the local, living community. Whereas remembrance and commemoration of Polish Jewry has, until now, concentrated largely on the Shoah, Warsaw’s upcoming museum aims to provide a more comprehensive illustration of Jewish life; the religious, social, and political developments that characterized what once was the heart of the global Jewish Diaspora. For this reason, among others, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is the first of its kind.
“The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a way to recover Poland’s multicultural and multi-denominational past…it fits with being part of the European Union, and being part of a modern world in a post-communist era.”
We began our research with an equivocal understanding of tourism’s role within Polish society and the nation’s memorial landscape. We did not attempt to conduct an exhaustive survey of all forms of Holocaust tourism in Poland, nor could we examine the multifarious effects the industry has on Polish-Jewish relations, collective memory, or existing Jewish communities in Poland. Our intent was to gain some sense of how various actors – the Polish government, local residents, historians, journalists, Jewish visitors – are responding to identified tensions within the tourism industry. We wanted to know how Holocaust tourism is evolving to accommodate Polish, Jewish and omnipresent human concerns. Before long, we discovered that Warsaw’s upcoming development – The Museum of the History of Polish Jews – embodies these issues and, in many cases, responds to concerns regarding the remembrance of Poland’s Jewry both on a domestic and international level. The museum and its location beside Nathan Rapaport’s iconic monument serve as illuminating focal points for this otherwise intimidating subject.
A Brief History of Polish Jewry
For nearly a millennium, Poland had been home to Europe’s largest Jewish community – in part due to a (largely unacknowledged) history of religious tolerance in a multi-ethnic nation. Of Poland’s more than 3 million Jews, 90% perished during World War II. The remaining Jewish population and those returning to Poland after the Shoah experienced anti-Semitic pogroms and religious intolerance, both on a local and state level. In particular, the 1946 Kielce pogrom, the 1956 communist party purge and the state-led anti-Zionist campaign in 1968 impelled a large percent of surviving Jews to emigrate from Poland. These massive waves of emigration, alongside the post-war expulsions of Germans, the Akcja Wisla campaign , the repatriation of Polish citizens into the country’s new borders and the displacement of Lithuanians, Byelorussians and Ukrainians into their respective Soviet Socialist Republics, made Poland more mono-ethnic than it had ever been in its entire history. Poland’s Jewish community became predominantly associated with the Holocaust, and although Jewish Poles had contributed significantly to the nation’s character and development, their colossal annihilation came to overshadow all other aspects of their past.
Poland as a “graveyard” (a shocking but common affiliation) fortified in the minds of many.
During Poland’s communist regime, representation of the Shoah and commemoration of its victims was state-controlled and negligible. Recognition of the Shoah was subsumed within the larger context of WWII suffering, and rarely acknowledged as a unique event. Meanwhile in the international community, representations of Poland and the Holocaust began to develop without Polish engagement or insight. Professor Orla-Bukowska claims that misperceptions regarding the Polish citizenry’s involvement in the Shoah prevailed, and for half a century a ‘guilt by association’ stereotype was “constructed around the fact that the remnants of all the known German death camps could now be found within Poland’s post-war borders, and that the country lay in that sinister and glacial abyss ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, officially affiliated with the West’s Cold War enemy”. For instance, Nazi extermination camps became commonly referred to as Polish concentration camps, an implicit suggestion that the Poles were indeed perpetrators, or at least reserved bystanders. In the absence of any genuine exchange between Poles and the international community, these assumptions could go unchecked, and Poland, for many, became associated exclusively with those who had perished within its borders. Poland as a “graveyard” (a shocking but common affiliation) fortified in the minds of many. “Surely this cemetery, this lunar landscape from which [the Jews] had escaped, was hell in every respect.”
