3 of the Best Narrative History Museums in Poland

Andrew Barton  ·  29 / 12 / 2017

Since its recovery from the ‘big bang’ economic chaos of the early post-Communist years in the 1990s and then its entry into the European Union, Poland has found the time and the means to begin revising and updating the account of its post-war history. That history had often been skewed and misrepresented under the former Communist regime, largely in deference to its Soviet overlord, but now a series of sparkling new interactive museums has a begun to retell Poland’s recent history in a way that’s been a huge box office draw for both Poles and foreigners alike, albeit not without a lot of controversy.

Here we describe three of the best narrative history museums in Poland that have opened this century.

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1/ The Warsaw Rising Museum, Warsaw

In this museum opened in 2004, the story of the Polish capital's hugely brave but ultimately futile and costly rebellion in 1944 against the Nazi occupation (not to be confused with the Jewish Ghetto Rising of 1943) is expertly told through interactive, multi-media installations that play on the emotions as much as they engage the intellect. Despite criticisms that it avoids important and vexing questions relating to whether the Rising should have been called in the first place, it is the first such modern museum in Poland devoted to the 63-day insurrection in August and September 1944 that left 200,000 dead and incurred a terrible revenge when the Nazis meticulously razed Warsaw almost in its entirety. After more than four decades of suppression of memories of the Rising under the Communist regime, the museum was the first to reconstruct the events of a famous, but neglected, chapter in the history of the Second World War. And it´s a sensation for the Poles among whom the museum unashamedly aims to foster feelings of patriotism.

The volume of material is overwhelming, but the museum does a fantastic job of instilling in visitors a sense of the desperation residents felt in deciding to oppose the occupation by force and the Germans'; destruction of the city in the aftermath. Occupying a former tram power station, the 2,000m 2 space is split over several levels, leading visitors through the chronological story of the Rising (provided you don’t make any wrong turns).

The ground floor starts with the division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, and life under Nazi rule, all accompanied by the anxiety-inducing crash of machine guns, the scream of Stuka dive bombers and a pulsing heartbeat. You then ascend to the 2nd floor where you’re led through the start of the uprising in 1944. A highlight of the exhibition on this level is a series of photographs by former PE teacher, Olympic javelin thrower and AK officer Eugeniusz Lokajski, who after being taken prisoner in 1939 by the Red army was able to escape to Nazi-occupied Warsaw where he opened photography studio. He stayed in the city throughout the occupation, commanded a unit in the Uprising and was killed in September 1944, leaving behind more than 1,000 photos portraying everyday life before and during the Rising.

Other sections are devoted to the betrayal of the Soviets who stood by on the opposite side of the Vistula River watching the Nazis crush in Rising, and the post-war creation of a Soviet puppet state. Take time to watch the black and white ‘before and after’ shots of important Warsaw landmarks being systematically obliterated by the Nazis as punishment. There´s also a mock sewer in the basement that you can climb through to give you an idea of the way the resistance fights would shelter from the fighting, communicate with other units and ultimately try to escape once the Rising was defeated. There´s also a film in the basement area that details the first month of battle.

You can barely miss the largest exhibit - an exact replica of an Allied B24 Liberator once used to make supply drops over the besieged city at huge cost to the courageous crews since they were literally skimming the top of the city as they flew over; alas many of the parachute drops fell into German-held territory. There´s also another dig here at the Soviets, who would drop canisters without the aid of a parachute, thereby destroying everything inside.

As you’re about to head out, take a look at the film "City of Ruins" a deeply moving five-minute 3-D aerial 'film'; which took two years to make and used old pictures and new technology to recreate a picture of the desolation of ‘liberated’ Warsaw in March 1945.

This foreigner-friendly museum was opened with much fanfare under the oversight of Lech Kaczyński, the then city mayor and later Poland's president until he was killed in a plane crash in Russian Smolensk in 2010. The building and opening of the museum has come to be seen as one of the great successes of Kaczyński's controversial political career, but also the subject of much controversy itself. Kaczyński, and his twin brother, Jaroslaw, were pivotal in promoting a highly nationalist and patriotic version of Poland’s history with an emphasis on infallible Polish heroes that brooked no revisionist shades-of-grey versions of that same history, i.e. the Warsaw Uprising was the highest call of duty for all true patriots and their participation is beyond reproach no matter what the outcome. Jaroslaw Kaczyński is now the power behind the throne of the current Law and Justice Party-led government, which is pursuing this line of historic reasoning with unwavering singlemindedness.

In this respect, the Rising Museum was the opening salvo in the history wars that have convulsed Poland since it emerged from the upheavals of post-Communist economic reform and able to spend time and money revising 20th century Polish history once so distorted under the previous totalitarian regime. Battles over the interpretation of modern Polish history continue with the opening of Warsaw's Museum of the History of Polish Jews in 2014 and the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk in March 2017.

