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Vol. 16, No. 4, 2017
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Robert J. Lewis
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Nick Catalano
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

the importance of historical museums



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

A visit to eastern, Central European cities (I was recently in Warsaw, Cracow, Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna and Prague) yields variegated impressions, some pleasantly historical, others strangely disturbing. All of these cities underwent a double dose of invasive horror by Nazis and Communists in the last 75 years, a misery unlike any in memory and the cloud of this history sits unevenly on each city. The charm of Budapest, Vienna and Prague is wound around romantic recollections of Mozart operas, Liszt strains, Kafka fiction, Freud discoveries and the silly excesses of Maria Theresa and Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. However, the legacy of Poland’s geniuses (Copernicus, Chopin, and Sklowdaska -- Marie Curie) cannot eradicate the lingering presence of Nazi madness. Hitler's final solution was damnably successful in Warsaw: only one synagogue remains.

The city offers a brave front of reconstructed classical architecture but like Hamburg and Cologne (all cities totally destroyed by WW ll bombings) the restorative attempts fall short. The memory of the Jewish ghetto, the concentration camps, and the fiery devastation constantly intrudes on the present-day visitor.


One recent upturn is the 2014 completion of the Polin Museum of the history of Polish Jews -- a triumphant creation of scholarship, artistic innovation, detailed preservation, and dramatic recreations chronicling the thousand year history of Polish Jewry. It is a convoluted story of a remarkable people who are utilized for their talents and industriousness by ambitious Polish rulers only to be castigated and persecuted by jealous and shortsighted ones. When a government needs Jewish organizational and mercantile talent the race enjoys prosperity; but when succeeding rulers enjoy a period of stability they shun Jews who invariably suffer.

This practice also characterized topsy-turvy Semitic policy throughout Europe: at one extreme in 1290, England expelled its entire Jewish population; Conversely, in Venice the tolerant mood of 1516 lawmakers ordered Jews to reside in a small, poor area – the site of a former copper foundry described as a geto in Italian. By day Jews could leave the area and engage in a limited number of occupations: selling clothes, printing, teaching music and dance, and practicing medicine; but at night they had to return to the ghetto. A generation later Martin Luther, in Germany, urged Protestants to raze the Jews’ synagogues, schools, and houses and burn all Jewish prayer books . . . And so it went for the Jews – periods of convenient tolerance, periods of segregated lifestyles, and periods of sudden persecutions.

As early as the 10th century Jewish merchants were already traveling along trade routes that passed through Poland. In 1264, the Statute of Kalisz, issued by Boleslaw the Pious, Duke of Greater Poland, gave Jews permission to settle, follow their religion, be protected from harm, engage in various occupations (by this time many were doctors, writers, bankers), and even play a role in the minting of official coins. Succeeding rulers (King Kazimierz in 1335) reconfirmed the charter and improved living conditions. This era presaged a golden age for Jews (1569-1648) which coincided with the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth as it became one of the largest, most diverse, and most tolerant countries in Europe. The commonwealth never experienced the religious wars that were tearing apart Western Europe. But, after some years the prosperity propelled incidents of anti-Jewish violence and the Khmelnytsky uprising in 1648 devastated several Jewish communities.

Despite this uneven history, Jewish survival instincts prevailed and the population expanded. By 1765 a census showed there were 750,000 Jews living in the Polish commonwealth -- the largest Jewish community in the world and a center of Jewish life. However, as the Polin museum carefully shows, Jewish prosperity continued to vacillate as the whims of various authorities played with their fate. The relationship with the Catholic Church is a case in point. Museum documents show many church institutions often loaned money to Jews in return for expertise and advice. However, in a strongly worded encyclical in June 1751 Pope Benedict XIV forbade Catholics to have any contacts with Jews -- an event which set the doctrinal stage for a new level of Polish anti-Semitism.

Between 1772 and 1795 the existence of the Polish commonwealth was obliterated. Prussia, Austria and Russia forcefully partitioned the territory and initiated new laws curtailing customs in Jewish life. During the next decades these harsh laws evolved into the infamous Russian pograms. In the mid-1800s anti-Jewish riots resulted in the first deaths, and by the dawn of the 20th century thousands of Jews had been killed. The Polin museum chronicles the various political and economic circumstances during the initial anti-czarist period (1900-1910) for which Jews somehow received the brunt of the blame. This period saw mass Jewish emigrations from Poland mainly to the United States.

