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.
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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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The rebirth of Jewish life in Poland has been one of the hot stories of the past two decades, and one certainly can see the museum as part of that wider phenomenon. In a more general sense, though, one can understand it as a sign of democratic Poland’s willingness to talk openly about its Jewish past. Schudrich, who has been one of the guiding forces in the revival, felt that the museum’s opening could assist in this renaissance.

“There is no doubt that this museum will be a center of pride for people with Jewish roots here in Poland. You’ll go there and feel proud and be inspired by who your ancestors were. And I would hope that you would even be motivated to find out more about the religion and culture of their ancestors,” he said.

Stepinski said that the museum would not try to rebuild the past, but rather to evoke it for the present day. He says he hopes that visitors are up to finding continuities between the Polish history they know and the Jewish history they learn about. Highlighting the Jewish origins of well-known Polish personalities, like the much loved poet Julian Tuwim or the legendary pianist Arthur RubInstein, is one way he mentions of establishing these links.

He candidly admitted, however, that the museum’s lack of a permanent collection during its first year in the new building might cause difficulties. But the activities of the museum, he says, will include three temporary exhibitions in the first year, as well as a wealth of educational programming and research. This includes compiling a database by researching in local and government archives for information about vanished Jewish towns.

Once the core exhibition has been installed next year, it seems inevitable that it will stir up debate.

“Especially when we are talking about the difficult modern history — the pogroms, the Holocaust; these are places where we expect debate, because they’re linked with strong emotions and the traumatic part of the history of the Jews and the Poles,” explained Piotr Kossobudzki, the museum’s spokesman. “There are a lot of expectations about how it should be presented in our exhibition. Some people might say ‘It’s too Jewish’ or “It’s too Polish,’ or feel that it’s not the appropriate perspective for a museum in Poland. But as long as we are not ignored, we’re fine with being controversial.”

And in a country where Jews were not openly discussed until quite recently, perhaps a little controversy to keep a conversation going is not such a bad thing.

“I hope that we provoke discussion,” Stepinski said, “the very day the exhibition opens.”

A.J. Goldmann can be reached at feedback@forward.com


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