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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Museum as Memoryscape: The Virtual Shtetl Portal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Pauline Sliwinski, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Poland


This paper focuses on the Virtual Shtetl Portal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Virtual Shtetl utilizes a Web platform that enables registered users to participate in the sharing of public history and the preservation of Jewish cultural heritage. It aims to transform the passive role of the museum visitor to that of an active stakeholder in the preservation of Jewish heritage closely linked to the Polish landscape.

Keywords: virtual museum, heritage preservation, community, Virtual Shtetl Portal, memory

1. Introduction

The Virtual Shtetl Portal project (Portal Wirtualny Sztetl, is an initiative of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich) that was first launched online in June of 2009. The Virtual Shtetl chronicles the history of Polish Jews by providing information about the small towns and big cities where for centuries Jews, Poles and other minorities lived together. The project is constantly growing and improving with the addition of new entries by participating users. Under the guidance of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, online visitors are helping to create an interactive database of information about Jewish communities from over 2,200 towns across Poland. After its first year, there were more than 40,000 photos and 500 films. As of today there are more than 65,000 photos, 900 films and these numbers are continuing to grow.

From September of 2008 to the launching of the site, I conducted an internship at the Museum and my main responsibility was to assist with the creation of the English version of the site. The major task was to contact volunteers and professional translators who could help to translate hundreds of historical texts written in Polish to English.  But more importantly, during this internship, I became not only familiar with the textual content of the project but also I observed and participated in the social network that makes the Virtual Shtetl possible. When the project was officially launched and my internship drew to a close, hundreds of people from across the world were sending their feedback and uploading their own materials to the site. The network of volunteers working on the Virtual Shtetl has expanded since then and the website’s user base has grown considerably to well over 1,500 registered users as of January 2012.

I chose to examine these encounters from a qualitative and cultural theory perspective because of my training in the field of sociology and my introduction to one of the early contributors to the field of memory studies, anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973). When expanding upon a semiotic approach to the theories of culture, Geertz began to theorize cultures as “webs of significance” that are “spun” by humans. Paradoxically, humans also end up being “suspended” by them (Geertz, 5). I came to understand over the course of my studies that the museum is such a web and that as the visitor, the curator, the volunteer and the scholar, we are all “suspended” in those webs.

The concept of memoryscape serves as an entry point for interpreting the Virtual Shtetl Portal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the memories it sustains and contests, and its stated and less explicit social purpose. A museum itself is a memoryscape, a portal through which societies remember. The Virtual Shtetl Portal is more than a multimedia exhibition that provides a new way of experiencing a museum. It is a place of concentrated cultural practice where public history is being rewritten, where individuals become guardians of historical memory, where the public is empowered by a passion for the subject and the availability of an Internet connection, and where memories and identities are constructed and negotiated.

2. Background

The Polish landscape is marked by physical reminders of a prewar civilization that once populated its cities, towns and villages. Unlike the discovery of Atlantis or of an ancient, now extinct culture, there are members of the prewar European Jewish culture, who are alive today and can tell us about it. The unavoidable fact is that this living memory is disappearing as the number of people who can still recall prewar Jewish life in Poland is diminishing.  Only recently has technology become available that can reach so many people throughout the world, and allow them to share their stories. It is now possible to share the history of a culture through memories, documents, photographs and films online.

Jewish Cultural References and the Memoryscape

Memory of a collective past has played a central role for Jewish religious life. The majority of Jewish festivals, religious rituals and liturgy from the Hebrew Bible evoke the past. Despite the way that collective memory has played a central role in Judaism for centuries, the late Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1982) observed that historiography of the Jews only came of age in the modern era. In the context of rapid social, political and religious changes, modernity was a time of transformation for Judaism, Jewish collective memory and its meaning for Jewish identity. Yerushalmi contends that in the present-day, most Jews have a mythical understanding of Jewish history (1982, 99), What is also relevant to the way in which Jews understand their past in Eastern Europe and construct Jewish identity are the following cultural references: the shtetl, Yiddish and the Holocaust.

