When you think of the Jewish people, you’re bound to have some quite sombre associations: intolerance, persecution, the Holocaust… It’s a good idea to remember that these are not the only things you can associate with Jewish culture. And not the only things it’s worth to know about it. And the best way to learn about it is to join one of the Warsaw tours and make a visit to POLIN. This is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which has some quite impressive collections to share.
synagogue POLINBefore Poland became associated with the tragedy of the Jewish people (and sometimes, somehow, even blamed for it, despite the fact that it was the Nazi occupation committing the crime), it had been known as extremely friendly towards the Jewish People. Documents dates as far back as 1098 mention Jewish settlers coming to Poland to seek shelter from persecution of other countries. They established successful communities that enjoyed rights equal to or at least less unequal than the Slavic inhabitants. There were even cases of Jewish subjects of the monarchy having privileges over the indigenous people.
The famous king Casimir the Great (Kazimierz III Wielki) was especially friendly towards the Jewish population, issuing a formal, state-wide proclamation that guaranteed its laws and freedoms (it was an extension of an earlier law that did the same for a smaller region). In 1335 he founded the city of Kazimierz with the Polish Jews in mind. In time it became a Jewish quarter of the city Kraków. A prosperous place and a center of Polish-Jewish integration, which it remains to this day. Casimir also made a prominent Jewish financier, Lewko, the manager of Wieliczka Salt Mines, an extremely important and prestigious function.
His successors’ politics were sometimes erratic and, naturally, were under influence by their times. However, the Jewish population in Poland remained strong. So, Jews across Europe seeked shelter and acceptance in Poland when other countries failed them. According to the findings of the Jewish Virtual Library, in XVI century about 80% of the world’s Jewish population lived in Poland, some receiving noble titles. There is even an old legend that claims Saul Wahl, a rabbi and important statesman, became a temporary monarch during interregnum in 1587. While history has more or less disproved the idea, the very existence of such a tale shows that Jews were not a downtrodden minority.
Frankly, it would take too long to describe the thousand years of Jewish-Polish coexistence here. So the exhibitions at the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews, that is one of Warsaw tours’ must-see point, can do it much better anyway. Featuring documents, historical accounts, interactive exhibitions and reconstructions of Jewish art. It’s a noble and impressive enterprise and a very interesting place to visit. Not to mention that it’s one of the biggest museums in the world that does not concentrate on the Holocaust. It aims to present the participation of the Jewish population in Poland’s history, politics, art, science and economy.