The new Legacy gallery, an extension of POLIN Museum’s Core Exhibition, explores the lives and achievements of distinguished Polish Jews in a wide range of fields. Located in a ceremonial space overlooking the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, the installation presents 26 individuals, all of them born in Poland to Jewish families, and their contributions to world civilization. According to gematria, whereby each letter has a numerical value, the letters in the Hebrew/Yiddish word kavod/koved, which means honor, add up to 26.
Tamara Sztyma and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett curated this installation and edited the accompanying book. Many of the individuals they chose for the Legacy gallery also appear in the Core Exhibition, to mention only Isaac Bashevis Singer, Julian Tuwim, Abraham Stern, Janusz Korczak, Alina Szapocznikow, Ludwik Zamenhof, and Rosa Luxemburg. They appear in the Core Exhibition not because they are famous, but because of their role in the historical narrative. This approach however was deemed insufficient by those who wanted to give them and others greater prominence than warranted in a social history of Polish Jews that avoids apologetics.

Our challenge, then, was to satisfy the desire for a “hall of fame” without creating one. The first principle was to take a critical approach to the entire enterprise and to engage visitors in the questions that we asked ourselves. That meant shifting our and their focus from “the list” – who is on the list and who is not – to a “constellation” of individuals who are at once exceptional and representative. Seen together, they form a “collective portrait” that reveals the diversity of Polish Jews. Our approach was guided by two questions: how does the history of Polish Jews illuminate their lives and achievements, and how do their stories enrich our understanding of the history of Polish Jews? Our goal was to offer our visitors accessible points of entry to the wider history of Polish Jews and to motivate them to visit and revisit the Core Exhibition, where they would reencounter many of the same people in the historical narrative.

The Legacy gallery is intended not only as a space for the installation but also as a place to relax and reflect and for small events, gatherings, and receptions. The installation consists of a video wall and interactive stations where visitors can explore the lives and careers of the featured individuals and experience their achievements through musical selections, film clips, video interviews, works of art, and excerpts of their writings. There is also a reading corner with books and a neon sculpture inspired by the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. A graphic wall map, evocative of a galaxy of stars in the night sky, represents the selected individuals and the many places where they lived and worked.

In “Legacy of Polish Jews,” published in separate Polish and English editions, both printed and as e-books, fourteen scholars explore the participation of Polish Jews in a broad range of fields: art, music, literature, theatre, cinema, science, politics, education, and economics, among others. What factors shaped their lives, career paths, and achievements? How did their experience as Polish Jews shape who they became, what they achieved, and their impact on their chosen fields? What barriers and opportunities did they encounter and how did they address them? Why were some of these individuals celebrated in their time, but forgotten today, while others who were ignored in the past are recognized now? Why do some individuals make it into the canon, while others who are equally or even more qualified do not? What is the role of historians in securing the place of particular individuals in a field’s pantheon? Finally, what does it mean to speak of the “legacy” of Polish Jews? Is this legacy to be understood as “heritage,” the civilization created by Polish Jews? Or is it to be understood as the contributions of individuals to world civilization?

Panel discussions and conversations with descendants of distinguished Polish Jews accompany the opening of the Legacy gallery can be found here. Video starts at 3:30.

For more information about the programs please visit the POLIN website.