The Post-Communist Era and Emergence of “Holocaust Tourism”
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the resulting collapse of Poland’s communist government in 1989, Polish-Jewish relations changed significantly. The revival of Polish-Israeli diplomacy along with Poland’s less restrictive borders ushered in a new phenomenon: tourism dedicated to Shoah remembrance and commemoration – commonly referred to as Holocaust Tourism. An increasing number of tourists arrived in Poland committed to visiting Holocaust-related landmarks. Anthropologist Jack Kugelmass wrote in 1993, “[t]here is something unique about Jewish tourism in Poland. Jewish tourists see nothing quaint about the local culture either Jewish or non-Jewish; their interest is the dead rather than the living. They go as antiquarians rather than ethnographers…” Although Kugelmass’ description is a generalization, it is not an unfounded one. Many of these visitors came in groups, traveling through the country from one site to another, adopting characteristics of religious pilgrimages to mourn the tragic past. In an interview discussing this emergence of Holocaust tourism in post-communist Poland, Konstanty Gebert claimed, “pilgrimages to martyrdom sites are not a Jewish tradition. Had we had this tradition, we could spend easily our entire lives moving from one massacre site to the next.” Additionally, Gebert stressed, “[the point is that] there already is a religion based on the myth of death and resurrection but the last time I looked, it wasn’t ours.”
For Poles and Jewish visitors alike, rediscovering their common (and distinct) roots is a struggle that extends far beyond solemn commemoration – Warsaw’s new museum is an emphatic pioneer in this much-needed endeavor.
For some, holocaust tourism has become a civil religion of sorts. It is used, and manipulated, to evoke nationalist commitment and solidarity. For others, tracing the final steps of their ancestors is a solemn, solo venture. Holocaust tourism is an industry, political entity, a cathartic pilgrimage, and a paradox. By exploring holocaust tourism in the Polish context, we are able to explore how a nation struggles to process, and preserve, its past. Likewise, we are confronted by enduring stereotypes and stigmas, and by the efforts of various actors who are working to dismantle them. “For some, many of whom grew up believing that nothing was left in the old country after the Shoah, [visiting Jewish sites in Poland] is the discovery of the tangible evidence of their own heritage…” Discovery of this heritage, until recently, has largely been restricted to memorializing the termination of what was once a thriving civilization. For Poles and Jewish visitors alike, rediscovering their common (and distinct) roots is a struggle that extends far beyond solemn commemoration – Warsaw’s new museum is an emphatic pioneer in this much-needed endeavor.
The Museum of The History of Polish Jews
Scheduled to open in 2010, planning for the museum began more than a decade ago. In 1996, Jeshayahu Weinber, founding director of both Tel Aviv’s Diaspora Museum and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., organized an international committee of historians, literary scholars, sociologists and philosophers to collaborate on the project. In chronological order, the museum’s exhibition will travel through the first Jewish settlements in Poland, the ‘Golden Age’ during the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, life in Warsaw, the Shoah, and, finally, the post-war years. Senior staff describe the museum, in part, as a portal, a gateway through which visitors can both engage in and reflect on the legacy of Polish Jews. “We are not starting from a collection we want to exhibit,” says director of the exposition planning team, Professor Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, “but rather from history we want to communicate.”
With this in mind, rather than present a stale collection of items from an impersonal and ‘bygone’ era, the exhibition will depart from conventional museology in order to create – what the museum calls – a “theatre of history”; an interactive, dynamic mix of media, artifacts and pioneering technology. An additional temporary exhibition space, education center, library and conference/concert hall will enable the museum to serve multifarious purposes including community outreach programs and ongoing research opportunities.
The Museum and The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument: An Implicit Polemic?
Located in the heart of Warsaw, the museum will stand alongside one of the most famous- and doubly controversial- memorials in Poland. The Warsaw Ghetto Monument, by memorial icon Nathan Rapoport, stands in a park that perhaps more than any other location the museum’s staff might have picked, embodies the tensions, contradictions, and evolving approaches to commemoration within Holocaust Tourism in Poland.
Surrounded by gray and painfully functionalist soviet-style architecture, the fervor of the city remains on the periphery of Muranow Park. Two elderly women sit admiring the rows of geraniums and pink amaryllis that border the rectangular lawns, and pigeons wander across the stone steps leading up to the monument. Situated within what once was the largest Jewish ghetto established by Nazi Germany, commemorating the largest and most bloody Jewish insurgency during the Holocaust, and frequented by thousands of tourists, presidents, prime ministers and even the Pope, we were shocked and strangely intrigued by the most prevalent local presence: sunbathers. A mixture of thick, glistening middle-aged
women and scraggly pre-teens, the park looks like a Polish rendition of a suave beach resort. For local residents, this is public space.