Brilliant as the museum has been in capturing the imagination of the younger Polish generation and rekindling a sense of Polish patriotism, critics charge that amid all the commendable educational activity one crucial fact has gone astray: the Varsovians were ultimately defeated and paid a catastrophic price. It’s alleged that too little attention has been focused on the retribution exacted on Warsaw and its population by the Germans. While huge swathes of the city were razed to the ground, it is estimated that some 15,000 fighters and maybe ten times as many civilians perished, together with perhaps 10,000 German soldiers. The uprising came close to exterminating the city's — and thus the country's — pre-war elites (which the Soviets also contributed to in the massacre of Polish army officers at Katyn and delaying intervention to aid the Rising).

The museum is emblematic of the issues Poles face when reviewing their history and what the nature of their patriotism should be: a backward-looking martyrological kind or a future-oriented pragmatic one. Whatever the case may be, there's no doubt the Warsaw Rising Museum is a fantastic exercise in narrative history and one that the casual visitor can't fail to be impressed by.

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2/ Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw

Winner of the 2016 'Oscar' for museum design and an even more brilliant example of the new generation of narrative history museums, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is Warsaw's latest outcome in its determination to promote Polish history after decades of suppression under the former Communist regime. Built on a former Jewish Ghetto site in front of the Ghetto Heroes Monument, the museum's core exhibition occupies more than 4,000m 2 (43,000 sq ft) of space. It consists of eight galleries that document and celebrate the thousand-year history of the Jewish community in Poland – once the largest Jewish community in the world – that was almost entirely obliterated during the Holocaust. The museum is also known by the Hebrew word 'Polin', which means, in English, either "Poland"; or "rest here" and is related to a legend about the arrival of the first Jews in Poland which you find out about in the museum's First Encounters gallery.

In eight expansive galleries, packed with multimedia exhibitions and artefacts, the museum traces the history of Jews from their first appearance in Poland in the Middle Ages to the present day. The Holocaust, the part of the story that everyone knows best, fills only one of the eight galleries. Highlights include early Jewish manuscripts, re-creations of 18th century Jewish town life (including a scale replica of a village synagogue with its colourful painted interior), a religious school and a bustling early 20th century Warsaw street. All this is accompanied by sound effects and modern projection techniques, vintage photographs and films, detailed histories of Polish-born movements from Hasidism to Zionism, and a huge multimedia network that utilises more than 250 computer terminals. As Tom Booth of the Daily Telegraph wrote: “This is a museum full of noise and colour; with echoes of centuries of Yiddish chatter and the soulful sounds of klezmer music.”

The museum is history at its narrative best. The galleries show how the Jewish community in Poland flourished in the medieval period after it was granted trading rights and privileges – and became integral to the country’s economy. Indeed, by the 17th century, Poland was perhaps the centre of the Jewish world. One of the narrative highlights is how Poland went from having the most benign regime towards Jews in Europe to being plagued by pogroms and anti-Semitism as a result of the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the imposition of contrasting legal frameworks for Poles and Jews when the country was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria.

With so much to see and digest, it’s impossible to see every gallery in detail unless you return repeatedly, so unless you have a lot of time to kill we strongly recommend that you choose two or three galleries only and focus all your attention on them.

Long before its doors opened to visitors the Museum of the History of Polish Jews stirred up a lot of emotions in Poland's long running history wars centred around the interpretation of Poland's role in the most horrific events of the 20th century and its relationship toward its Jewish population over the centuries. From a peak of 3.5 million Jews in the interwar period, the most generous estimates today put the Jewish population in Poland at 25,000, with merely 5,000 or so people openly identifying as Jewish. To this day, the political and historical issues tied up with the fate of Poland’s Jews play a critical role in Polish society and politics.

While some expected the museum would figuratively and literally become a place for debates, where 'Polish historical consciousness could mature', others feared that the investment that ‘cost the Polish taxpayer hundreds of millions’ would serve as anti-Polish propaganda portraying Poles as anti-Semitic. These divergent viewpoints correspond to the basic political divisions in society. On the conservative side, the nation’s history is presented as a combination of heroism, tolerance and magnanimity; the argument is that Poles suffered as much as, if not more than Jews during the occupation; the liberal side contends that Poles should also be aware of painful truths from their past – particularly, the inter-war period and the occupation.

Once the museum was open for business, the reviews were generally positive. But some critics were furious over what they considered to be the propagating of national myths and the image of the Jew and loyal Pole. They were offended by what they saw as the exhibition's over-idealised message: tolerant, generous Poland had taken in Jewish refugees over the centuries who returned the favour by boosting Poland's well-being and prosperity, and fighting for its independence whenever necessary. They thought that too much emphasis was placed on Polish history as opposed to Jewish history, as if Jews didn't exist elsewhere in Europe.

