New Jewish Museums in Post-Communist Europe

Nov. 26, 2015

Source: East European Jewish Affairs, 45:2-3, 153-157


Today, post-communist Europe is experiencing a museum boom as countries try to consolidate a collective identity in museums that tell their nation’s story in a way that was not possible under communism. Jewish museums and Holocaust memorials offer not only histories of Jewish communities in a given town or country, but also a perspective on the place of those communities within a larger national history and a country’s self-understanding. For decades, in the public sphere, the subject of Jewish history and memory was largely off-limits in the Eastern bloc. In the last 25 years, however, since the fall of communism, there has been a revival of public Jewish culture and institutions in Central and Eastern Europe as well as in the former Soviet Union (FSU). New museums, memorials, and education centers are an important part of this trend. This special issue is dedicated to this phenomenon, first charting a map of new Jewish museums throughout post-communist Europe, and then attempting to draw some analytical conclusions about the place and meaning of such museums.


Projects such as the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, which opened in 2012, and POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which opened in 2013, are ambitious. They are multi-million-dollar endeavors with money raised from both private and public funds. Both museums were initiated and supported not only by local and international Jewish donors, but also by non-Jewish benefactors, foundations, corporations, and local and national state authorities. Their core exhibitions, relying on the expertise of both local and international academics and designers, offer affecting multimedia narrative exhibitions. Although not located in historic buildings connected to the local Jewish communities, these two museums present the full sweep of Jewish history in a given place, including the Holocaust and postwar period. In the short time since their establishment, these two museums have become part of an international museum scene, with 85,000 visitors in 2014 to Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, and a staggering 300,000 visitors to POLIN Museum during the first six months that the core exhibition was open.


These two museums are the largest and newest, but there are many others, in Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Moldova, and elsewhere. Some of them are brand new; others existed before World War II and re-established themselves after the war. Many were revived more recently or were refurbished. Some reflect and contribute to a revival of Jewish life and may be located in or around a synagogue or Jewish community center. In other cases, local enthusiasts felt an urgent need to document and display Jewish life and culture when members of their communities emigrated en masse after the fall of communism. Many of the museums presented here are state institutions. Others are projects of the Jewish community, with substantial support from abroad, and a few are, to varying degrees, private–public partnerships. Still, most of these museums are small, with limited staff and funds, and relatively few visitors. While some of these institutions are independent of any larger national museum initiative, others are simply the Jewish iteration of a national ethnographic museum. Finally, a few exist only as memorials, disconnected from living local Jewish communities.


The remarkable flourishing of Jewish museums in post-communist Europe forces us to think critically about Jewish memory and museology. What exactly constitutes a Jewish museum in post-communist Europe? How do Jewish museums respond to the opportunities and challenges of the post-communist period? How does the history they present figure in national narratives and what is the role of these museums in post-communist civil society? The essays in this special issue explore these questions by examining how Jewish museums in post-communist Europe construct historical narratives in relation to the museums’ various publics – Jewish and not, local and international – and in relation to their many stakeholders, including the municipality, national government, local Jewish community, and international organizations supporting Jewish life. Our authors pay particular attention to objects in the museum’s collection and the provenance and restitution of these objects, a special concern after the German occupation of nearly the entire region during World War II and communist nationalization of most private property immediately thereafter. Finally, they explore museum architecture and location: site specificity, new architecture, and the challenge of adapting pre-existing buildings, some with religious significance, to contemporary uses of the local population, which often lacks a Jewish community.


The organization of the volume reflects both the geography of the museums and genre of essay, ranging from peer-reviewed essays, to reports on a number of museums in a given area (“Reportage”), and accounts from museum professionals – creators, designers, and curators who are also scholars in their own right (“Inside the Museum”). The issue concludes with a section of book reviews dedicated to broader questions about museums, memory, and meaning after communism.

Updated: Nov. 25, 2015