A passion for history that began with her father’s stories of his childhood in pre-war Poland has led Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett to play a large part in piecing together the scattered, thousand-year history of the Polish Jews.
Now she is bringing this history to Tucson.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, chief curator of the core exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, will present “Rising from the Rubble,” the 2018 Elizabeth Leibson Holocaust Remembrance Lecture sponsored by the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018 at 7 p.m. The talk, which will be followed by a reception, will be held at the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy, 3718 E. River Road.
Born in 1942 to Polish immigrants who settled in Canada before the Holocaust — her mother in 1929, her father in 1934 — Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was raised in an immigrant neighborhood in Toronto. She attended the University of Toronto and University of California Berkeley. Earning her Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1972, she studied folklore, anthropology, ethnomusicology, sociolinguistics and material culture.
A renowned international museum consultant and lecturer, she also is an award-winning author. With her father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, she co-authored “They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust.” This Canadian Jewish Book Award winner includes Kirshenblatt’s paintings. Her numerous other books include “Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage” and “The Israel Experience: Studies in Youth Travel and Jewish Identity,” co-authored with Harvey Goldberg and Samuel Heilman.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett also is an expert on Yiddish, a language she grew up speaking and took for granted until she began her graduate work.
“The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research encouraged me to pursue Yiddish studies. YIVO gave me the opportunity to work with historian Lucjan Dobroszycki on an exhibition, book and film based on the YIVO collection of photographs of Jewish life in Poland between 1864 and 1939,” she explains.
She began consulting internationally for museums such as The Jewish Museum in New York, The United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and Beit Hatfutsot: Museum of Jewish Peoplehood in Tel Aviv. After serving as a consultant with the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, she stayed on to work with the core exhibition.
The core exhibition includes audio, video, interactive installations, objects, and written history that lead the visitor through the history of Polish Jews. “We drew on all kinds of visual material — archival footage, home movies, newsreels, German propaganda photographs and films, radio, early sound recordings, and films, animations, and audio that we produced specifically for the exhibition,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. The exhibition’s eight galleries detail time periods from the 10th century to present-day Poland.
“We felt it was very important to bring some sort of historical awareness not only to the people of Poland but also to the Jewish world internationally and more generally,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
“The museum is site specific, built on the former site of the Warsaw Ghetto, which was, before the war, home to the Jewish community of Warsaw, one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. The meaning of the museum has very much to do with where it is located,” she says.
Both the museum and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s talk are designed to inspire people to see past the catastrophic events of the Holocaust to the rich civilization created by Polish Jews. “I hope that people will become more aware of this thousand-year history,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “I hope that they will be encouraged to come to Poland and see the museum. We want to challenge preconceived notions about the history of Polish Jews and of Poland. The Holocaust is an overwhelming event, and people who come to Poland with an interest in Jews, for the most part, come to pay their respects to those who perished. The Holocaust and its commemoration have come to define the history of Polish Jews.”
Since opening in 2013, the museum has had almost two and a half million visitors. It won the European Museum of the Year Award and the European Museum Academy Prize in 2016.
“Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is a leading voice in this field,” says Bryan Davis, JHM executive director. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to spend time with her at the Jewish History Museum and look forward to soaking up much wisdom and inspiration.”
The Leibson lectureship was established by Ron and Kathy Margolis in memory of Ron’s mother, who was a resident of Tucson. Tickets for the 2018 Leibson lecture are $36. They can be purchased at JewishHistoryMuseum.org. For more information, call 670-9073.