Week Three: “What Happens in Poland…”

January 19, 2010 at 7:16 (Uncategorized)


I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I ended up at the Polish Museum of America on Martin Luther King Day, in the middle of Haiti’s quake catastrophe. In fact, I don’t know of a more perfect place I could have been to commemorate the day, the sacrifice and the message of valuing all the world’s people. This is mostly because the Polish Museum of America manages to tell a version of Poland’s history without once mentioning the Jews.

My friend H and I went yesterday on what happened to be a lucky sunny day. In the 800-square-foot shadows of the auditorium were small glass-encased and towering, free-standing museum-type relics, a sterile shrine to Pope John Paul II, colorful costumes spanning a dozen non-crucial periods in Polish history and various World War II artifacts, propaganda and uniforms.

Two female volunteers, one, older with a neck brace, and another younger woman (only by comparison) who was disturbingly childlike, removed ornaments from the room’s central Christmas tree, the younger one whimpering for 15 minutes after dropping and crushing a hand-blown glass globe. We toured the museum in silence for 45 more minutes until we were distracted by the sounds of crinkled dismantling as the women began to pick away with more and more speed at the remnants of a large Christmas stage and display.

Within minutes of entering the main hall, an anxious Polish Museum staff leader popped over eager to alert us to the Easter exhibit, and returned every three minutes with new and unappealing reasons to “visit again.” Uninterested in a lifelong tradition of this I tossed a closed smile at him, keening in on the curious and seemingly ethnically displaced rows of stone and ceramic cups; ceiling-high tomb doors with faces and door knockers inscribed with Polish hieroglyphics; and carved dark-wood creatures that reminded me of an African market.

I stared at the line of contents in two of the cases for 20 minutes.   It was remarkable to see that every culture has touched every other… Africa and Egypt and Asia really mixed here, and painted Poland (or this version of Poland) more than I knew from my  elementary and Hebrew school educations. But among the Easter eggs and ceramic mugs and the 50% of space devoted to World War II, there was not one sentence, not one tiny pin or photograph, acknowledging the Jews. They had wiped us out.

(Jews date back over a millennium in Poland, and the country was the center of Jewish culture before the Holocaust.)

I recognized myself in absolutely nothing, here. I don’t know much about who I am or about the Jewish people and our social position beyond Hollywood stereotypes, but I know Poland is a part of me, inextricably intertwined with my history, my grandparents’ history and the more than SIX MILLION of us who didn’t live long enough to have a history. That’s not something to be forgotten in this museum or anywhere else. It upset me — as it has so many times when I have to tell Chicagoans that Jews don’t have Christmas trees and Hanukkah isn’t a major holiday — to be lost in the Midwest’s edited interpretation. I guess I feel Jews shouldn’t have to wait until we’re like dinosaurs, teetering on the edge of extinction, to be recognized.

So it got me thinking, in light of recent events, about how quickly we forget.

As we watch the Haitian part of the world crumble, we should take the time to think about what’s being lost. To talk to people about it. And to remember that there are some things we should never ever forget.

I know we’re all struggling financially, but it’s important to text HAITI to 90999 to have $10 added to our phone bills, and to preserve valuable people and their culture on our planet. As the Polish Museum of America just demonstrated, it is all-too-easy to be eradicated from it.

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2 Comments

  1. 52weeksofnew said,

    Thanks to H for raising the important questions and inspiring this blog.

  2. t said,

    powerful, very powerful.

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