A mixture of thick, glistening middle-aged women and scraggly pre-teens, the park looks like a Polish rendition of a suave beach resort. For local residents, this is public space. Residents bask in the summer heat, young couples relax together during lunch breaks, and dog-walkers pay frequent visits to the calm quarters.
“There aren’t enough parks in Warsaw,” a souvenir vendor protested, “this park belongs to those who use it.” Another local resident, commenting on the abundance of sunbathers, stressed that their presence is an indication of memory interacting with modern life. “This is a living community,” she said, “we may offend visitors, but they need to realize that this is our home.” As for the new museum, the women expressed her concern that it will be, once again, a development within Jewish commemoration that would further isolate remembrance from vibrant, everyday life – that it will place restrictions on the extent to which local Polish residents could interact in their community. For the many groups and individuals whose main purpose in Poland is to mourn the human tragedy of this Holocaust, casual enjoyment of the park can seem inappropriate, even irreverent. But as Konstanty Gebert points out, “[in Warsaw,] every site could be sacred. One could make a more philosophical argument that the fact this site has been reclaimed for life is a victory over the ideology of death. Right, okay, except that frankly people don’t give a damn. This isn’t an act of manifestation of integrating life with death….people sunbathe, and that’s that.”
In the context of the upcoming museum…the importance of this park to local Polish residents, alongside the need to create an education center somewhere that might communicate the legacy of Polish Jews beyond Shoah remembrance, was a recurrent issue.
At the start of our inquiry, we consciously agreed that we would avoid focusing on the ethical questions surrounding behavior at sacred sites – the issue is an important and fascinating one, but impossible to tackle or explore in a comprehensive way within the scope of this paper. In the context of the upcoming museum, however, the importance of this park to local Polish residents, alongside the need to create an education center somewhere that might communicate the legacy of Polish Jews beyond Shoah remembrance, was a recurrent issue.
University of Warsaw’s professor of psychology Dr. Bilewicz agreed, as did the museum’s senior staff, that although no one should trivialize the importance of the park for the local community, there had been very little expressed protest at neighborhood meetings arranged for discussing the new development. In fact, after conducting an intensive survey of local residents, sponsored by the Museum, Professor Bilewicz was surprised to discover that locals in the area were far more historically aware about, and appreciative of, the importance of the Ghetto Uprising and its commemoration then most other Warsaw citizens.
While the life of the Muranow Jewish district before the war is usually overshadowed by its atrocious termination, building the new museum there will potentially reorient visitors towards appreciating the pre-war vitality and historical significance of the area.
NYU Professor Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, stressed that building the museum in Muranow park, next to Rapaport’s internationally renowned monument, was a conscious and brilliant choice. Beyond the strategic reasons for using such a location (most tourists, Polish or otherwise, that visit Warsaw will invariably visit the memorial) the park rests in the heart of what once was Warsaw’s largest and most vibrant Jewish district. “Visitors tend to associate the neighborhood with the former ghetto, which is a natural association, except for that it ignores a very important fact,” Agnieszka Rudzińska, Deputy Director of Communications and Public Relations at the museum, commented, “Warsaw’s Muranow district was a ghetto for four years, but the Jewish community lived there for hundreds of years.” While the life of the Muranow Jewish district before the war is usually overshadowed by its atrocious termination, building the new museum there will potentially reorient visitors towards appreciating the pre-war vitality and historical significance of the area. For Professor Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, “[the place] gives us an opportunity to be a sight specific museum, without being a holocaust museum.”
In addition to standing in the heart of a former Jewish community, the museum will be a provocative development in the Muranow district, because it will stand adjacent to the world-famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial. For Konstanty Gebert, “putting a museum that does not focus on the Shoah next to a monument that does, is an implicit polemic with the Shoah-centric perception of Poland that many Diaspora Jews maintain.”
