warsaw, poland | Nearly two decades in the making, Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews opens to the public this week amid a month of high-profile, state-sponsored events marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Hundreds of local Jews and visiting VIPs watched as Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, unveiled a mezuzah at the $100 million museum’s main entrance on April 14.
“This museum is in the heart of what was Jewish Warsaw,” Schudrich said. “Now it will be in the heart of what will be the future of Polish Jewry. It is a bridge from the past to the future.”
Reflecting this symbolism, the mezuzah was made from a brick from a building in Warsaw’s prewar Jewish quarter, the area the Nazis turned into the notorious ghetto and where the museum now stands.
A huge flattened cube with a shimmering façade — broken by a dramatic gap that symbolizes both the biblical parting of the Red Sea and the rupture caused by the Holocaust — faces the monument to the heroes of the ghetto uprising.
Designed by the Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, the striking building with undulating interior walls is in fact still largely empty. The museum was scheduled to inaugurate its cultural and educational programs on Friday, April 19, but its core exhibition — an interactive narration of 1,000 years of Polish Jewish life — will not be installed until next year.
On the eve of World War II, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, with 3.3 million Jews making up 10 percent of the country’s population. More than 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust;
thousands more survivors left in the wake of postwar pogroms. Still more departed in the 1960s amid anti-Semitic campaigns
by the Communist regime.
Financed by the Polish state, the city of Warsaw and numerous Jewish and non-Jewish private donors, the development of the museum suffered setbacks and delays over the years due to political and organizational issues, as well as funding shortfalls. The very idea of such a museum in Poland, which many Jews regard as a vast Jewish cemetery, was a hard sell.
Over the past decade, however, Polish-born Jewish donors, notably Bay Area philanthropist Tad Taube, passionately took up the cause. Taube Philanthropies and the Koret Foundation collaborated to provide the largest private commitment to the core exhibition of the museum, a total of $16 million since 2007.
“The Taube Foundation and the museum share a similar mission: to understand not only how European Jewry died in the Nazi genocide, but how European Jewry lived in Poland and created a prodigious civilization over many centuries,” said Taube. “This knowledge is not a betrayal of Holocaust memory. In fact, we honor Holocaust memory by reclaiming our rich, long and varied existence in Poland.”
Taube and others say they are hopeful the museum and the story it tells can have a long-term impact: on local Jews, local non-Jews, and the Jews from the United States, Israel and elsewhere who are expected to visit.
Swiss diplomat Simon Geissbuehler, a historian who has written several books on Jewish history, called the museum and its mission “an important step forward.”
Still, he added, “We don’t have to have illusions. It will not change everything immediately. There are those who don’t want to recognize this part of their history. But I hope the museum will help.” n
J. senior staff writer Dan Pine is in Warsaw for the museum’s opening ceremonies. His report will appear in the April 26 issue of j.
Opening ceremonies for the museum were to be streamed live Friday, April 19 at 1 a.m. on Jewish Life Television at www.jltv.tv/live. The two-hour broadcast will be repeated at noon Monday, April 22; noon Thursday, April 25; and 8 p.m. April 27. JLTV is available on some cable/satellite systems, and can be accessed on streaming services such as Roku or via an iTunes app. For more information, visit www.jltv.tv.