Polish Museum Set To Open Spectacular Window on Jewish Past

Meticulous Recreation of Forgotten World of Shtetl and Ghetto

Intricate Recreation: Boaz Pash, chief rabbi of Krakow, explains the symbols on the reconstructed roof of a 18th century wooden synagogue that once stood in the town of Gwozdziec. The meticulous model is a centerpiece of the new Jewish museum in Warsaw.
getty images
Intricate Recreation: Boaz Pash, chief rabbi of Krakow, explains the symbols on the reconstructed roof of a 18th century wooden synagogue that once stood in the town of Gwozdziec. The meticulous model is a centerpiece of the new Jewish museum in Warsaw.

By A.J. Goldmann

Published April 01, 2013, issue of April 05, 2013.
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It is a painfully cold day as a light snow falls on the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and on its immediate neighbor, the monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Inside the museum, nearly 100 workers are putting the finishing touches on the near-completed building. The undulating walls are painted a light, sandy color that gives the impression of Jerusalem Stone. The air is thick with paint and woodchips. Sparks fly from several corners.

I am being led through the dynamic structure to view the first object that has been installed in the museum: a magnificent re-creation of the timber-framed roof of the Gwozdziec Synagogue, painstakingly reconstructed using only original methods, tools and materials. Richly decorated with zodiac symbols, religious insignia and a plethora of real and mythological animals, the synagogue roof seems to augur well for the as-yet-unfinished museum, housed in the sleek edifice designed by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamäki and Ilmari Lahdelma.

After a gestation period of nearly two decades, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is finally set to open its doors April 19, which is the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

A scale model depicts the wood-timbered roof of 300-year-old Polish synagogue.
getty images
A scale model depicts the wood-timbered roof of 300-year-old Polish synagogue.

One of the most significant Jewish cultural projects in contemporary Europe, the museum will tell the story of the Jewish people’s 1,000-year history in Poland. According to museum officials, the core exhibition, which will be installed in the spring of 2014, will demonstrate how Jewish history and Polish history have been intertwined for the greater part of a millennium.

It is an ambitious and risky venture that has proved challenging from both a philosophical and a practical point of view. In a country where Jews were not welcome for much of the 20th century, one that many Jews associate primarily with the Nazi death camps, such a museum seems bound to challenge long-held beliefs and stereotypes.

On a more basic level, the project has often been beset by financial uncertainty and institutional setbacks, including the much publicized departure of its director, Jerzy Halbersztadt, who was basically the museum’s idea man from 1996 until his resignation in 2011.

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