At the base of the monument, Hebrew, English and Polish inscriptions read, “To the Jewish People – Its Heroes and i’s Martyrs.” The granite structure that houses these two depictions symbolizes, according to Rapaport, both the Ghetto walls and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. On the monument’s western side, the heroes emerge as almost mythological figures, each holding weapons and standing behind their “unmistakably proletarian” leader, Anielewicz. On the east facing walls, the martyrs are depicted as archetypal Jews in exile – heads turned to the ground in solemn resignation, a rabbi holding a Torah in his left hand and barely visible Nazi helmets behind the dark procession. In The Texture of Memory, James Young writes, “[w]ith so few living and breathing Jews in Poland, Jews have come to exist primarily in the twin memorial references embodied by the Ghetto Monument: as metonymies for destruction and heroism”. The monument’s dual identity presents the modes of remembrance dominant within Shoah-centric travel itineraries.
“Commemorating forgotten history was one of the new Solidarity movement’s forms of demonstration – a recognition that [the state’s] selected, and falsified version of Polish history was distorted, and needed to be changed.”
Additionally, the memorial embodies what Gebert described as Poland’s “War over Memory” – commemorating martyrdom has come to characterize much of both Polish and Jewish collective identity. For instance, Solidarity invoked the memorial as a sign of Polish resistance throughout the communist era and, consequently, the government nationalized the site and its surrounding park in 1983. But although the monument has led a precarious life among internationals and locals alike, in regards to the new museum reclaiming the space as part of the memorial landscape of Polish Jews, “there is little resistance among local residents” Professor Bilewicz said. “Of course it is not understood as a memorial that belongs exclusively to the Jews,” the museum’s director Jerzy Halbersztadt acknowledged, “…it is a part of Polish history – but a Jewish part of Polish history.” He pointed out that Solidarity’s utilization of the monument during the 80s was, in fact, a protest against Poland’s distorted collective memory – distortions that the museum also hopes to address. “Commemorating forgotten history was one of the new Solidarity movement’s forms of demonstration – a recognition that [the state’s] selected, and falsified version of Polish history was distorted, and needed to be changed.”
“Most Poles have never seen a Jew and never will…the Jew is a mythical creature by definition.”
Correcting these distortions within national memory is a task that far exceeds the capacity of any one single entity. Still, the museum will serve as an anchor for both Holocaust tourism itineraries and general education within Poland and the international community. The museum will be one among the manifold efforts to maintain the legacy and “open-ended history” of Jewish life in Poland, and a critical actor in the portrayal of what it is to be Jewish or part of the Jewish experience. Confronting prevailing stereotypes requires, in part, avoiding the tendency to exoticize the Jewish world and reduce a diverse community into a single archetypal character. In Poland, Gebert claims, “most Poles have never seen a Jew and never will…the Jew is a mythical creature by definition.” And the mythology that has come to represent the Jewish community – including memorials, Jewish theatre (the only expression of Jewish culture permitted during communism) and more Orthodox images of Jewish life – often reassure stereotypes of “the other” in a predominantly mono-ethnic society. It’s not that these more “exotic” aspects of Polish Jewry didn’t exist; it’s simply that they sustain disproportionate representation.
Director Halbersztadt explained that, up until the mid-19th century, German, Polish or other foreign artists created most of the artwork depicting Jewish life. “Painting was not a Jewish specialty until modern times – until the end of the 19th century”. Consequently, these paintings and illustrations tend to focus on what would be considered exotic from a gentile’s perspective: synagogues, prayers, traditional dress, etc. Halbersztadt expressed the museum’s difficulty with representing the gradual rise of Poland’s secular Jewish community preceding the epoch of the photograph. “Our intention is to reflect the true historical process,” Halbersztadt said, “without paying disproportionate attention to aspects of Jewish life that have survived through artistic relics.” Portraying the Polish Jewry is not just about heroes and martyrs, nor is it about exotic, antiquated enigmas—the museum’s challenge will be to transcend these traditional, and problematic, categories of representation.
The museum’s efforts to correct disproportionate representation of Polish Jewry are part of a broader effort to dismantle prevailing stereotypes among visitors and within Polish society itself. Still, as journalist Miriam Gonczarska reminded us, “the museum is not responsible for making or breaking stereotypes, nor could it be.” Moreover, when asked about how the museum will respond to contemporary tensions within Polish-Jewish relations, Director Halbersztadt emphatically stated, “we intentionally chose not to create a museum of Polish – Jewish relations…this is not our subject.” Still, whether explicitly or indirectly, the museum will likely affect how Jews are perceived and received in Poland, and be instrumental in shaping the changing face of holocaust tourism. We can only speculate how exactly these changes will manifest themselves. We do know, however, that the museum is far from alone in initiating these changes.
