Turning A New Page In Poland’s Jewish History


Warsaw — Nine months before the start of World War II, a Jewish friend of Jerzy Prezdziecki wrote in a poem that “our friendship will never change to smoke.”

The lines turned out to be eerily prescient, as the friend died in the Shoah.

That poem, torn from the friend’s treasured journal, will be part of a display later this year at The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a new museum opening in Warsaw today (April 19) on the 70th anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The museum, which seeks to grow into Europe’s largest Jewish history museum, will show the span of Jewish life in Poland over the last millennium, dealing with, but not dwelling on, such aspects of Polish-history as Polish anti-Semitism and the German-directed Final Solution that many Jews feel define the Jewish encounter with Poland. Its launch comes just months after the opening of a major Jewish history museum in Moscow.

Prezdziecki, an 86-year-old author and playwright who is not Jewish, donated his friend’s poem after seeing a newspaper ad seeking artifacts from Poland’s Jewish past.

A native of Sosnowitz, a city in southern Poland that had a large Jewish population before the Holocaust, Przeździecki told The Jewish Week he thought the poem was a poignant statement about the tenor of interfaith relations that prevailed among some Polish Jews and Catholics on the eve of World War II.

Which is what the museum aims to show. Its goal is to give Poland’s small Jewish community (and Jewish visitors from abroad) pride in their collective past, and show non-Jewish Poles a part of their history of which most, especially young ones, know little. “It opens up the conversation,” says Helise Lieberman, American-born director of the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland. “This puts the Shoah in a timeline of Jewish history.”

Poles’ interest in the museum so far indicates that 68 years after the end of the war, many “are more aware of what they have lost,” says Marta Wrobel, managing director of the institution’s fundraising. Like much of the museum staff, she is not Jewish. “People are ready to discuss their own history,” she says.

“We do not avoid any issues,” says Kamila Dabrowska, who is responsible for training the museum’s guides and “educators.”

But noting that Jews have lived in Poland almost 1,000 years, officials of the museum stressed that it’s not a Holocaust museum.

“The museum illustrates the Jewish history in Poland more broadly and more generally, and also looks into the future,” says Rainer Mahlamaki, the Finnish architect who designed the building. He was chosen in an international competition from some 100 architects who submitted plans.

“The museum does not underline the suffering but it evokes hope,” Mahlamaki says. “The building itself aims to reflect this idea.”

While the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which opened nine years ago and has become a must-see tourist site, is housed in a sprawling brick building and blends into its surroundings, the new museum makes a statement by its very presence and design. Like an oasis in a desert, the four-story-high building, its exterior shining in shades of copper-blue glass, stands amidst a tableau of gray.

The museum will not be ready to show its entire core exhibition to the public for several months, but today’s ceremonies — featuring Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewizc-Waltz, Israeli President Shimon Peres, major donors and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra — will open some of the exhibition and classroom space for general use. It’s been hosting educational and cultural events at sites around the city for several years.

The museum’s opening coincides with several recent events that reflect increasingly closer ties between Poland and the remnants of Polish Jewry:

An Israeli delegation reported it had achieved a “breakthrough” in negotiations with the government about compensation for private assets that had belonged to Jews before the Shoah.

Polish State Archives and Jewish Records Indexing – Poland entered into a new multiyear agreement that will expand access to the country’s Jewish records.

The Warsaw Municipality announced it will return control of the old Brodno cemetery, near the east bank of the Vistula River, to the Jewish community for restoration.

The daughters of Naftali Herts Kon, a Yiddish writer persecuted under Communism, reclaimed copies of his works from the Warsaw Archives.

Krakow’s Pharmacy Under the Eagle, the only gentile business the Nazis allowed to operate in the city’s ghetto, reopened, as an exhibition space, after a major renovation.

“It’s all part of Poles and Jews taking seriously their relationship,” says Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s Long Island-born chief rabbi. “It’s been an ongoing process.”

The high-tech museum established its online presence last year through an app, “My Warsaw,” and in 2009 through its Virtual Shtetl online archive and database of photos, videos, maps and other reference materials about more than 1,420 Jewish communities. Virtual Shtetl, “the largest online collection of articles on the history of local Jewish communities,” is available in Polish, English, German, Hebrew, Russian, Belarusian and Lithuanian.

