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In Warsaw, where the notion of celebrating life in a place so saturated with death might seem unthinkable, a Jewish museum that celebrates and affirms life is a “moral obligation that goes contrary to what people think they know.”
For Schudrich, the museum will help ensure that the rich history of the Jews in Poland will not be forgotten. “We cannot permit the world to forget what happened to the Jews of Poland and Europe during the German Holocaust, but along with that we cannot let the world forget the culture, the religion, the civilization that was created here,” he explained.
For a while, it seemed as though the museum might never see the light of day. Although the project was initiated in 1995 by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, an organization dedicated to commemorating Polish Jewish culture and history, the path to the April opening has been slow and arduous, because of repeated institutional and financial setbacks.
The museum spent its first decade as a completely independent organization. In 2005, the City of Warsaw, together with the Polish Ministry of Culture, promised 200 million PLN (about 65 million USD) for the building and agreed, in addition, to cover the basic operating costs. The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland took responsibility for the exhibition and raised 40 million USD to produce it.
Since then, American and Polish philanthropists, including Tad Taube, Sigmund Rolat and Jan Kulczyk — famously the richest man in Poland (and the only non-Jew among the principal donors) — have joined the project. Since Halberzstadt left the museum over financial and organizational disputes with both the museum staff and the Polish Ministry of Culture, which still seems to be a sensitive topic among museum officials, the project has inched closer to completion under its acting director, Andrzej Cudak.
Now, with the building virtually finished, and most of the financing in place, there is hope that the museum could become one of the country’s most vital Jewish institutions.
“It will be the most important Jewish place in Poland,” said Stepinski, who, like many Poles who grew up during the communist era, discovered his Jewish roots only as an adult. For him, working for the museum has personal resonance. “I’m repaying my debt to my ancestors,” he said, expressing hope that the museum would inspire other Poles to explore their Jewish roots.