Throughout our study, we were surprised and delighted by how many individuals, organizations, and even national governments are dedicating attention to this critical issue – current modes of holocaust tourism and their repercussions on Polish-Jewish relations. As for our exposure to these transformative efforts, we focused on group tourism, specifically the March of the Living and state-sponsored Israeli Youth delegations. The following section is a brief overview of this aspect of our study – how these groups tend to interact with Polish society, their history in Poland, contentious characteristics and, most importantly, what initiatives are taking place to transform these important, but oft problematic, journeys.
We are standing in Warsaw’s former Nazi headquarters, the same room Gestapo officers used throughout the occupation.
Holocaust Tourism in Transition. Case Studies: Youth Delegations and the March of the Living
“You want to see my secret project?” It is the end of our interview with Dr Michal Bilewicz, a young scholar from Warsaw University’s Faculty of Psychology. Excitedly, he jumps up from his chair and hurries over to the window, frantically removing several posters. Confused and unsure of what we should be looking for, we follow him across the lackluster office towards the ground-level window. He points to a sticker prominently attached to the center of the windowsill, which reads: “Shalom”, “Shalom! …Peace.” He reminds us that we are standing in Warsaw’s former Nazi headquarters, the same room Gestapo officers used throughout the occupation. Each week, hundreds of tourists, traveling from one holocaust memorial to the next, peer into his office window, curious to see any remnants of the building’s previous occupants. But instead of SS apparitions or (at least) a deeply anti-Semitic and grim-faced Pole, they find a young, Jewish scholar with his message to the world: SHALOM.
Each day, Dr. Bilewicz witnesses the uncomfortable dynamic created by large groups and their usual avoidance of outside interaction. For Bilewicz, the issue stems from the relationship between visibility and distance: “[T]he problem is that they are very visible and at the same time there isn’t an opportunity to contact Polish youth or local residents. And so there is a type of distance that is created, especially when there are guards. Most of Polish students and ordinary people they feel a little bit threatened by groups that come and don’t want to meet them.” The professor added that this startling absence of interaction creates a breeding ground for establishing fortified stereotypes.
“Having large groups of Jewish youth, be it from Israel, the US or from Europe, come to Poland, arrive with no interest in anything, hugging each other while weeping in Israeli flags, coming with the attitude that the Polish are bad people and that Poland is a bad place, not questioning their preconception about Poland and Polish people – is not good for the kids, nor is it good for Poland.”
During conversations with local residents surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, we heard similar complaints. One woman described how, for the past two years, she has observed tourist groups arrive at the site surrounded by bodyguards, focused entirely on the monument and the other participants and, in the short time they spend there, make no effort to interact with locals. The museum’s head of the exposition planning team Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett expressed her concerns about massive organized tours, especially when it comes to youth. “Having large groups of Jewish youth, be it from Israel, the US or from Europe, come to Poland, arrive with no interest in anything, hugging each other while weeping in Israeli flags, coming with the attitude that the Polish are bad people and that Poland is a bad place, not questioning their preconception about Poland and Polish people – is not good for the kids, nor is it good for Poland.”
According to Israel’s Cultural Attaché, four main types of holocaust tourists visit Poland: private visitors, high school students from Israel, March of the living participants and Israeli soldiers, described as witnesses in uniform. Of the above-mentioned categories, our interviewees most frequently discussed Israel’s state-sponsored high school groups and the March of the Living, referring to the both the general issues that arise from group trips and also the two programs’ distinct characteristics.
March of the Living is perhaps the most famous, and controversial, example of pilgrimages in Poland designed to commemorate the dead. First staged in 1988, this international and privately funded organization has sponsored thousands of Jewish teens from various countries on pilgrimages to Auschwitz and other death camps throughout the country. An Israeli newspaper described the March’s goal as an effort “to forge a personal link to the Nazi murder of six million Jews and to commemorate the infamous Nazi ‘death marches’ in which thousands of camp inmates died while being forced to walk in the freezing Polish forests toward the end of the war”. The culminating event of these journeys is a massive procession of thousands of teens, dressed in identical blue jackets and prominently displaying the Star of David on their back, from Auschwitz to Birkenau to honor Holocaust Remembrance day. For many Poles, “a crowd of people wearing blue jackets means a traffic jam in the city and arrogant visitors who very often blame the community of Auschwitz for what happened 60 years ago” (Polish Forum).