The shtetl exists largely in the imagination as a literary and cultural construct; however, for centuries, the majority of Jews living in Poland had settled in small market towns. These localities in which at least two cultures coexisted, that of Jews and that of the nation among whom they lived, were commonly referred to as shtetls (in the Yiddish, shtetlekh). The shtetl is a cultural symbol with irreconcilable meanings; shtetl conjures up nostalgic images resembling scenes from Fiddler on the Roof, as well as of pogroms.

The destruction of East European Jewry was an irrecoverable loss. It has become possible for postwar generations to cope with this trauma by remembering with more clarity the essential and “authentic” character of the culture that was lost. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1995), who heads the team that is planning the Museum of the History of Polish Jews’ exhibition, has written that market towns were an economic link between cities and the countryside where there were flows of people and ideas. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has argued that essentializing East European Jewish culture and conceptualizing the shtetl as resistant to modernity is problematic because the towns were in fact influenced by social changes, including Jewish Enlightenment.

Another Jewish cultural symbol is the Yiddish language, which was once the spoken language of the Jewish diaspora in Eastern and Central Europe. Following the Second World War, Jewish immigrants to the United States and other countries adopted the national languages of their respective countries. Although the Yiddish language was no longer popular as a vernacular language, the Yiddish language and culture did not completely vanish from Jewish consciousness.

The Yiddish literature of Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example, has immortalized the world of Eastern European Jews, including the cities they inhabited, in the imagination of its readers. Singer’s works can arouse strong emotional sentiments and inspire the reconstruction of what Polish writer of Jewish descent, Agata Tuszyńska, referred to in her nostalgic biographical account of Singer as ‘lost landscapes.’ These collective memories express the vitality of the pre-war Jewish presence, which is irrevocably missing from the Polish landscape (Tuszyńska, 1998). In the Postwar era, Yiddish has achieved an extraordinary space in the Jewish imagination. Due to the significant loss and displacement of Jews from the actual place the language originates, Eastern Europe, it is the Yiddish language that connects contemporary Jews to their origins and to Yiddishkeit (Jewishness).

With Jews dispersed across the world, practicing a variety of Judaisms (or sometimes not practicing any) and speaking an assortment of languages, perhaps the single most important cultural symbol that unites them is a duty to remember times of persecution, especially the persecution and annihilation of European Jewry during the Holocaust. The centrality of the Holocaust in constructing Jewish identity has its critics, such as those who understandably are skeptical about the fruitfulness of utilizing collective victimization as a source of Jewish identity when there are other positive aspects of Jewish heritage that could be used for this purpose. However, with Jews descending from Eastern Europe living in all areas of the world, it is necessary to memorialize a Jewish past which can be recalled for future generations, in order to retain what Jews have in common with each other – religion and culture – and to account for what separates them today: secularization and assimilation to other cultures.

An estimated 75 percent of Jews in North America and 60 percent of Israeli Jews trace their ancestry back to Poland (Gruber, 2002, p.56). In the last two decades, because of Poland’s establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel, its entry to the European Union and the attraction that Poland has more Jewish memorial sites than any country in Europe, more Jews are deciding to visit Poland. For many of them, Poland exists as a country scarred by the trauma of the Holocaust that took place on its territory. The vast majority of Jewish visitors come to Poland to see the death camp memorial sites. Poland is largely conceptualized in the Jewish imagination as a “vast and shamefully neglected mass graveyard” (Kugelmass, 1995).

