Tel Avivians are a proud bunch. There is only one Tel Aviv, they will say and, of course, with good reason. Then again, were they to pop over to the POLIN Museum in Warsaw, they might get the idea that there is at least one other city with similar features and backdrop.
The Gdynia-Tel Aviv exhibition there, curated by Dr. Artur Tanikowski and which runs until February, looks at the common denominators between the two seaside towns which each have much to thank forward-looking Jewish architects for their aesthetic structural underpinning.
Contrasting geographic locations and cultural milieu – not to mention weather – notwithstanding, there appear to be quite a few parallels between the cities. Both were founded in the early 20th century and became modern seaside resorts and ports. Both boast characteristic modernist architecture, mainly Bauhaus, and they share common Polish-Jewish history. The latter also incorporates Polish Jewish architects, such as Arieh Sharon, who made aliyah to pre-state Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, and contributed to the design and construction of Bauhaus-style edifices that eventually earned Tel Aviv its “white city” moniker, and UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
As new towns, both Tel Aviv and Gdynia were able to boldly break new aesthetic ground and, indeed, their architectural and planning narratives evolved along similar lines. Tel Aviv, founded in 1909, was to become the “first Hebrew city.” Gdynia, founded in 1919, was envisioned as the “Polish gate to the world.” The latter included a sea link with pre-state Palestine, which was plied by the passenger ship S.S. Pułaski.
The exhibits include a wide range of disciplines and styles, with older works loaned to POLIN by various Israeli institutions, such as the Nahum Gutman Museum in Tel Aviv and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, as well as the Gdynia City Museum. Tanikowski put together a broad sweep of means to convey the aesthetics and zeitgeist at each location, including original artworks such as A Harbor in Jaffa by Reuven Rubin from 1923, several drawings by Nahum Gutman, and paintings by Moravian-born Israeli painter Ludwig Blum, including a delightful watercolor of Purim in Tel Aviv, from 1934, and a somewhat orientalist view of Jaffa from 1927. Elsewhere in the expansive showing, there are archival photographs, film footage, documentaries, posters and drawings. Architectural models of iconic buildings in both cities were also commissioned for the exhibition.
JOANNA FIKUS, head of the POLIN Museum’s Exhibitions Department, says the museum invested considerable resources in the exhibition.
“We did a lot of research for this, and we brought original paintings, some on loan from Israeli institutions,” she explains. “We also have paintings on loan from Polish institutions, and some paintings which were created especially for the purpose of this exhibition, by young Polish artists, including by Maria Kiesner.”
Forty-three-year-old Kiesner has, in recent years, gained an international reputation for her striking cityscapes and portrayals of buildings across a range of styles. Her purview for the binational project included producing paintings of structures in Tel Aviv and Gdynia.
Fikus says that the idea was not only to impart some sense of the historical backdrop to the urban layout in both cities, but also to enhance the current showing with some here-and-now sensibilities. That, she notes, is in line with the POLIN Museum’s credo.
“When we create historical exhibitions, we are always trying to include contemporary art and to give some universal meaning to the exhibition.”
That suits the Tel Aviv-Gdynia correlation.
“For example, we are thinking of this exhibition as a kind of idea of two cities-one dream. That means that people, Zionists, who were creating Tel Aviv, they had a dream about the new state, about Israel. It is the same story with Gdynia. It was unveiled and created after Poland regained its independence, and for its founding fathers It was a new, fresh, harbor for the newly born Polish state.”
It is also about engaging the visitor in the content, and bringing them on board as actively as possible. “We are also trying to show our visitors, to say to them: hey, imagine you are going to start a completely new life. You have a dream. You are dreaming about some new aspect of being in a completely different place. How would you feel? Would you be full of hope, or fear? All this emotion,” continued Fikus.
While Tanikowski conceived the idea of the current showing, Fikus says the thinking was already out there and that it was also largely a matter of digging a little into academic work that had been undertaken, the fruits of which were there for the picking.
“The exhibition is a very original idea of us, the museum, and of the curator. But, juxtaposing these two towns, I would say in many aspects, in architectural aspects, it happened earlier. It was mainly in texts by art historians, or historians of architecture, mainly from Poland. You know, Gdynia is not well known abroad and Tel Aviv, of course, everybody knows about it. Everybody knows about its modernist architecture, which you think about in relation to Tel Aviv or some German towns, or maybe Prague,” said Fikus.
The local academics include a high-profile politician and art historian, who looked at the interfaces between Poland and the new city emerging from the sands of Tel Aviv. Fikus said, “The researchers include the former Minister of Culture, Mrs. Malgorzata Omilanowska. She is a professor of art history, and her specialty is architecture. She wrote about this as well, and also wrote about Jewish architects educated here in Poland who were coming to British Mandate Palestine, back then, who were designing buildings [in Tel Aviv].”
Fikus notes the work of a Warsaw-born Jewish architect, by the name of Lucjan Korngold, who left his imprint all across the Polish capital in the 1920s and 1930s, and who spent a few years living in Tel Aviv, in the mid-1930s. As his sojourn over here was brief he only managed to design one building in Tel Aviv, Rabinski House, which is still in situ on the corner of Shenkin Street and Hagilboa Street, and is considered one of the finest examples of the Bauhaus style.
It seems logistics persuaded Korngold to return to Europe. “He actually came back to Poland for many reasons, also because he didn’t know Hebrew well enough,” Fikus explains. Thankfully, Korngold got out in time – just.
“He managed to leave Poland in August 1939, on the last ship to South America. He survived and he was very successful in Brazil.”
THE POLIN MUSEUM was opened six years ago, on the initiative of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, on a site that was part of the Warsaw Ghetto. The core exhibition, which traces the 1,000 year history of the Jewish community of Poland, opened in October 2014. Fikus notes that the museum founding was largely aimed at conveying the rich history of the community, and its contribution to Poland, in its various guises, to those who may not be aware of this.
“It is only by seeing the history of Polish Jews in this [museum] context we can see what a huge loss and tragedy it was for the whole of civilization, the history of Poland, of Polish Jews.”
One of those who conceived the idea for the museum, Marian Turski, now serves as the institution’s chairman. Turksi is a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor, activist and long-time contributor to the center-left Polityka weekly magazine. Turksi managed to survive Auschwitz, Buchenwald and a death march to Theresienstadt.
But the museum is not just about yesteryear narratives.
“We also have our post-war years gallery, which leads up to the situation of Jews in Poland now,” says Fikus. The core exhibition is spread through eight different galleries.
So, what does the average, non-Jewish, Pole know about the enduring role played by Jews in their country’s history?
“We do surveys on our visitors,” she notes. “We have more than 350,000 visitors to our core exhibition, each year. Half of them are from Poland and half from abroad. Of course, from abroad I assume that many of them are from Israel, or are Jewish, but many of them are not.”
The museum’s efforts appear to be achieving the desired effect.
“The people that come here, Jewish or non-Jewish, they also leave and say ‘wow! We didn’t know all that!’” Fikus says. “It is very interesting, because many of them did not know different things. I remember when we first wanted to encourage Israeli groups to come, their organizers said, maybe we’ll show them one gallery or two galleries. But they decided themselves that, only by seeing the whole exhibition, getting a total experience, you can really understand the greatness of this achievement [of the Polish Jewish community],” Fikus said.
In view of the currently political climate in Poland and the rise in antisemitism there, the museum clearly has a crucial part to play.
Gdynia-Tel Aviv closes on February 3, 2020.
For more information about the POLIN Museum: www.polin.pl/en