There’s no such song yet the tune about Polin has been circling in my head since February. What do you do with the kids on a 5th day of your trip to wintery Warsaw? Visit a Museum of course! It is impossible to be in the capital and avoid a talk of Second World War, it is equally hard to talk about history of Poland without a mention of Jews.
Before the war, it is said, 80 per cent of the world Jews lived here. The coexistence, as legend has it, started in a forest where those fleeing the West due to persecutions (yes, this is not a typo) heard a voice saying ‘Po’ – (Hebrew for rest) and ‘lin’ (here). And thus the millennium long settlement began, or at least that’s what the Polin – Museum of the History of Polish Jews will tell you on their welcome page.
Generally, my kids only endure visits to museums to make me happy and I don’t know how long that will last as they progress into teenagehood. But Polin was far from an ‘enforced education’. Despite the utterly thorough security searches of bags and bodies for any weapons on the entrance, everything kind of changed by stepping into the ‘Dark Ages’. It was really this first interactive themed tour that enabled them to understand that European travelogues in those days were written by Arab scholars and realise that trade was made of spice jars and pelts of fur travelling thousands of miles on foot.
On the giant screens and displays they saw Central European lands and cities changing names, kings, borders and people mingling from every direction. We saw cunning bishops using Jewish merchants as go-betweens, striking deals that were prohibited to Christian clergy, yet they benefited from them greatly. All kinds of myths have been exposed, most importantly, the fact that Jews hadn’t developed a ghettoed existence through choice but were forced to do so by rulers passing edicts about where they should live and what they should wear.
The moving screens and interactive quizzes showed my children more history than perhaps all the other museums we have visited in the past. The vividly painted Jewish altar salvaged from a Ukrainian synagogue will be well remembered for years to come.
We were a larger group and those with smaller children took rest in a cafe after a couple of hours whilst my teenage daughter bravely continued into the 20th century. Listening to the audio guide, she cut me short when I approached her with no doubt a serious look on my face signalling ‘HOLOCAUST’. ‘Don’t worry Mum, I know what this is about’.
The Holocaust exhibition (if such a term can even be used) is the only part of the Museum which I still haven’t processed. And this is despite the fact that I was growing up with the father an amateur historian who befriended Alfred Wetzler, the man who escaped from Auswitz by digging an underground tunnel. There was a local connection, of course, we lived in Svaty Jur (Saint Georgen) and it was here, in the catholic church, where Alfred Wetzler reported the attrocities taking place in Auswitz to the Pope’s envoy.
And yes, Alfred Wetzler’s story was amongst the exhibits, albeit reduced to a single photo and an A4 sheet. Stories of others who had waited for their deaths in queues and cattle trucks were also reduced to a series of moving quotes, quirky facts and memorabilia capturing the inner thoughts of those approaching the Final Solution. It was at this point where making photos with your mobile just seemed perverse.
The most haunting moment though for me was a walk through the Ghetto bridge leading onto the simulated tramway journey where one could sit and observe, from its windows, a Police round up of up Jewish families. Elderly, vulnerable and children being questioned, herded and lined up with a pitiful amount of baggage whilst the passers-by were sitting inside. Would you look away? Would you get off and challenge in the occupied city where one could be shot for smuggling a loaf of bread?
It is not difficult to understand why the Ghetto Judenrat leader Adam Czerniakow committed suicide shortly after he realised that he was instrumental in supplying the Nazis with ‘healthy workforce’ heading to death camps. Perhaps he had hoped, in those first months of the Ghetto self-government, that being a good leader meant appeasement and cooperation with Nazis for the good of all. I am yet to read his diaries.
Zygmund Baumann, himself a Holocaust survivor, said ‘madness is no longer madness when shared’. And it must have been a mad bureaucratic system that created jobs for many people who thought it normal to play their role in identification, categorisation and annihilation of whole groups of human beings. Something to be always cautious about when working for any kind of large bureaucracy or corporation!
But do not be put off by my serious description of the Holocaust exhibition. If you are not in a mood for serious contemplation or choose to take your family and children through a particular tour, there’s plenty more to see and do with the kids, including fantastic examples of arts, prints and souvenirs or just having a great meal at the kosher bar.
Escape From Hell: The True Story Of The Auschwitz Protocol