During WW I, Polish Jews were drafted by each of the partition powers to serve in the war and often were forced to fight against one another. But by the Treaty of Versailles the partition ended and the world now recognized the ‘new" country of Poland.

With the formation of the new nation dubbed the Second Polish Republic there began what some historians consider a second ‘golden age’ for Polish Jews. The Polin museum has an exhibition dubbed The Jewish Street which symbolizes a new era of culture and freedom. We see writers, actors and artists (Julian Tuwim, Antoni Stonimski) at the Cafe Ziemianska dancing and engaging in vigorous political repartee. A new Yiddish literary world is ushered in, headquartered at 13 Tiomackie Street in Warsaw. Philosophers, politicians, economists and sociologists all gather in anticipation of a glorious new page in Polish Jewish history and Jews in Warsaw now number some 400,000.


After 19 years of the new Jewish ‘golden age’ their lives undergo a change unlike any endured by an ethnic populace in the history of the world. After invading Poland in September and killing thousands of Polish civilians, the Nazis quickly turn their attention to the ‘Jewish problem.’ By 1940 they have erected a walled ghetto in a four square kilometer area where Warsaw’s 400,000 Jews are forced to live in indescribably horrible conditions. By 1942, some 100,000 die of starvation and disease. On July 22 of that year the planned extermination of the entire Jewish population begins and by September 12th 310,322 men, women and children are sent to death camps and gassed. Some 6,000 elderly and infirm Jews unfit to travel are murdered right in the street.

In the ensuing months the horror continues as the war takes tolls everywhere. On May 16, 1943, Nazi General Stroop reports to Hitler “Warsaw’s Jewish district has ceased to exist.”

There have been many instances of genocide in world history (one at present exists in Syria). But what happened in Poland is the only situation where industrialized murder occurred with the logic, planning and physical implementation akin to that taken in an automobile assembly line.

There have been countless tomes written about the methodical, systematized procedures but a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau yields an immediacy to the revulsion encountered there that no newspaper account or history book can capture.

A steady progression of events all revealing the Nazi penchant for precision and exactitude initiated matters: On September 3rd 1941 laboratory experiments result in the death of 850 political prisoners at Auschwitz by use of Zyklon B, a cyanide gas normally used as an insecticide; On January 20th 1942 Heinrich Himmler’s deputy Reinhard Heydrich chairs the infamous Wannsee conference in Berlin during which the official theme of the conference is announced as “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” In Article 3 of the conference -- with detailed, scholarly research -- the exact Jewish populations of over 30 European countries and territories is published. It provides for 11,000,000 million Jews to be exterminated.

With nightmarish meticulousness the gassing methods of murdering are refined as other Nazi victims join the litany at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Each group is given a different colour: pink for homosexuals, brown for gypsies, blue for Jehovahs, green for criminals, red for political prisoners, yellow for Jews – a system reflecting a new Nazi taxonomy.

An insidiously German economic proclivity is revealed as Auschwitz visitors view collections of human hair, shoes, teeth, clothing, suitcases -- all to be saved and allocated for future use in whatever context might be imaginable to the fiendish gleaners.Worse accounts of this insanity have been published over the last 70 years and are easily available in books and online. Despite the cascade of countless photos, diaries, film, primary sources and continuing revelations, holocaust denying is alive and well in almost every part of the world.

Obviously, other areas in the Jewish Diaspora reveal similarly astonishing accounts of the history of this race. And, of course, further instances of injustice, tolerance, prosperity and persecution of Jews can be found in post-Nazi years in places everywhere. But a visit to Warsaw dramatically telescopes this singular history. Present and future generations would do well to visit at some point.



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I love Dr Catalano's detailed and poignant descriptions of such a sad time in our history
I love the sweep of you view of the fluctuating "Jewish Situation" in central Europe. I never did understand the Nazi fixation on Jews. I guess, it is tempting to have a scapegoat that people are easily led to believe are the cause of all current ills. And, history has provided a reliable candidate. The current parallels with Trump and his boys are uncanny.

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