New museum will focus on history of Polish Jews: Project chief visits S.F.

For Waldemar Dabrowski, the countdown has begun. Thirteen months from now, he will preside over the official opening of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Between now and then, he has a lot of work to do.

Dabrowski, who made a visit to the Bay Area last week to talk about the museum, serves as plenipotentiary of the $37 million, 150,000-square-foot facility, set for a grand opening Oct. 20, 2013. Planned around the opening will be a series of concerts, theater productions and film screenings. Oh, and the exhibitions, too.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews rises on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. photos/courtesy of taube foundation for jewish life & culture

The arts emphasis explains why Dabrowski, a seasoned film producer, opera impresario and Poland’s former minister of culture, was offered the position — which effectively makes him the museum’s interim director.

One thing not on his resume: Jewish affiliation. Dabrowski, 61, is not Jewish, but he said his respect and reverence for the 1,000-year history of Jews in his country spurred him to take the job.

During his visit to meet with donors, he said his family always was friendly with Jewish families, and he often heard “overwhelming” stories about the Holocaust from them. “And then I made many fantastic Polish Jewish friends,” he added.

The museum — which will open for a special one-day preview on April 19, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — is a joint public-private project funded by the Polish government and philanthropic groups, including the Bay Area–based Koret Foundation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. The two latter institutions together donated $16 million to the museum’s construction, by far the most of any private funders.

Polish-born philanthropist Tad Taube chairs Taube Philanthropies and serves as president of Koret. He played host during Dabrowski’s recent visit, which included a reception at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and a night at the San Francisco Opera.

Dabrowski and his staff are still developing programming and operations for the museum, located across the street from the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, where 300,000 Polish Jews were imprisoned during the Holocaust.

Waldemar Dabrowski

His aim is to make the museum one of Poland’s leading educational and cultural institutions.

“It’s very important,” he said of the museum, “especially as far as education of the younger generation. We have to care about the historical memory of the nation [including] the Jewish part. For 1,000 years, it meant a lot.”

The museum’s core exhibition will include artifacts, audio-visual displays and recreations of Polish Jewish landmarks, such as the 17th-century Gwozdziec Synagogue. Moshe Rosman, a noted professor of Jewish history at Bar Ilan University in Israel, was duly impressed. After surveying the exhibition, he said the museum “will rank with the best in the world.”

Because of his sterling arts background, Dabrowski was a logical choice to preside over the grand opening. However, there is another feather in his cap: He personally persuaded Steven Spielberg to film “Schindler’s List” in Poland.

The short version: At the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, Dabrowski met an executive from Universal Pictures, who mentioned the “Schindler’s List” project and that Spielberg was going to shoot it in Hollywood.

Dabrowski begged her to visit Poland first, which she did — and from there, Dabrowski received an invite to meet the filmmaker on the set of “Jurassic Park.”

“[Spielberg] looked at me and said, ‘Give me one reason why should I go to Poland for three months,’ ” Dabrowski said. “I gave him a simple answer: ‘I give you my word of honor, if you come to Poland, come to know the place and the people, your movie will be artistically much more important.’ And he did.”

Dabrowski got a credit on the 1993 Oscar-winning film.

And now his connection to the Jewish history of Poland runs even deeper.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at