Among those whom we interviewed, there was a general consensus that the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message presented during this program is an affirmation that Poland means death, while Israel epitomizes life. For many participants, the March is their first trip to “the heart of darkness,” a reminder that, unlike the vast European ‘cemetery’, Israel symbolizes resurrection. A young girl from a Warsaw Jewish youth group complained “[March of the Living] takes kids to Poland to show disaster, while they’re here they’re not allowed to party, and then they go to Israel, eat Kosher hotdogs and everything is perfect.”
“The idea that this is still our country and it’s where we live […] was so unacceptable and incompatible with the general message of the March of the Living that we were banned.”
For almost a decade, Polish groups were excluded from participation in the pilgrimage. Orla-Bukowska explained that, finally, in 1996 they were allowed to participate, but their enrollment capacity was limited to less than 10% of the March’s participants. According to Gebert, reasons behind this policy lie within the March’s ideology and underlying message. “The idea that this is still our country and it’s where we live […] was so unacceptable and incompatible with the general message of the March of the Living that we were banned.” The Jewish Youth group member agreed – “I don’t think they like the idea that there is a history, and living Jewish community, after the Holocaust.” She and her fellow group members discussed their frustrations with organized meetings between Israeli and Polish youth. “I hate these stupid meetings,” she said, “but on the other hand it’s important to show that Poland is not the bottom of hell.” They said the most common questions asked of them are “how can you live in Poland” and “why don’t you go to Israel?” Jewish youth Maciek declared, “we are Jewish and we are Polish. We are both – 100%. We are 200%, if you like.”
This Manichaean portrayal of destruction and redemption accentuates much of the March of the Living program. Similarly, state-sponsored Israeli high school delegations share many of these problematic characteristics that present Poland as “…a vast and shamefully neglected mass graveyard” and inhibit multicultural exchange. Since the late 1980s, Holocaust educational visits to Poland, sponsored and facilitated by the Ministry of Education, are standard components of Israeli secondary education. According to the Museum’s ‘Poland-Israel Youth Encounters Expert’ Jacek Olejnik, over 25 thousand young Israeli students travel to Poland, usually just before entering the army, and spend 8 days touring between concentration camps, former Jewish ghettos and other memorial sights. Like March of the Living, these groups tend to remain isolated from local communities, lack sufficient understanding of contemporary Polish society or its rich pre-war history, and limit their travel itineraries to Holocaust memorials.
One surprising feature of these programs is the official dietary restrictions. In 2007 the Knesset passed a bill, sponsored by the Ministry of Education, requiring student delegations visiting Holocaust sites in Poland to eat only kosher food. For the most part, food for these trips are purchased beforehand in Israel and carried with the groups throughout their journey. “Poland as the land of the perpetrators, thus one shouldn’t buy food here,” Professor Bilewicz argued, is an underlying message on these trips. Though not part of an official policy, statements of this kind easily spread through the delegations and, according to Dr. Bilewicz, at least half of the participants he surveyed claimed to have heard these rumors from guards, other participants or guides.
Additionally, Jacek Olejnik, former exchange program coordinator at the Israeli embassy, told us about his experience at a pre-trip meeting in 2003 at an Israeli High School. “The clear message was not to interact too much. The kids were told not to speak Hebrew in public and not to wear anything with Hebrew letters on it – but explanations as to why they shouldn’t do these things were not given.” Coupled with the heavy security measures on these tours, such as armed-guards, these messages create an atmosphere of vulnerability – they reinforce the common preconception that Poland is a dangerous place.
Poland and Israel signed an agreement requiring each Israeli youth delegation make contact with their Polish peers for at least two hours during the program.