Memories of World War II and the Memoryscape

What kind of discourse about the Holocaust evolved in Poland in the decades following World War II? Poland had been the center of European Jewish life and was the location of Europe’s largest Jewish population. More than half of the victims of the Holocaust were the Jews of Poland and most of the destruction took place on Polish soil. Poles witnessed the mass scale murder and for this reason alone underwent significant moral trauma (Steinlauf, 1997). To compound this, Poles were not only witnesses to the events, but were also victims themselves. After the Jews and the Roma, the Poles were the national group next in line for suffering in Hitler’s Final Solution. Polish memory of World War II has been focused largely in public discourse on topics such as Polish survival, martyrdom and resistance, and their relation to the German perpetrators. Steinlauf (1997) found that it is more difficult for Poles to discuss their fate in relation to the Jews. Although Poles could not collectively change their fate, they had agency to act on an individual level. For this reason, individual Poles could make the decision to save Jews or to help in their destruction.

Leading research in this field (Gross, 2001; Steinlauf, 1997) has shown that antisemitism played a significant role in Polish society before, during and following the Nazi planned destruction of Europe’s Jews and continues to play a role in contemporary Polish society. To further complicate matters, for over forty years Poland lost its autonomy and was incorporated into the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. When the Communist authorities took power over Eastern Europe, in order to legitimate their new position they turned to the rewriting of history. Much of the moral tribulations that the war caused were not publically addressed and because it was the Communists who had cast this silence, Poles often feel that it is a national duty to fill in the “blank spots” of their pasts (Steinlauf, 1997). The relationship of Poland to its Jewish minority during the war did not receive much scrutiny. The publication of Jan Gross’ book Neighbors in 2001 changed all of that. The book documents that in July of 1941, 1,600 Jews of Jedwabne were burnt alive in a barn and this massacre was perpetrated by Poles themselves and not by the German occupiers, as was previously accepted. As a response to this publication, historians and civilians have furiously debated the evidence and its national significance.

In more recent years, there is an ongoing discussion about anti-Semitism in Poland in the postwar years with two prevailing competing visions of history. The first is an ethno-nationalist perspective of the past, which is oriented towards the Jew as “other” in an attempt to define a mono-ethnic Polish identity. The second, a vision that Poland was a multi-ethnic nation for centuries, is oriented towards, among other things, discrediting this notion of a monolithic Polish identity (Michlic, 2008). The climate in Polish social consciousness is ripe for the construction of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The Museum and the Virtual Shtetl project are an outcome of this last view.

Historian, Tony Judt (2005, p. 829) suggested, “a nation has first to have remembered something before it can begin to forget it.” The Museum of the History of Polish Jews itself helps to contextualize the traumatic events of WWII as but one chapter of a long and vibrant history. The Virtual Shtetl portal is facilitating the process of negotiating and transforming the cultural landscape.

In the 1990s, Diana Pinto and Ruth Ellen Gruber coined the phrase “filling the Jewish space” in relation to the reintegration of Jewish memory, history and culture into contemporary European societies. In the absence of a large Jewish population, much of the “Jewish space” is being filled in by non-Jews. Examples of this include the focus on Jewish topics in theater, film, musical performances and cultural festivals performed by and for non-Jews. (Gruber, 2002)

3. User Interface

With the emergence of the Internet and cultural institutions playing a significant role in the ongoing technological change, the keywords that characterize many contemporary museums are “virtual,” “collaborative,” and “participatory.” The Internet makes it possible for individuals to contribute their own knowledge to the museum and to archive, annotate and circulate media content themselves.

The Internet is an attractive medium for reconciling cultural differences. “People can enter, move around, and engage in cyberspace virtual worlds without physically leaving their desks and quitting their ‘real world’ identities,” states Ruth Ellen Gruber (21, 2002). A major reason why the Internet is a useful tool for such a project is because users can identify outside of traditional categories. Online visitors “can assume their other identities, play other roles, and be, or act as if they are, whoever they want” (Gruber, 21). Through this medium the differences between Poles and Jews are given less importance than their similarities and common interest in preserving the memory of the vanished cultural and physical landscapes in which Jews were a significant part.

