Polin (the Museum of the History of Polish Jews) was for four days invaded by our interesting – at first sight potentially even strange – company,which speaks a dozen languages (often at the same time), comes from all parts of Europe and beyond (yet many of us are also unable to answer the question “Where do you live?” by naming only one country), we belong to different age groups and are also diverse in our professions.
However, we belong together, even though some members of the group do not know each other personally.
So who are we?
We are the alumni of a particular institution or rather, a community - we have all gone through one or more programs at Paideia (The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden). But there is something far greater that connects the graduates of Paideia beyond this biographical fact: it is a shared passion for Jewish culture (in the broad sense, including Judaism as a religion, academic Jewish Studies, protection of Jewish cultural heritage, Yiddishkeyt and community building), which led us to Paideia to begin with.
I think most of us cherish the memories from our time spent at Paideia as belonging to a happy and intellectually stimulating period of our lives. The wish to reconnect with our own cohort and faculty, to meet new people, to participate in interactive text study again and to learn about current affairs of Jewish culture around the world, are all factors that draw people to the annual Paideia Alumni Conference.
And last but not least who wouldn’t like to visit such places as Venice, Toledo, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw (cities that have so far been locations of Paideia reunions)?
The POLIN Museum
The POLIN Museum was an ideal venue for the Paideia Conference with its huge and stimulating core exhibition on the history of Polish Jews covering almost a thousand years, with its inspiring resource center and educational room. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, the director of the core exhibition, and the Paideia alumni who work in Polin – Ewa Budek, Kasia Kulinska, Dagmara Manka-Wizor and Albert Sternbach – were great hosts. We had the opportunity to participate in a guided tour of the core exhibition, where my group spent nearly three hours, which is not nearly enough to thoroughly look, read and soak up everything, but was, however, a great experience. The museum stood up to my expectations which had been raised quite high during my eight months at Paideia by fellow students who work at Polin.
The keynote lecture by Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett provided a lot of background information about the conceptual framework of the core exhibition which is meant to be a “theatre of history”.
The visitor is invited to perceive the history of Polish Jews as a story in progress. All the historical periods are presented through contemporary texts, instead of through reflections by posterity. Another important guiding principle was creating an advantage out of necessity: the fact that almost no objects of Jewish Warsaw survived that were not already included in other collections, allowed for creativity. Numerous artifacts are copies of those exhibited in other Polish museums, but in an enlarged version that makes illustrations and Hebrew inscriptions more visible. There is also space for creativity and participation for visitors, for instance the ceiling of the wooden synagogue (built within the exhibition) was painted by participants in a workshop where they learned about the architecture of early modern wooden synagogues in Poland. Naturally, due to the scarcity of surviving ancient objects Polin’s core exhibition is a narrative exhibition where emphasis is on the story rather than on presenting material heritage.
An important change in Paideia’a life was announced over the course of the conference in Warsaw. Barbara Lerner-Spectre, the founding director, embodiment and spirit of Paideia will be succeeded as the director of Paideia by the historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, co-author of “Jews and Words” (written together with Amos Oz).
When I first heard Barbara would not continue to lead Paideia (even though she will remain involved with Paideia in numerous ways), my first thought was that it was a disaster. How could Paideia be Paideia without her? However, after the lecture of Fania Oz-Salzberger I was convinced that Paideia was going to be in good hands. So I reconciled with the fact that everything has to change in the world, including Paideia.
Fania Oz-Salzberger as a historian of literacy is a great fit for Paideia’s conceptual framework, which is the interactive study of Jewish texts. Fania’s scope of research includes, besides literacy the history of ideas, the European Enlightenment and the role of languages and translations in early modern Europe. She has published several books and numerous essays on these subjects, and she also authored a book on a contemporary phenomenon: “Israelis in Berlin”. Her lecture in Warsaw provided a grand narrative of the historical relationship of Jewish civilization and literacy. According to Fania, Jews were parachuted from Late Antiquity to Modernity on two engines: "the book" and "the child". Jewish families and communities cherished above all their children['s education] and their books, which made them prepared for modern education way before modernity arrived.
In line with the tradition of Paideia alumni reunions, the conference provided us with the opportunity to learn about each other’s current projects, to discuss and get into fruitful debates about issues concerning contemporary Jewish culture. The sessions covered such exciting topics as Jewish schooling for Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan; Jews and the Post-Maidan Ukraine; Christian-Jewish interfaith dialogue; Jewish cooking courses in Lithuania and many more.
We also explored the places of Jewish history in Warsaw (first of all those of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) in walking tours guided by professional guides of the Taube Center For The Renewal Of Jewish Life In Poland.
Marta, the very knowledgeable and passionate guide of my group, drew our attention on how much the rebuilt Muranów district demonstrates the history of the annihilated Warsaw ghetto in ways that are not obvious at all. Numerous buildings are built much higher than the street level because they were built on the ruins of the destroyed buildings.
Nowadays, however, there is also a conscious effort for the visual commemoration of pre-war Muranów: paintings on wall surfaces show which famous buildings and people populated these streets before the Second World War.
I was personally super excited for this trip also because it was my first time in Warsaw (and besides, I am a historian specializing in East Central European Jewish history). Arriving two and a half days earlier allowed me to have time to reconnect with friends and explore the city. I started my sightseeing with a pilgrimage to Krochmalna Street where my favorite writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, was brought up and where a number of his stories are set (including "In My Father's Court"). His works are to a large extent “responsible” for my obsession with everything “Jewish”.
Naturally, I was aware that almost nothing survived from pre-war Jewish Warsaw, but it was extremely different to experience rather than to know of the lack of traces of so much Jewish life. (In 1939 almost one third of the city’s population was Jewish.) So this visit to Krochmalna Street was a first lesson in what the title of Israel Joshua Singer’s (brother of Isaac Bashevis Singer) memoir "Of A World That Is No More" means beyond the words. I took further lessons in the Warsaw Uprising Museum which demonstrates that hardly anything remained of Warsaw in general, and not only of Jewish Warsaw.
Nevertheless I really liked and enjoyed the rebuilt, now existing Warsaw, as well as the old Warsaw which only survives in literature, art and imagination...
Ágnes Kelemen is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Central European University (Budapest). She graduated from Paideia's One Year Program as a Moses Maimonides fellow in 2015.