Israel’s Cultural Attaché, Yaakov Finkelstein, assured us that, on an inter-governmental level, there is heightened awareness that the perceptions of Jewish groups as unapproachable due to their guards, alongside enduring reciprocal stereotypes between Israelis and Poles are problematic elements of these tours and warrant attention. Efforts are being made to address these issues, the first of which occurred in 1991. Poland and Israel signed an agreement requiring each Israeli youth delegation make contact with their Polish peers for at least two hours during the program. Mr. Olejnik claimed that, in reality, less than 5% successfully fulfill this requirement. Mr. Finkelstein argued that the figure was closer to 20%, and growing steadily each year. In either case, the awareness of the need for reform is obvious.
In 2004, under direct supervision of the Prime Minister, an Israeli office was created to coordinate youth exchange programs between Poland and Israel. Both Mr. Olejnik and Mr. Finkelstein confirmed that the two states are in the process of negotiating a common fund for these exchanges. Additionally, efforts are being made to include Polish educators in the Israeli tour group’s curriculum. Across the board, reforms within holocaust tourism are gaining momentum. Indeed, the museum is also pioneering an exchange program of its own: The Poland-Israel Youth Encounters.
Focused on multicultural integration, the program supports academic exchanges between the two states, fostering youth interaction and providing home-stay experiences to students who might otherwise overlook Israel and Poland’s mutual heritage. The program is part of the Museum’s larger educational efforts – “We’re not just a museum,” Director Halbersztadt stressed, “we are an educational center.” After working in the Israeli embassy for many years helping to coordinate state-sponsored youth meetings, Jacek Olejnik remarked that one of the significant benefits of organizing exchanges with the museum is not having to abide by strict security measures. This relaxed atmosphere facilitates more in-depth, honest and open exchange.
The Museum’s approach to fostering youth dialogue is characteristic of larger transformations occurring within Holocaust tourism in Poland. Among these changes, a push for increased dialogue between international visitors and locals and an effort to dismantle the “Poland as a graveyard” perception will improve Polish-Jewish relations and restore the legacy of Poland’s dynamic past. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett illuminated the significance of the museum within both the national and international context. “The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a way to recover Poland’s multicultural and multi-denominational past,” she said, “it fits with being part of the European Union, and being part of a modern world in a post-communist era.” Throughout our inquiry, scholars, journalists, local Jewish youth, politicians and tour guides alike agreed that while acknowledging and memorializing the Shoah is both morally legitimate and fundamentally imperative, there is a much-needed reorientation of how we experience Polish-Jewish history. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a step in the right direction.
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Anonymous middle aged Polish lady, sunbathing at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial, June 24th 2008
Anonymous Polish girl at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial, June 24th 2008
Anonymous Polish-Jewish Girl, Jewish Community Center Warsaw, June 27th 2008
Anonymous Polish tourist vender at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial, June 24th 2008
Michał Bilewicz PhD, Centre for Research on Prejudice, Faculty of Psychology, Warsaw University, Co-founder of the Forum for Dialogue Among the Nations in Warsaw, June 27th 2008.
Tomasz Cebulski, tour guide, June 30th 2008
Kora Cecerska, Jewish young woman, Jewish Community Center Warsaw, June 27th 2008
Yaakov Finkelstein, Cultural attaché Israeli Embassy in Poland, July 2nd 2008
Konstanty Gebert, Journalist, columnist of “Gazeta Wyborcza“, founder of “Midrasz“, June 25th 2008
Miriam Gonczarska, Journalist, Polish Council of Christians and Jews, June 29th 2008
Jerzy Halbersztadt, Museum Director, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, July 1st 2008
Professor Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, head of the exposition planning team of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Professor of Performance Studies New York University, June 30th 2008
Maciek Krasniewski, Polish Jew, Jewish Community Center Warsaw, June 27th 2008
Malgorzata Naimska, Deputy Director Department of Culture, City of Warsaw, June 30th 2008
Jacek Olejnik, Poland-Israel Youth Encounter Expert, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, July 1st 2008
Annamaria Orla-Bukowska PhD, Sociology Department of Jagiellonian University, Cracow, June 30th 2008
Agnieszka Rudzińska, Deputy Director of Communications and Public Relations, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, July 1st 2008
Joanna Wojtowicz-Wojciechowska, City Council of Warsaw, June 30th 2008
Andrzej Żbikowski PhD, Jewish Historical Institute Warsaw, July 1st 2008