Posted on January 15, 2018 by Danielle Plung
Yiddish writer Israel Joshua Singer (older brother of noble laurate Isaac Bashevis Singer), entitled his 1946 memoir—published posthumously after his death in 1944 and detailing his life in Poland before emigrating to America—Of a World that is No More. Obviously, this title evokes melancholy, and draws attention to the tremendous loss that took place during the years of the Shoah. And while the loss cannot and should not be understated, often we reduce the world that was lost to the act of the destruction itself, forgetting the rich, diverse Jewish life that existed in Poland before 1939. In so doing, I believe we miss at least part of the point of Singer’s enterprise.
As we explored Warsaw, we attempted to delve into this world of pre-war Jewish Poland. We spent the morning at the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street—one of the largest Jewish cemeteries outside of Israel. It is tempting to see death when we look at a cemetery like this, especially in light of the Shoah, but what we found at this cemetery was a testament of so much life—and Jews of so many different religiosities, political affiliations, and professions. A personal highlight was visiting the graves of Yiddish playwright S. Ansky—whose play Der Dybbu was adapted into a 1937 Yiddish-language horror film that I watch every year at Halloween—and Yiddish prose writer I.L Peretz. We also saw the grave of Haim Solovetchik—the founder of both the Solevetchik Rabbinic dynasty and the brisker school of Talmud Study, the grave of L.L Zamenhof—who conceptualized the Esperanto language—as well as the resting places of countless Torah scholars and Bund members, each with their own distinctive style. For a moment, I was able to visualize all of these people living together, passing each other on the streets of this city in flourishes of Yiddish and Polish and Hebrew. I was able to see a glimpse of 900 years of Jewish communities just as vibrant—if not more vibrant—than my own.
I felt this too, as we continued our day at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a highly interactive multi-media experience, which opened in 2014 and won the European Museum of the Year award in 2016. And though I had been told that this was a Jewish history museum rather than a Holocaust museum, I had expected based on my own biases and my experience with other Jewish museums, that the focus would be primarily on the War years. I was pleasantly surprised to find, therefore, that the Holocaust section of the permanent exhibition—while extremely well-done and well-curated in its own right—was dwarfed by the scope of the rest of the museum. In less than three hours, I felt all 900 years of that Jewish life.
The Jews of Poland didn’t spring into being in a ghetto wall or a gas chamber, even if the trauma of that tragic loss often demands so much more of our attention and emotion than anything that came before it. By remembering the rest of this world—and not just that it is no more—we don’t resurrect that life. But we do ensure that it never fully dies.