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Warsaw has a resonance very different from other cities that have erected high-profile Jewish museums.
“Practically nobody remembers that Warsaw was the most densely populated Jewish place in Europe,” said Zygmunt Stepinski, one of the museum’s deputy directors.
While many still associate Poland with Nazi Germany’s mass murder of European Jewry, the exhibition aims to show how Jews often found greater acceptance in Poland than in much of Western Europe.
A Jewish presence in Poland dates back to the 10th century. The Sephardic merchant and diplomat Ibrahim ibn Yaqub was the “Jewish connection to Poland,” and wrote the first reliable account of the Polish state under the rule of Mieszko I, the first crowned king of Poland. For the remainder of the Middle Ages, the Jews who settled in Poland traveled via trade routes from Spain and the German lands.
By the 15th century, Jewish populations existed in nearly 100 settlements, and Poland superseded the German lands as the center of Ashkenazi Judaism. All the while, the Jews of Poland contributed to secular society as they created a culture of their own. That culture and religion, is, by and large, the heritage of roughly 9 million Jews (about 70% of the world Jewish population today), whose roots are in the historic territory of Poland.
The Holocaust decimated that world. Of the 3.5 million Jews in Poland before the war, only one-tenth survived. The vast majority emigrated between 1945 and 1968, the year of a Soviet-led anti-Semitic campaign. Judaism was suppressed under communism, and only in recent years have Poles become comfortable talking about, and expressing, their Jewish history and origins.
The World Jewish Congress puts the present-day Jewish population of Poland at 5,000, although that figure is most likely a conservative estimate.
“As I always say, I don’t know how many Jews there are in Poland, but I know that tomorrow there’ll be more,” said Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi since 2004. “Poles are increasingly embracing the Jewish contribution to their civilization and discovering their Jewish roots, and Jews are increasingly embracing their Polish identity.”