Polish Jewish Museum A Tough Sell Here


Victor Markowicz, a Siberian-born philanthropist who grew up in Poland and later moved to the United States, spends much of his time these days asking fellow Jewish philanthropists in the U.S. to contribute to a Jewish museum to be built in Warsaw in the next few years.

Markowicz’s friends, in turn, ask him something: "Why in Warsaw? Why in Poland?"

Many American Jews (born here or in the Old Country) support the idea of a museum devoted to Jews from Poland, to which a majority of American Jewry can trace their roots.

But they don’t want to support an institution that is in Poland, Markowicz said. And they certainly don’t want to go there themselves.

"There are a lot of people who dismiss it out of hand," viewing Poland, home to the world’s largest Jewish community before World War II, only as the place where much of the Nazis’ Final Solution took place, he said.

That, Markowicz said, is one reason the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is being built. "It will break stereotypes."

The museum will go up in the center of the capital, in a park clearing on the site of the wartime ghetto, across from Natan Rappaport’s Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Groundbreaking is to take place later this year; the museum is to open in late 2008 or early 2009.

While most prominent Polish politicians and publications have supported the museum’s creation, a small minority, mostly from right-wing circles, have criticized the government’s expenditures on the project, a Jewish activist from Warsaw says.

The museum (www.jewishmuseum.org.pl) is under the auspices of Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, the Polish government and the municipality of Warsaw; the city donated the 3.2 acres for the museum grounds; Poland and Warsaw, as well as the government of Germany, have contributed major parts of the museum’s initial $55 million budget, about two-thirds of which has already been raised.

The museum’s North American Council, on which Markowicz serves as co-chairman, has conducted a series of fund-raising educational events and parlor meetings over the last several years, and will sponsor a benefit performance of "Brundibar," a children’s opera originally performed in Terezin, on Sunday, May 21, 5 p.m., at the New Victory Theater, 229 W. 42nd St., Manhattan. A reception will follow the show. (For information, call Christina Orwicz-Gantcher at [917] 612-4455.)The museum is seeking to raise $7 million from private sources in the United States. By way of comparison, the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Battery Park, raised $11 from private funds, and the entire initial $168 million budget of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington came from non-government sources.

The Warsaw museum, designed by the Finnish architectural firm Lahdelma and Mahlamaki, will be three stories high, in the shape of an open book, with a glass-copper facade.

Inspired by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which opened in Washington a decade ago and immediately became a popular destination for tourists, it will tell the 1,000-year story of Polish Jewry in a high-tech, multimedia, interactive fashion, Markowicz says. Plans call for it to include a recreated Warsaw street, projected films of street scenes, accompanying voices in the background and a database where visitors can research their own familial and shtetl ties.

The lives of Polish Jews who made their mark in this country, Israel and other lands will be part of the permanent exhibit, Markowicz said. "The history of Polish Jews continued when they emigrated."

The museum will be heavy on history, light on physical artifacts, said Ewa Ziomecka, a Warsaw-born journalist who has served as a fund-raiser for the museum and is on a leave of absence while serving as the Polish president’s minister responsible for Polish-Jewish relations. "Most of the material artifacts were destroyed" during the Holocaust, she said.

The building will not be a Holocaust museum, "but the Holocaust is part of it," Ziomecka said.

The museum’s exhibits will feature the close interactions that characterized Jewish-Polish relations at times, and the anti-Semitism that led to Poland’s reputation (according to many Jews) as a hostile, Jew-hating country, Markowicz said. "Good things … bad things … happened in a thousand years," he says. "Everything is addressed and honestly addressed. It’s not a tool of [pro-Polish] propaganda."

Visiting groups of Jewish youth, March of the Living participants from the U.S. and high school students from Israel, will be invited to make the museum a stop on their itinerary, he said. The groups often concentrate on death camps, with little time spent on Poland’s Jewish history or its current Jewish community. "They leave the country with hatred," Markowicz said.

He was born after the war, studied in Israel, and came to the U.S. in 1970, making his fortune as a designer of computerized lottery systems. Most of his family died in the Shoah.

"I’m a Polish Jew. I consider myself a child of survivors," said Markowicz, who divides his time between Boca Raton and the Upper East Side, and was approached ten years ago by the museum’s founders.

Other prominent donors to the museum’s founding include the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, philanthropists Tad Taube of San Francisco and Sigmund Rolat of New York City.

Markowicz said he considered the museum "a great idea" as soon as he heard about it. "The idea of the Nazis was to erase the Jews and the memory of the Jews."

Added Ziomecka: "There is no history of Poland without the history of Polish Jews."Her family is not Jewish. She grew up on the outskirts of the former ghetto. "I played on the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto," she said.

Ziomecka said plans for the museum have received widespread support among Poles, part of a growing interest in the country’s Jewish past. "Jews are in vogue," she said. "The Holocaust is now a part of the curriculum" of Polish schools.

When the Polish Parliament approved funding of the museum three years ago, "there was no opposition, even from the very right-wing of the government," Markowicz said. "Everyone recognizes that Jews were a part of Polish history."

However, Konstanty Gebert, publisher of the Polish Jewish community’s monthly Midrasz magazine, said the museum has brought "criticism … expressed from the conservative end of the political spectrum."

"Why should Polish money go to a Jewish museum?" the critics ask, Gebert said. They object primarily to government funds being spent on what they see as a non-Polish cause, he said. "That it is Jewish makes it even worse."

The critics, a "small minority" in Polish society, are from the groups who often express anti-Semitic opinions, Gebert said. Publicity over the museum has not increased anti-Semitic feelings in Poland, he said, but "it just gives the anti-Semites a platform" in right-wing publications and on-line chat rooms.

"I think most Poles are indifferent to the museum," less interested in it than in the major museum about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis that opened two years ago, Gebert said.

One prominent Jewish-American supporter of the museum said its exhibits on a millennium of Jewish-Polish relations, and about Poland’s recent outreach to the Jewish community, will show a side of the country largely unknown among American Jews.

"Poland is the best friend the United States has in Europe … the best friend Israel has in Europe," said Stephen Solender, former executive vice president of UJA-Federation and co-chairman of the museum’s North American Council.

Without the museum, he said, "our children and grandchildren would only know how we died in Poland and not how we lived," he says. "I felt I had a responsibility to my own grandchildren."

Officials of the Catholic Church in Poland have been "helpful" in supporting the museum, Solender said.

Museum exhibits will be accompanied by text in Polish and English, and probably in Hebrew and Yiddish and several European languages, Markowicz said. It will have a large library, and host cultural and academic events.

It will also serve as a clearinghouse for information about Jewish activities in Poland, and help boost the post-communist revival of Polish Jewry, he said.Markowicz returns to Poland several times a year. He said he will encourage skeptical friends, who have never set foot in Poland, to go there to see the completed museum. "The museum itself might be the best tool to convince them" that Poland has changed, he said. "They may come to Poland when the museum is there."