A bridge across the chasm

Poland hopes to shape its future in part by learning from past through new Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Poland Jewish Museum (photo credit: Courtesy)
Poland Jewish Museum
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WARSAW – In the heart of the demolished Warsaw Ghetto, a millennium of Jewish life in Poland is being brought back to life in a new museum, as Poland seeks to turn a page in its own emotion-laden history, and shape a future in the 21st century with a new look at its past.
The state-of-the-art Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is expected to open its doors next year on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, will showcase what was the largest Jewish community in Europe before their decimation in the Holocaust, in an effort to promote dialogue and break stereotypes among Poles as well as among Jews nearly seven decades after the Holocaust.
“Many people tend to associate Jews and Poland with death, with concentration camps, with cemeteries and nothing else,” said Agnieszka Rudzinska, the museum’s director. “Poles may be surprised to learn about the multicultural heritage of [what was] for centuries a non-homogeneous country.”
“Everyone who comes to Poland to see Auschwitz will now come to see the context of what was lost.”
The idea to create such a museum comes at a time of increased Polish awareness of their mixed role in the Holocaust following four decades of a virtual news and educational blackout on the subject in Poland during Communist rule.
“Recapturing the history of the Jews of Poland fits in to the larger project of recreating a liberal, democratic Poland,” said Prof. Moshe Rosman of the Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University.
“When the Jews were the most free in Poland coincided with the time when the country itself was at its peak.”
The museum is expected to become a top tourist attraction, with 500,000 visitors a year, including both Poles and foreign visitors.
The $83 million project – which has been years in planning – is being jointly funded by the Polish government and the City of Warsaw, which contributed about 60 percent of the budget, with the remainder coming from donations by private donors, NGOs and the German government.
Located in the heart of the site where the Warsaw Ghetto stood and facing its main memorial monument, the museum’s concrete and glass structure, which was designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamki, is divided by a jagged chasm that symbolizes Moses’s biblical parting of the Red Sea.
“The museum honors the memory of those who died by remembering how they lived, completing a story which was decimated by the Holocaust,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the museum’s core exhibition program director.
The museum’s core exhibition is divided into seven historical galleries, starting from the 10th century, detailing the history of how the Jews first came to Poland encouraged by the monarch and under royal protection.
Calling the site-specific museum a “bridge across an irreparable chasm caused by the Holocaust,” Kirshenblatt- Gimblett, who teaches Performance Studies at New York University, said that the museum’s target audience was necessarily high school and college students who, born after the fall of Communism in 1989, were far enough removed from the war to be receptive and open in examining the past.
She acknowledged that a museum detailing the history of Polish Jews will necessarily need to strike a balance – or a “trusted zone” – between those concerned such a historic recounting will reinforce the perception of Poland as an anti-Semitic country, and others who are afraid that it will present a rose-tinted picture.
“Our task is to engage visitors in difficult questions to challenge their assumptions and to have them leave curious to know more and less secure in what they thought they knew,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said.
Three-and-a-half million Jews lived in Poland before World War II, a time when one in every third Warsaw resident was Jewish. Half of the 6 million Jewish exterminated in the Holocaust were from Poland.
Today the Jewish community numbers some 20,000 members in a predominantly Roman Catholic country of 39 million.
“Symbolically, the whole of Poland is a museum of the Jewish people,” said Shevach Weiss, the Polish-born Holocaust survivor and former Israeli ambassador to Poland.
Weiss, who is a past chairman of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, said that the Polish museum has the potential to be among the most important museums in the world.