Critics also complained that interwar attitudes of Poles toward Jews were downplayed; after all, right up until 1938 Hitler viewed Poland as a potential ally in his future war against the Soviet Union, confusing Poland's mixed feelings towards its Jewish population with Nazi racial ideology - Polish authorities advocated the voluntary emigration of Polish Jews to Madagascar as a way of reducing the population, while Polish intelligence services trained Polish Jews to fight for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine against their British allies as a mean of attracting Jews away from Poland (Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, both Prime Ministers of Israel, were Polish Jews once branded as Zionist terrorists by the British government).

Whatever the case may be, not many foreigners are likely to notice such nuances in the various exhibits. The one thing that everybody agrees upon is that the museum is wonderfully evocative, and no-one can fail to be moved by the stories depicted there.

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3/ Museum of the Second World War, Gdansk

Opened in March 2017, the story of the founding of the Museum of the Second World War is possibly even more controversial than either the Rising Museum or Polin. Most agree, however, that the architecturally striking building housing the museum beside the famous Gdansk shipyards is likely to become an iconic symbol of the city in the years to come.

The most eye-catching architectural feature of the new museum is its 40.5m (133ft) red-tiled tower leaning at a 56 degree angle stretching over a purpose-built public square that looks like the shaft of a giant spaceship that’s plunged into the earth; others have likened it to an unexploded artillery shell or bomb buried in the ground “as if trying to bring to light the past buried in the soil”. The architects designed it this way in order to make the best use of the limited land available to them. Three distinctive parts to the museum are connected and highly symbolic: the underground space below the tower is dedicated to the past, the open square above represents the present, while the tower symbolises the future. The angle of the tower is also meant to mimic the geometry of the nearby shipyard cranes – the symbol of Gdansk.

The great majority of the 23,000m2 building is found below the paved plaza where you go three storeys down to see the main exhibition that currently relates the countless atrocities carried out on people around the world as a result of war. An uninviting grey corridor then creates the backbone of the exhibition, from which separate rooms focusing on particular aspects of the war lead: the events that led to its outbreak, the birth of totalitarianism, the terror and deportations that resulted from it, and a grey area explaining resistance.

One of the first things you’ll see as you enter the permanent exhibition is a pre-war Polish classroom where a film is playing before you walk into the living room of a pre-war Warsaw apartment. The apartment looks quite normal with examples of the types of food available to the family living there and run-of-the-mill pre-war furnishings etc. All very normal. However, as you pass into the next room you’ll see it’s exactly the same as the first, but now there are German soldiers on the street outside. Warsaw is under occupation. The next rooms continue this refrain so that by the end of the war you can see what had happened to a typical Warsaw family home and the people who lived there. It’s very effective.

You then enter an area that shows the background to the outbreak of war, with a heavy emphasis on the city of Gdansk itself as it relates to the conclusion of World War One and the Treaty of Versailles, which Gdansk is left dangling without being part of any recognised state (the Free City of Danzig); it was Hitler’s demands for the incorporation of Danzig into the German Reich that sparked the war.

There’s so much more besides, but what really makes the greatest impact are the numerous personal items that bring home just how horrific the effects of war are - objects that serve as testimonies to people’s fates: a concentration camp uniform, melted porcelain from Hiroshima, buttons and cufflinks of Polish officers murdered by the Soviets in Katyń forest in 1940, and a handkerchief on which a soldier wrote farewell to his loved ones before he was executed.

A decade in the making and helped along from its inception with the support of then Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a former historian and Gdansk native, the museum was granted financial support of over 100 million EUR. The director put in charge of bringing the museum to life imagined a museum dedicated to the tragic events of 1939-45 in Poland that portrayed the larger context of the entire war, especially across central-eastern Europe. For Poland’s current right-wing government, however, that idea is grist to its mill for damning anything that smacks of a narrative that is not sufficiently Poland-centric. Hence the museum was condemned from its opening for being “universalistic” and not Polish enough.

As one of the very few independent cultural institutions in the country, the museum was protected from interference by its charter, but the government found a way to circumvent it; it proposed merging the Museum of the Second World War with a then non-existent museum proposed for Gdansk and devoted to the Battle of Westerplatte, the first battle of the war in September 1939, when Polish forces held off the Nazis before surrendering, and in that way it could fire the Tusk-appointed director, install its preferred choice and thus alter the museum’s narrative. This is exactly what happened just a month after the official opening.

Changes at the museum began soon after. One of the first items to be removed from display was a film illustrating the long-term effects of the war to be replaced with an animated film that looks specifically at Polish history in the 20th century. Changes to come include a greater emphasis on the role of Catholic priests during the war and the role of Polish citizens in saving Jews. In December 2017, 500 academics signed an open letter to the government criticising the changes to the permanent exhibition.

Despite the ongoing controversies swirling around these museums, there is nevertheless little doubt that they narrate history in a remarkably engaging way that can only provoke the visitor into delving more into the background of some of humanity’s most tragic events. The more museums we have like this then perhaps the less likely we are to repeat the mistakes they tell. If you’d like to visit three of the best narrative history museums in Poland, then the travel consultants at Go Real Europe will be more than happy to create a specialised itinerary for you.

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