Two weeks shy of her one-year anniversary at the Japanese American National Museum, Director of Marketing and Communications Leslie Unger had one of the most interesting days of her over-two-decades-long professional career. Read about it below!
On February 11, JANM was honored to host a group of visitors from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. They had traveled from Warsaw to visit several institutions in San Francisco and Los Angeles, primarily to learn about education department practices and activities. I tagged along with JANM staff members Clement Hanami, Allyson Nakamoto, Christy Sakamoto, and Lynn Yamasaki, knowing that this would be a memorable opportunity for cultural exchange. I was not disappointed.
POLIN is a new museum, opened in April 2013. Its core exhibition depicting the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews was opened at the end of October 2014. Over the course of the exhibition’s first three days, some 15,000 people visited. That’s a remarkable figure and I can only believe that it speaks to an essential need that POLIN is filling for Poland, for those of Jewish heritage and non-Jews alike.
In addition to learning about the history of Poland and Polish Jews, as well as how the POLIN Museum came into existence, I was fascinated by some of the concepts and themes that the Warsaw museum and JANM share, including notions of identity and citizenship, and how to represent a proud people scarred by immeasurable tragedy.
There was a very interesting discussion about the phrase “concentration camps.” This is terminology that JANM and others use in reference to what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II rather than other more euphemistic wording. Of course, “concentration camps” is also the terminology most often used to describe where Jews were sent and where so many of them perished during the war. And it is the context of the Holocaust that has brought an additional level of meaning to the phrase for many people.
When we told our Polish visitors that JANM uses “concentration camps,” I could see each of them experience a moment of discomfort. As someone of Jewish heritage, I had felt the same internal shudder the first time I heard the words used at JANM. But as I became more familiar with the story of Japanese Americans and focused more specifically on the actual meaning of the words themselves and not on additional connotations that have evolved, I became more comfortable. I shared this personal experience with our guests, and they too were able to speak more objectively about this powerful phrase and how it has in fact been used in numerous other situations, before and after WWII.
Perhaps one of the most memorable things articulated by our guests was that Jews are integral to the story of Poland and vice versa, and that the POLIN Museum tries to portray this symbiotic relationship as well as how Jews were and are part of the historical context of the larger geographic region. As one of them said: “The story of the Jews is presented to inspire respect for diversity.”
You could not write a statement that more closely mirrors the mission of JANM. The stories of Polish Jews and Japanese Americans are not the same. But in the span of just a few hours, I was emphatically reminded of how there is so much more that the human race shares than what might divide it.