Does loyalty to ancestral customs deserve condemnation?

I used to like dropping by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw; first to the bookstore, then to the archives, to do some work, and then to have a look at one exhibition or another. Since the “good change” (as the nationalists’ rule is referred to in Poland) took over at the Jewish Historical Institute in the form of Ms. M. Krawczyk, I’ve been going there less willingly, but still.

Today I paid a visit (in the company of my boss, the chief of, to see the exhibition entitled “Brothers in Arms? Jews striving for Polish independence1794-1918”. One of the creators of the exhibition – something that right away made me skeptical about the whole enterprise – is Marek Gałęziowski, an employee of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), most recently responsible for the awful IPN exhibition set up in a booth on Pilsudski Square, which I wrote about not long ago on

At the very outset, we learn that the idea for the exhibition (whatever that is supposed to mean) is the result of the creative efforts of Director Krawczyk herself. This is an appropriation of voice, since the “Brothers in Arms” concept was already elaborated a number of years ago at the HQ of the ruling Law and Justice party, and then creatively developed by the IPN and the Pilecki Institute. The exhibition is very clearly aligned with the expectations of today’s authorities, whose goal is to “domesticate the Jewish problem.” In other words, to present Jewish-Polish history as – here to quote Minister of Culture Glinski himself – “a story of Polish-Jewish love.”

The exhibition at the Jewish Historical Institute is part of a series of activities that include the recent IPN exhibition (on precisely the same topic) or the huge earthworks at the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, which aim to glorify the Jewish heroes who fought arms in hand for Poland.

The exhibition at the Jewish Historical Institute is not so much about Polish Jews, but (with a few exceptions) about Warsaw Jews. Perhaps it was difficult or impossible to find any serious assimilationist tendencies in smaller centers, before the end of the 19th century. But this is the least of the problems. Much attention is paid by the authors of the exhibition to the “Warsaw maskilas,” or supporters of integration and assimilation. In the first half of the 19th c, this was a group of several dozen families of Warsaw Jews, a fraction of a percent of the Jewish community not even of Poland, but a fraction of a percent of Warsaw Jews!

One of the charts reads: “[the maskilas] believed that integration with the Poles, adoption of their language and cultural patterns would be the way for Jews to fully participate in European culture […]. Unfortunately, the reformist ideas of the Haskalah raised opposition from the tradition-bound majority of Jews.”

“Unfortunately”?? I find it hard to believe that this kind of message is being displayed in the exhibition hall of the Jewish Historical Institute! That the authors of the exhibition are close to the idea of “integration with the Poles” is clear, but to stigmatize the choice of the Jewish masses, who simply had no desire for any integration, is simply shameful. Today, in the third decade of the 21st century, do we still have to read that the path of minorities to “buy in”, to share in the privileges of the majority society, leads through the rejection of their own culture, customs, and then – language! Does loyalty to ancestral customs deserve condemnation? At the Jewish Historical Institute?

To conclude: is it worth going to the “Brothers in Arms” exhibition? According to this reviewer – rather not, unless you want to find out how today’s Polish authorities envision praiseworthy models of minority behavior. As we learn at the very outset, the exhibition was financed within the framework of the project of the Minister of Culture and National Heritage entitled “The organization of exhibitions on the heroism of Jews in Poland”. Thus, one can clearly see how the minister perceives the issue of Jewish heroism – and how it is seen by the people implementing the ministerial vision in Jewish institutions already “conquered” by Polish nationalists.

Hans-Jürgen Abrahamer


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