Figure 1: Screenshot of the Virtual Shtetl Portal Homepage, English Version

But is this a process of passive transmission or an active learning process generated through “collective storytelling,” arising from the engagement of participants in a Virtual museum? (Giaccardi, 2006) The user can play or at least feel that he or she is playing the role of an “active” actor in the construction of the historical narrative. It is a more collaborative approach to defining cultural processes and identities; however, when people are generating their own cultural content, the sense of a guiding historical narrative is lost.

The Virtual Shtetl attempts to capture an “authentic” portrait of the Eastern European Jewish culture through photographs, maps and a collection of data about the extant world of Eastern European Jews. It is a memoryscape in that it is space where multiple images and narratives can collectively represent familiar and unfamiliar ways of viewing the past. Or, I would like argue, it could also be a space of (mis)representations, whether intentional or not, that contribute to the process of redefining such relations.

4. Museum’s Goals

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is popularizing a perspective about Polish-Jewish relations that is particularly useful to furthering “Jewish memory work”. A stated goal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is to present “not only how Jews died, but also how they lived” so that visitors will leave Poland having discovered “that being a Jew in Poland was not limited to being a Holocaust victim.” The Museum is explicitly not a memorial of the Holocaust; however, reworking the cultural meanings of the Holocaust is a central tenet of its vision. The Museum is about transforming local and international social consciousness about history and reimagining the sites where much of the mass-death took place: about reframing the cultural constructions of the landscape. The Virtual Shtetl Portal project serves this purpose because in this digital environment both local and international stakeholders discover a vibrancy of the Polish landscape that has previously not been captured in the public imagination.

The Virtual Shtetl is important for the Museum on multiple levels because it has the potential to introduce Web visitors to a ‘new’ way of seeing the history of Polish Jews before the museum opens its doors to the public. The Virtual Shtetl is also instrumental to the Museum because it can mobilize people to construct and consider multiple elements of the country’s past.

For audiences who do not have direct contact with Poland, the Polish landscape is popularly imagined through images. However, linking the Polish landscape with imagery of war popularized in modern cinema and other media can create a distorted image when it overshadows all other memories connected to the present cultural landscape.

It is user-generated content that has such potential to achieve results on a mass scale. The Museum is able to do this kind of public outreach and memory work with multiple generations, nationalities and cultural identities represented.

5. Research Findings

According to the website’s Google analytics, from the site’s launching on June 16, 2009 until May 31, 2010, there were a total of 299,735 visitors to the site. 82 percent of users are from Poland; 6 percent from the United States; 2 percent from Germany; 2 percent from Israel and 2 percent from the United Kingdom.

These figures may give us a general idea about the international origins of the Museum’s user base. Other than the location of the users’ IP addresses, however, Google analytics does not collect other, more useful demographic information that could indicate the nationality of users. It is also difficult to verify these figures for accuracy because all users who visit, register and contribute to the website are not required to share their detailed personal information, such as revealing their nationality, ethnicity, religion, age, etc.

The identities of the users remain largely unknown and it is difficult to hypothesize how many visitors to the site identify as Jews. The Museum anticipates 20 percent of its future audience will be Jewish visitors. This figure may vary with the Virtual Shtetl Portal, but it is significant to note that Jewish visitors to the website are a diverse group of individuals including Israelis, survivors of the Holocaust, descendants of survivors of the Holocaust, European Jews, Jewish youth from North America and Israel, Jews who can trace their ancestry back to Poland and those who cannot.

It is expected that the Virtual Shtetl would mean different things to its diverse audience members and that participants would be conscious of this fact by the very nature of its worldwide accessibility. From conducting interviews with twelve individuals, I found that the interpretive possibilities of this resource are more wide-ranging than is typically acknowledged by observers as well as participants.

