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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.