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Polish Museum Set To Open Spectacular Window on Jewish Past

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. Image by getty images

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.

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.”

“We want to show that Jews are not a footnote to Polish history,” added Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the New York University professor who oversaw the development of the permanent exhibition.

Her involvement with the museum dates back to 2002. That year she was asked to review the exhibition’s provisional plan, which had been drafted two years earlier. Since then she has headed a team of 120 curators, scholars and experts from the United States, Poland and Israel who have worked together to generate the contents of the exhibition’s eight galleries.

Calling the approach that they’ve taken “chronothematic” — meaning the galleries treat themes that don’t always fit neatly into a fixed timeline — she stressed that she didn’t want the exhibit to be a “march through time.”

“It’s about historical process rather than a sequence of events,” she said. One of the curators’ keys decisions was to integrate the Jewish and Polish narratives as much as possible, rather than to explain them as parallel yet separate developments. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said she expects that Poles will be surprised to view their own past through a new lens.

“Polish visitors who come are going to recognize their history,” she predicted.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett compared the Warsaw museum with the Jewish Museum Berlin, which, she suggested, has given the Germans a way of connecting to Jewish history other than the overwhelming public grappling over the Holocaust. A central goal of the Warsaw museum, she suggested, was to show that the destruction of Polish Jewry was not inevitable.

“The stigma of anti-Semitism and the death camps is so overwhelming, but there’s no teleology to this 1,000-year history,” she said. “It didn’t need to end this way.”

While the monument to the heroes of the ghetto uprising commemorates the dead, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett suggested that the museum would be more life affirming than eulogizing. “When you sit shiva, you console the mourner by celebrating the life of the deceased,” she said.

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.

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 [email protected]


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