In March, a new museum was added to the range of historical museums in Poland: The Ulma Museum, commemorating Polish families who saved or tried to save Jews during World War II. This very first museum dedicated to the Polish Righteous Among the Nations has been opened in Markowa, a 4000-inhabitant town in south-eastern Poland, where the Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and their six children were executed by nazi soldiers in March 1944 along with the two Jewish families they had been hiding for eighteen months.
While the museum is physically rooted in a local story, it has both an international position and strives to encompass similar stories from all around Poland.
Although exhibits like original furniture and belongings of the Ulma families cannot leave Markowa, an exhibition entitled “Samaritans of Markowa” traveled through 27 seven cities – with a movie about the Markowa Massacre – to raise awareness and start a conversation about Polish Righteous. The building, designed by architect and interior designer Mirosław Nizio, hosts a reproduction of the Ulma house, but the fruit garden is a direct reference to both Jozef Ulma’s fruit garden and to the olive garden in Yad Vashem.
The Ulma Museum is not the only example of architecture and storytelling complementing each other to bring us History, and especially Jewish History, closer. It is the case at the Žanis Lipke Memorial in Riga, also dedicated to a Righteous among the nations. Built next to the home where Žanis Lipke hid Jews during WWII, the memorial includes a basement bunker that matches the size of the original cache, and architect Zaiga Gaile took her idea for the overall shape from sheds of fishermen, making the overall building evoke Noah’s Ark, with several references to both Lipke’s woodshed and the Promised Land.
The same very physical approach to History was taken by Moshe Safdie when he designed Yad Vashem: dark voids to represent the past and streams of light for the future, access to a two-story room filled with books of testimonies, a striking view of Jerusalem at the end of the visit make the World Holocaust Remembrance Center one of the most emotional museum to visit, even beyond its hard topic. In Warsaw, POLIN recreates the story of Jews in Poland by creating different scenographic settings and atmospheres for each part of History.
Those museums show us how architecture and scenography can be used to create strong emotions and help visitors feel immersed in even the hardest moments of History to raise awareness about something that should be considered as more than a History book issue.
Part of the story told by the Ulma museum can be found on their website: it carries pages with the story of the Ulma family and with the names of Polish Righteous that reflect tiles found in front of the museum. But as the museum collects more and more stories from all around Poland – that has more the 6,000 Righteous, we cannot wait to see how it integrates those immaterial exhibits into both the museum and the website.
While the museum social media pages and activities seem to make it a hub for all things about the Polish Righteous for an international audience, it would be amazing to see more of the content of the museum shared with the world. It could be a strong multimedia platform that goes beyond pictures and quotes of inhabitants of Markowa to include testimonies and stories of Righteous from all around Poland, Jewish families who could tell their stories and maybe historians explaining the role of Righteous and their meaning in recent History. A little bit like Virtual Shtetl, a project launched by POLIN to gather stories about Jews from all over the world… and that actually has a page about Markowa.