WARSAW, Poland -- In the heart of the former Warsaw ghetto, where Jews rebelled against their German oppressors 70 years ago, Poland is unveiling a new museum to commemorate 1,000 years of Jewish life and culture.
Yet the $100 million Museum of the History of Polish Jews, whose gala inauguration Friday is timed to coincide with the anniversary of that uprising, is not meant to be another museum to the Nazi Holocaust. While one major gallery will be devoted to the mass killings of World War II that turned Poland into the primary killing ground for European Jews, seven others will show the history of Jews in this region starting from their migration in the 10th century.
It is not another museum of the Holocaust. It is a museum of life, said Sigmund Rolat, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who chairs the museums North American council. Young people, especially Americans, usually learn only about the German concentration camps. Its important to see Auschwitz, but its more important to see where Jews lived for a thousand years and where they have created so much.
Retrieving a Polish 10-zloty ($3) note from his briefcase, Rolat noted that Prince Mieszko I, the 10th century ruler pictured on the front of the bill, had commissioned Polands first coin, which had Hebrew lettering, shown on the reverse. The minters at the time were Jewish, most likely the descendants of traders who settled here that same century.
The museum, designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, is an understated glass-covered box of a building whose most dramatic feature is its entry hall, a deep crevice surrounded by undulating walls, symbolizing the hope and despair that characterized the Jewish experience in Poland. Its still a work in progress; its core exhibit has yet to be installed, leaving many questions open about just how a millennium of Jewish life will be depicted.
The museum design supports two related goals. The permanent displays, which will be in below-ground galleries, will recount the rich but tragic history of what was once the worlds biggest Jewish community, while the spacious upper floors are to host an impressive new cultural center for Warsaw.
The Holocaust is generally told as a story in the history of anti-Semitism, and this story is much broader, much richer and much deeper than the history of anti-Semitism, said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett of New York University, one of the principal curators. The world should not know more about how they died than how they lived. It is our mission to communicate how they lived.
The museum wont shy from the darkest periods of Polish-Jewish relations, said museum officials. It is to recount the history of anti-Semitic pogroms, from the mid-17th century to the Kielce massacre after World War II. It will tell the story not just of Polands righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II, but of the Poles who turned Jews in to the Gestapo, knowing they would be executed.
Scholars are assembling a vast database that will allow visitors of Polish Jewish descent to look up their town of origin. The aim is you press a button, say I want to see my town, and the museum will surround you with information, visually and in all other forms, said Peter Jassem, the museums Polish-born Canadian representative.