I interviewed the earliest registered users and contributors to the Virtual Shtetl in 2009. I was particularly fascinated by their speculations about whom this project is ‘actually’ going to reach, for whom it will be a valuable resource and whose attitudes it hopes to change. The project aims to make information accessible to a wide audience, but there is some disagreement among users if this information is universal or if it is particularly helpful for two specific groups: Poles and Jews.

A registered contributor of the Virtual Shtetl whom I interviewed identified herself as a Polish student living in Warsaw. She explained to me that this was a useful resource for people in and outside of Poland and that it has a universal appeal to those “interested in Jewish history,” but also has specific appeal for “people searching for their roots from abroad [and] for everyone interested in the Jewish history of their town.” When I spoke with another registered user and a Polish Jewish émigré living in Germany, he was skeptical that the portal could reach a “non-Jewish audience.” In fact, the vast majority of users are non-Jews and coming from Poland. He later stated: “Non-Jews would not understand what it is all about. Older people, who know what the shtetl means, are not using the Internet. Younger people don’t get to this Portal, though they might find it when they are looking for something.” This remark inspired me to investigate the various cultural meanings that users associate with the term ‘shtetl.’

One individual stated, “Shtetl means absolutely nothing to Poles. To Jews it was a small predominantly Jewish village.” Another respondent stated, “To both Jews and Poles, the shtetl symbolizes a world that no longer exists.” Yet another respondent who had Jewish ancestors from Poland described it using the adjective “quaint” and explained, “In the United States, it’s not a word that we use in our communities today.”

A creator of the project made the argument that it is open for interpretation, but that “shtetl is supposed to have good associations.” Further, he stated, “ I think that for Poles it means absolutely nothing and that it can become something meaningful.” When asked, an Israeli respondent suggested that the term shtetl means something entirely unique, even painful, to the postwar generation of Jews in Israel that are descendants of Holocaust survivors. She stated:

It is very hard to ask my generation. We are still the second generation of the Holocaust, to the diaspora, so for us the shtetl is something old. It is something that we do not want to live as. In Israel, if you ask my generation they do not want to have anything to do with the way life in the shtetl was.

The term is not a neutral one. It carries sentimental value for some and negative connotations for others. Why the terms Virtual Shtetl are used to describe the project, were explained as follows by the creators: “The shtetls started to exist on the territory of Eastern Poland, it is a very Polish thing and that is why it was chosen. It does not exclude towns or big cities.”

According to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “the term ‘shtetl’ is used here metaphorically, to mean ‘community.’ “It’s the community of likeminded souls, Jews and non-Jews, who really deeply care about the Jewish past in Poland and want together to recover it and in the process, to actually form new relationships.” Furthermore, “It is more than an archive, more than a place to deposit and preserve material,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “It is raising consciousness and creating an ongoing, active engagement with the Jewish past. It’s not passive. It’s not a monument” (Beckerman, 2009).

In his landmark study, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson suggested that imagination is inherent in the process of constructing communities. The shtetl is in many ways an imagined community. What Americans, Israelis and Europeans remember about this Eastern European Jewish history is very much a consequence of the Holocaust and the near-destruction of Eastern European Jewish culture. How the history of this vanished community can be reconstructed today without distortion of what was really there is difficult to answer because the Holocaust memory is so pervasive and important for Jewish identity and European memory, so it is really quite impossible to confront issues today without it in mind. For some, shtetl brings nostalgic images to mind and for others the shtetl is synonymous with the pogroms and associated with a poor village lifestyle, thereby the term illicits a range of images and emotions.

Forward magazine columnist Gal Beckerman commented, “In the Virtual Shtetl, there is no Tevye the Milkman, Gimpel the Fool doesn’t live there, either. And you won’t find Marc Chagall’s floating goats and violins” (Beckerman, 2009) Instead a visitor to the Virtual Shtetl is supposed to confront historical facts without any of the familiar nostalgic sentiment we associate with the shtetl. However, the Virtual Shtetl is a composite of contributor’s memories that are constructed and part of the project’s attraction is that it relies on its visitors to share their most sentimental affects, their family photos.