The opening of the museum — it’s expected to draw a half-million visitors a year and rank among the city’s major cultural institutions — is a highly publicized event here. Billed as the first-such major Polish museum with joint public-private backing, it received the land from the city and public funds for the construction, while the exhibitions are under the auspices of the Jewish community. Overseas Polish embassies offered journalists subsidized trips to Poland for today’s ceremonies, and the city set up a dedicated website for the commemoration.

The museum’s address is 6 Mordechai Anielewicz St., which is named for the leader of the Ghetto Uprising. And the location has further symbolism: like much of the capital, it is built upon the rubble of buildings that were destroyed during World War II, about two yards above the prewar street level.

The museum is located in the heart of Warsaw’s wartime ghetto, in parkland across from Nathan Rappaport’s Wall of Remembrance memorial sculpture, a 25-minute walk from the Nozyk Synagogue and State Jewish Theare in Grzybowska Square. The museum features a 140,000-square-foot exhibition area and the largest window in Warsaw, which allows passersby to look from the monument, representing Poland’s past, through the building to a park where children play and a street where pedestrians walk.

The institution, completed after an eight-year, $100 million international fundraising campaign, is the latest sign of the post-Communist revival of the Jewish community, which has embraced the museum as an indication of its vitality, of a growing interest of many Polish-born Holocaust survivors abroad in commemorating their history inside of Poland, and of support of Polish non-Jews, who have contributed both artifacts and money to the museum, according to its spokespersons.

“Every Jewish institution that strengthens Jewish identity helps the Jewish community,” says Marian Turski, a Holocaust survivor who is chairman of the Museum Council. “It makes them proud.”

An institution that documents the country’s Jewish history, which nearly ended in the Holocaust, is a responsibility of the survivor generation, Turski says. “If we don’t do it now, our descendants will ask us, ‘What did you do to remember our legacy?’”

The museum was initially a tough sell among Polish-born Holocaust survivors and their families outside of Poland. “Why in Warsaw? Why in Poland?” they would ask; they didn’t want to set foot in the country again, and didn’t want other Jews to, either.

That has changed, to a large extent, as the museum has approached completion, officials say. Many Jews with Polish roots, now living in the United States, have contributed to the institution and “are excited about visiting,” says Zygmunt Stepinski, deputy director. Jews who “were negative … now are curious,” Wrobel says.

The museum — founded by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, and the City of Warsaw — has received financial support from a wide variety of foundations and private donors, including the Claims Conference, the German government and LOT Polish Airlines.

The museum offers Poland a chance to show the West a different side of its history, to dispel the notion that Poland is an anti-Semitic place, says Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum. The museum, he says, “presents counter-testimony.”

“Construction of the museum is yet another good opportunity to refresh the memory of both our nations [Jews and non-Jewish Poles], fed not just with mere ‘centuries of suffering’ but also with common joy, tradition, language and identity,” says Jan Kulczyk, a Polish oil tycoon, a gentile who is reportedly the country’s richest individual, who contributed $6 million. “It will play an important role in teaching us that there are no shortcuts, without tolerance, respect and forgiveness.”

The museum will trace the 1,000-year history of Polish Jewry — in the country’s previous borders that include parts of present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine, Estonia and western Russia — in eight galleries that depict separate eras. That includes First Encounters (the Middle Ages), Township (17th-18th centuries), the Second Republic of Poland, the Holocaust and After the War.

The curving first-floor sandstone walls are designed to evoke the ancient Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea and more-modern Jews’ passage through Polish history. The museum’s most-noted exhibit is probably a nearly full-size replica of a 17th-century wooden synagogue.

Visitors will be able to walk through replicas of a Warsaw street, a Polish forest and an Art Salon.

The museum, which will be handicapped accessible, has gathered several hundred historical artifacts — including letters and prayer books, paintings and photographs, blacksmith tongs, a 16th-century commentary on the Book of Esther, household items and a Jewish dentist’s office sign. Some of the items will remain in the core exhibition; others will go on temporary display.

But the museum is “not object based,” says Stepinski. The focus, he says, is the narrative of Jews’ day-to-day life over the centuries — how they conducted their own affairs, how they interacted with the outside, largely Catholic population.

The response of non-Jewish residents of Poland, who began donating Jewish artifacts “almost immediately” after the call went out six years ago, is a good sign for the museum’s future, says Renata Piatowska, who heads its collections division. Many of the items, she says, were left behind by Jewish friends before the war, or found in onetime Jewish residences afterwards. Many Poles, she says, were hoping for decades to find a proper home for the artifacts.

The donations have not stopped coming, Piatowska says. “People are still sending in things.”