This story is our story: Museum of Polish Jewish history a symbol of renaissance

On the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, on the site where the ghetto once stood, a major new Jewish cultural institution opens its doors. Among the first to enter the Museum of the History of Polish Jews will be a 50-person group primarily from the Bay Area, co-hosted by Taube Philanthropies and Koret Foundation. This is the day we have worked toward together for two decades. It is a historic moment for world Jewry, for the people of Poland and for humanity.

In the U.S., some are still learning that Jews remain in Poland, let alone an organized and growing community. In fact, since the beginnings of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement in the 1980s, Polish Jews have been finding their roots and their voice. Every summer, Krakow rocks to the world music being performed at the Jewish Culture Festival. Polish cities have Jewish schools and community centers. Polish universities offer programs in Jewish studies and host scholarly conferences about the Jewish role in Poland’s past, present and future. The museum is a shining symbol of this remarkable renaissance.

For 10 years, I have been leading groups from the Bay Area to witness these changes with their own eyes and experience their tremendous impact. Just as 70 percent of American Jews trace their roots to Poland, many of the Bay Area’s leading Jewish community members have Polish ancestry. Some, including myself, had family who were among the nearly half-million Jews forced by the Nazis into the ghetto and for whom the museum and its message have deep meaning.

Among those traveling to Warsaw with me for the museum opening are Jewish Family and Children’s Services Executive Director Anita Friedman, business leader Eric Benhamou, Congregation Emanu-El Senior Rabbi Stephen Pearce, legal scholar Abe Sofaer, real estate developer Stuart Shiff and former Atari president Sam Tramiel.

In contrast with the great Holocaust museums in Washington, D.C., and Jerusalem, whose missions are to document the horrors of World War II, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews presents the broad sweep of Jewish history and culture that once stretched from the Baltic to the Danube and from the Vistula to the Dnieper. It tells the story of a civilization that extended to the furthest reaches of the Polish kingdom, binding Eastern European Jews together through a common language, commerce and religion. This is a story of life, not death. This story is our story, and the museum is the first major cultural institution to share it with the world.

The museum’s sleek, modern structure designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki faces the monument marking the great uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, linking generations. It celebrates 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, erasing misinformation and eradicating stereotypes that have fed centuries of anti-Semitism.

Soon tour buses will line the streets around the former Nazi ghetto with visitors to the museum. It will be a bittersweet sight. The past, present and future will have converged. Democracy has succeeded. Poland has become a member of the European Union. Israel and Poland are trading partners and have jointly sponsored the late Irena Sendler, one of Poland’s Righteous Among the Nations, for a Nobel Peace Prize. This collaboration vindicates the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who on the first day of defiance raised two banners over the ghetto, the Zionist flag and the Polish flag.

The museum would not have been possible without a public-private partnership involving the city of Warsaw, the Ministry of Culture and an international community of committed donors. I am pleased that Bay Area Jewish community leaders have joined Taube Philanthropies and Koret Foundation in their international undertaking to bring this world-class cultural facility to life.

On the anniversary of the uprising, the museum realizes the dream of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. Polish Jewish life — and the precious legacy it represents for all of us — has a visible past and a resurgent future.

 

Tad Taube is chairman of Taube Philanthropies, president of the Koret Foundation and honorary consul for the Republic of Poland in the San Francisco Bay Area.