Poland’s new Jewish museum to celebrate life, not revisit the Holocaust


McClatchy Newspapers

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 museum’s North American council. “Young people, especially Americans, usually learn only about the German concentration camps. It’s important to see Auschwitz, but it’s 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 Poland’s 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. It’s 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 world’s 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 won’t 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 Poland’s “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 museum’s Polish-born Canadian representative.

In designing the building with an outwardly boxy appearance, architect Mahlamaki – whose plan was chosen from among 250 entries from 36 countries – intentionally sought to avoid upstaging the monument to the heroes of the Jewish ghetto uprising, which stands across from the main entrance, Jassem said.

“From an architect’s point of view, this place in the heart of the former Warsaw ghetto, calls for respect,” said Jassem, himself an architect. “You cannot overpower this place by overdramatic architecture. The outside is very simple. . . . The interior tells the story.”

The wave-shaped entrance hall is intended to symbolize the parting of the Red Sea that allowed Moses to lead the ancient Hebrews out of Egypt and into the promised land – but also the deep chasm representing the near complete rupture of Jewish life here caused by the Holocaust.

Poland once counted 3.3 million Jews among its population; today there are a few more than 7,000, according to museum officials.

Possibly the most important feature of Mahlamaki’s design is the light that floods large parts of the upper stories, said Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, Poland’s consul general in New York. There is light everywhere, “light on your heart, light on your brain, light on your stereotypes.”

In other Jewish museums, the Holocaust “is a very defining feature of their architecture,” said NYU’s Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “and our architecture says light, reflection, luminosity. It says transparency.”

Unlike most history museums, the actual displays, to be installed by next summer, will be largely digitized, with the spotlight more on interactive presentations than on static displays of religious or other artifacts. Much was destroyed under the Nazi occupation, including nearly all the 300 Jewish religious buildings in Warsaw, Jassem said.

The single most colorful artifact is a reconstruction, slightly below scale, of the extraordinary painted ceiling of a 17th century wooden synagogue in Gwozdziec, in today’s Ukraine. It, too, was destroyed during World War II.

Altogether, 175 religious or historical objects will be on display.

But that small number reflects what seems to be a tense relationship of the new facility’s leadership with Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, just a half-mile away and also within the bounds of the onetime ghetto.

The institute is located in cramped quarters in one of the only buildings to survive the Nazi onslaught. It is built around a vast archive of the history of Polish Jews, a big stock of paintings, a library of at least 80,000 books, and some 20,000 religious and historical objects in storage. In short, the institute has everything the new Jewish museum does not, and the new museum has the space that the institute is lacking.

The institute director, Pawel Spiewak, told McClatchy on Thursday that he still was not sure about the mission of the new museum and how it envisioned the two institutions cooperating. Would not some sort of merger be in order? It all depends on who becomes the permanent director of the new museum, Spiewak said.

“We have the knowhow, the people and the documents. They have nothing,” he said. As for a merger, “not everything that is logical is wise.”

Staff at the historical institute in fact first proposed building the new museum in 1995, but it didn’t take off until Lech Kachinski, who served as mayor of Warsaw from 2002 to 2005 and then went on to become the president of Poland, threw his support behind it.

“There is no history of Poland without the history of the Jews,” Junczyk-Ziomecka, the Polish consul general in New York, quoted him as saying. But he set a priority first to build a museum to commemorate the Warsaw uprising, which occurred in 1944 and which, under post-World War II communist rule was a taboo subject. That museum is an enormous success, attracting a half-million visitors a year – similar to the predictions for the new Jewish museum.

Kachinski, who died in a plane crash in 2010, set up a public-private partnership under which the city and national governments contributed the cost of the building, some $60 million, and had Jewish leaders raise from private sources the $40 million needed for the exhibits.

Although Poland today has a tiny number of Jews, interest in Jewish history and culture is on the rise, according to Rolat, who chairs annual music festivals in Warsaw and Krakow that draw tens of thousands of Poles, almost all Roman Catholics. He speaks of a “great renaissance of Jewishness” and contrasts Polish attitudes to anti-Semitic incidents in France and other countries.

Rolat, who’s 82, was born in Czestochowa, a major pilgrimage site for Polish Catholics, and spent his early teens in the Hasaj concentration camp in that same town. He lives in New York but says he feels completely comfortable visiting his birthplace now.

“It has long been the most Catholic city in Poland, but on the whole, the relationship between Jewish Poles and Catholic Poles has been good,” he said. “I feel very safe walking the streets of my native Czestochowa, and here.”

McClatchy special correspondent Barbara Dziedzic contributed to this report.

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @RoyGutmanMcC

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