POLIN, THE Museum of the History of Polish Jews, stands directly opposite the monument of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, created by famed Warsaw born sculptor Natan Rapoport. The museum is a joint project of the City of Warsaw, the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland and donor organizations and individuals from abroad.
Few things in this world are absolutely perfect, and there are some minor criticisms which can be leveled at the museum, but all in all it is a superb project, that makes wonderful use of multi-media in presenting a millennium of Polish-Jewish history.
The most breathtaking exhibit is of course the glorious replica of the wooden bimah and ceiling of the 18th-century Gwozdziec synagogue. Rich in color, with Hebrew inscriptions, animal signs and zodiac symbols, the photographs, brilliant as they are, do not quite do justice to the real thing, which is the centerpiece of the museum’s core exhibition.
At the official opening of the museum in October, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Poland’s minister of culture and national heritage, said that its displays more than any other previous exhibition a new and more complex panorama of Polish and Jewish coexistence over a period of a thousand years. She was convinced that visitors both Jewish and Polish will be enchanted and perhaps slightly bewildered, and will leave with many questions. She said the museum will also server as an educational facility in which Polish and Jewish youth will meet and dialogue and in which political discussions will be held between Polish government ministers and parliamentarians and their Israeli counterparts. Needless to say it will fascinate historians both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz is certain that the museum is one of the most advanced museum projects in the world.
The Poles have long resented the fact that most Jews come to Poland for negative rather than positive reasons, and those who are involved with the museum see it as a significant means of changing this trend.
It will also serve as a source of pride to Poland’s Jewish community, in that it will make more Poles realize what the nation’s Jewish citizens gave to the country over the centuries. As for Diaspora Jews visiting the museum, those who were previously unaware will be surprised to learn how much Jewish philosophy, how many streams of Judaism, how many different Zionist movements, how many Jewish sports organizations originated in Poland.
Another project under construction nearby will be dedicated to the Righteous among the Nations.
Yad Vashem has recognized more Poles as Righteous among the Nations than people from any other country. Admittedly, Poland had more Jews to save than any other country. But the fact that so many thousands of Poles – not all of whom have been recognized – risked their own lives to save those of Jews, is something that bears public recognition so as to give both Poles and Jews additional cause to think of the centuries long symbiotic relationship.
Although I have been to Poland many times over the past three decades, this recent visit for the opening of the museum was almost like closing a circle.
My first visit to Poland was toward the end of the Communist era. Warsaw, despite its imposing architecture, was a drab city, and the Centrum, the main downtown shopping area, had hardly anything worth buying other than in the Pewex stores, which were mainly for tourists and which sold western goods for American dollars and some other hard currencies. I remember buying top-grade American cosmetics for only $2 each, and paying $12 for a beautiful coat.
In the subway which enabled pedestrians to cross the wide streets in safety, the only signs of color against the grayness were the buckets of flowers at the various exits. In the winter people often congregated there because it was warmer than being outside and there were street musicians and singers, who though dressed in shabby clothes livened up the place and attracted large audiences.
Today, the subway is full of shops as well as many take-away eateries with the most mouthwatering array of pastries. Warsaw is as cosmopolitan a city as they come, with cuisine from every continent and almost every country, plus huge shopping malls with branches of top European and American brand names, often at much lower prices than charged elsewhere, most certainly in Israel.
Food is also a lot cheaper than in Israel, whether purchased in a supermarket or a restaurant, and for the record, Milky puddings (or their equivalent) cost less in Warsaw than in Berlin.
As part of the contingent of journalists who traveled to Warsaw with President Reuven Rivlin, I did not choose my hotel, but stayed in the one that was booked for the Israeli group. It happened to be the Metropol, the hotel I stayed in during my first visit to Poland. What a difference between then and now. The hotel has undergone a complete overhaul, with an emphasis on bright and cheery. The room, though small, was comfortable and spotlessly clean.
The bathroom was ultramodern. There was wifi, television and radio. The breakfast was much more varied and plentiful than it had been the first time around, and the staff were very obliging. The price was the most pleasant surprise of all. We had been quoted $120 per night, but when we came to pay, we were charged only $103. It may have been a group rate or a special gesture to the Israelis, but even the original price was extremely reasonable.
Israeli journalists are known to be very cynical, but the cynicism was less evident this time around.
Nearly all of us were of Polish extraction, either actually born in Poland or born to Polish parents.
There was a huge map on one of the walls in the museum, denoting all the places in Poland in which there had been Jewish communities. We were all like small children seeking our families’ city, town or village and triumphantly pointing it out to others in the group.
Unlike other countries in Europe, Poland is demographically homogeneous. People of African and Asian background are few and far between, and although there are several restaurants advertising kebabs, there was no evidence of people in kaffiyehs, hijabs, abayas or galabiyas in the streets.
There are numerous cultural outlets in Warsaw, but unless one at least understands Polish the only ones that the visitor can appreciate are those of a musical nature.
Unlike Israel where there are signs in different languages, almost everything in Poland is in Polish, even in five-star hotels. The more upscale hotels have international publications for guests to read at breakfast or in the lobby, but hotels such as the Metropol have nothing other than tourist directories in English, or any other language for that matter.
Poland is a rapidly developing country, most obviously so in Warsaw. A construction site on the fashionable Marszalkowska Street includes a fascinating photographic display of the city dating from the immediate aftermath of the Second World War to the present day, and it’s really interesting to note the changes and to see how tall, modern buildings have replaced the ruins.