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Designed by the Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, the striking building with undulating interior walls is in fact still largely empty. The museum will inaugurate its cultural and educational programs on Friday, but its core exhibition – an interactive narration of 1,000 years of Polish Jewish life – will not be installed until next year.
“The museum is a part of the history that it tells,” Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett, the New York University professor who is overseeing the design of the core exhibition, told JTA. “It speaks to the renewal of Jewish life in Poland, to the enormous Jewish presence in Polish consciousness.”
On the eve of World War II, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, with 3.3 million Jews making up one-tenth of the country’s population. More than 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust; thousands more survivors left in the wake of postwar pogroms. Still more departed in the 1960s amid anti-Semitic campaigns by the Communist regime.
But with the fall of communism, there has been a revival of Jewish life in Poland and a movement by Jews and non-Jews to reclaim Jewish culture.
“Imagine, the idea for this museum arose in 1996, just a few years after the fall of communism,” Kirshenblatt Gimblett said. “The many efforts of the last two decades to renew Jewish life, to recover the Jewish past, and to foster open debate and dialogue about the most difficult moments in the history of Poland and Polish Jews have created the momentum and support for this initiative.”
The only permanent part of the exhibit installed to date is the dazzling reconstruction of the roof and painted ceiling of an 18th century wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine. So stunning that it has been compared to the Sistine Chapel, it features a wealth of brightly painted folk designs combined with Jewish symbolism: lions, griffins, Zodiac signs, birds, flowers, unicorns and much more.
Financed by the Polish state, the city of Warsaw and numerous Jewish and non-Jewish private donors, the development of the museum suffered setbacks and delays over the years due to political and organizational issues as well as funding shortfalls. The very idea of such a museum in Poland, which many Jews regard as a vast Jewish cemetery, was long a hard sell.