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 architects 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 Mahlamakis design is the light that floods large parts of the upper stories, said Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, Polands 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 NYUs 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 todays 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 facilitys leadership with Warsaws 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 didnt 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.