6. Concluding remarks

One could argue that prejudices against minorities and modern antisemitism in Europe today has only been exasperated by the current economic crisis and austerity measures. This underscores the importance of having a space for encounters and tolerance building.

On the Virtual Shtetl Portal, individuals who would otherwise never meet each other in person because of geographical distance, language barriers and ideological differences are collaborating on a project and contributing to the process of making sense of the past. The platform of the Virtual museum has the potential to change the way we contextualize our pasts; however, the ‘texts’ with which we construct a history are not self-evident and human understanding of this cultural process requires critical inquiry.

If Andreas Huyssen’s observation is correct that “as individuals and societies, we need the past to construct and anchor our identities and to nurture a vision of the future,” then the numerous efforts being made to retain the memory of Jewish life before the Holocaust and World War II also indicate that how we remember these events maintains our identities and our sense of society’s present and future conditions (249). We protect the memory of the past event not only because of its vulnerability to being forgotten, but also to prevent it from being reduced to events which we no longer see as relevant to our society.

The nature of the media under investigation is that it is always changing. There is such a large volume of information that is generated daily that it really was a challenge to conceptualize a research design that could account for such changes. More resources and time are required to study the expansion of this project to include a mobile version and the international cooperation facilitating the inclusion of information about Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. It would be fruitful to study the future of this project and investigate further how technology is profoundly transforming our everyday experiences and the way in which we make meaning of the past globally.

The growing field of digital cultural heritage has implications for how societies gather, disseminate and process information. A major question that I have yet to answer is whether cybernauts posting their own threads of knowledge can attain as much, if not more trust in the credibility of crowd-sourced information than the professional historian. Furthermore, is the authority of the professional historian diminished by the growing awareness that anybody can take part in writing a public history? Fortunately, so far scholars have shown optimism for this project. For example, Historian Sir Martin Gilbert had an overwhelmingly positive stance and stated, “The importance of the Virtual Shtetl cannot be exaggerated; it is a pioneering and inspiring way forward for the teaching of this vital element in the long and vibrant story of the Jews of Poland.”

7. Acknowledgements

From the Museum of the History of Polish Jews: Albert Stankowski, Grzegorz Kołacz, Marek Łoś, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Jerzy Halbersztadt, Ewa Wierzyńska, Mirjam Boehm, Anna Susak, and Andrew Rajcher. From the Graduate School of Social Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences: Professors Andrzej Rychard, Sławomir Kapralski, Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, Jan Kubik, John Fells, Cain Elliot, and Zdzisław Mach.

8. References

Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

Beckerman, G. (2009, September 30). A Virtual Home for Poland‘s Vanished Jews. Forward Magazine. Consulted July, 10 2010. Available

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

Giaccardi, E. (2006). “Collective storytelling and social creativity in the virtual museum: a case study.” Design Issues, 22(3), 29-37. Consulted July, 15 2010. Available

Gross, J.T. (2001). Neighbors: the destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Gruber, R. E. (2002). Virtually Jewish: reinventing Jewish culture in Europe. Berkley, California: University of California Press.

Judt. T. (2005). “From the house of the dead: an essay on modern European memory.” In T. Judt Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945. The Penguin Press: New York. 803-834.

Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, B. (1995). “Introduction.” In Life is with people: the culture of the shtetl, Authored by Zborowksi M. and Herzog, E. New York: Schocken. Consulted July, 4 2010. Available

Kugelmass, J. (1995). “Bloody memories: encountering the past in contemporary Poland.” Cultural Anthropology, 10(3), 279-301.

Steinlauf, M. (1997). Bondage to the dead: Poland and the memory of the Holocaust. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Tuszyńska, A. (1998). Lost landscapes: in search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland. New York: William Morrow & Company.

Yerushalmi, Y.H. (1996). Zakhor: Jewish history and Jewish memory. Seattle: University of Washington Press.