Warsaw Ghetto Site of Newly Opened Museum to Show Jews Not a ‘Footnote to Polish History’

April 17, 2013 1:25 pm 1 comment

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw, as its building was nearing completion in the winter of 2012. The museum opens to the public on April 19, 2013. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

WARSAW—The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is built on the hallowed ground of the Warsaw Ghetto, literally on a site of genocide, at the intersection of Gesia and Nalewki Streets. The main entrance faces a plaza dominated by the Nathan Rapoport memorial, which commemorates the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

“Where else would it be built?” asked H.E. Ewa Juncyk-Ziomecka, Consul General of Poland in New York.

“I hope and believe this history will not be forgotten… The site itself is a place of great emotion [and] will create a zone that cuts across all ethnicity,” Juncyk-Ziomecka told JNS.org.

Along those lines, the museum—which opens to visitors April 19—aims to generate interest beyond the Jewish community by integrating the Jewish and Polish narratives as much as possible, rather than to present them as parallel, separate developments. Chief Curator and New York University Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett told JNS.org that the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews, 3 million of whom were killed during the Holocaust, was an “integral part” of the Poland’s history in general.

“Jews are not a footnote to Polish history,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said.

The museum is housed in a structure of green glass and stone, symbolic of transparency. The design, by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamäki and Ilmari Lahdelma, was chosen from among 200 submissions to Poland’s first international architectural competition.

The mezuzah mounted on the museum’s doorposts was chosen in an international competition sponsored by the Taube Foundation of San Francisco. The winning design was created by father-and-son team Andrze and Maciej Bulanda, and is made from brick salvaged from the ancient streets of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said the museum is a “storytelling museum,” telling history from the perspective of the people it chronicles, presented through a chrono-thematic series of eight core exhibits that “can be explored in any order.” One tangible exception to this is the reconstruction of the interior ceiling of the 17th-century Gwoździec Synagogue, part of the museum’s core exhibition.

The Jewish presence in Poland dates to the 10th century, when the Sephardic merchant Ibrahim ibn Yaqub established a Jewish connection. Jews from Spain and the German lands settled in Poland during the Middle Ages. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said the museum is intended “to create a bridge across a rupture that can never be healed,” describing “a site-specific museum dedicated to the restoration of the connection of world Jewry to Polish Jewish history.”

Non-Jewish Poles who visit the museum, meanwhile, will “be surprised to see their past through a new lens,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, adding that the museum is meant to show that the destruction of Polish Jewry was not inevitable.

“It didn’t need to end this way,” she said.

Nevertheless, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett acknowledged what has been lost and cannot be recovered in Poland.

“What was, was, and will never be again,” she said. “The sense of loss will be far more profound if people, including young people, understand what was lost.”

Shula Bahat, North American director for Beit Hatfutsot, the Tel Aviv-based Museum of Jewish Diaspora, told JNS.org that Poland “will never have the kind of Jewish critical mass that created the rich Jewish life of the past.” Bahat said “a profound feeling of absence” for that Jewish presence is likely to continue, and that the Museum of the History of Polish Jews may “enhance that feeling of loss, by creating the nostalgia for the past.”

The Nathan Rapoport monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising heroes. The monument is adjacent to the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Photo: Cezary Piwowarski.

The pathway to the April 19 museum opening was always smooth. In 1995, the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, an organization dedicated to the commemoration of Polish Jewish culture and history, initiated planning for the museum. Funding of more than $115 million came from the Warsaw municipality, Polish government sources, and donations made to the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland. Additional funds came from private philanthropists, including Americans Sigmunt Rolat and Larry and Klara Silverstein, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the David Berg Foundation, and Polish tycoon Jan Kulczyk (a non-Jew).

Creating the museum has been philosophically challenging. Many Jews identify Poland only as a place of death camps, officially sanctioned anti-Semitism, and emigration. As the structure was rising, questions about its financial management were raised, leading to the forced departure of longtime director Jerzy Halbersztadt, considered a guiding force of the museum project from 1996 until his resignation in 2011.

Many continue to be skeptical about the value and purpose of creating a museum about the Jewish past in a place with such a limited Jewish future. Many Jews are concerned that the museum will “whitewash” the story, especially of the 20th century—before, during, and after World War II. Additionally, a fear of many Poles is that the museum will showcase them as anti-Semites.

Anticipating the future, Piotr Kossobudzki, the museum’s spokesman, told JNS.org he expects that once the core exhibition is completed, controversy is likely, especially “when we are talking about the difficult modern history—the pogroms, the Holocaust; these are places where we expect debate, because they’re linked with strong emotions and the traumatic part of the history of the Jews and the Poles.”

“Some people might say, ‘It’s too Jewish’ or ‘It’s too Polish,’ or feel that it’s not the appropriate perspective for a museum in Poland,” Kossobudzki said. “But as long as we are not ignored, we’re fine with being controversial.”

Juncyk-Ziomecka, Consul General of Poland in New York, recalled her childhood in postwar Warsaw.

“Everything, everything was destroyed,” she told JNS.org. She noted that after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Germans destroyed Poland’s capital indiscriminately, in an explosive retaliation similar to what had been done in the Jewish Quarter. “I was raised among the ruins of Warsaw,” she said. “We lived in a new building—constructed on what was the border of the Warsaw Ghetto.”

Juncyk-Ziomecka was an early proponent of the museum, which is a project she said “confronts our knowledge and stereotypes.”

“Not many believed such a project could be in the heart of Warsaw… Look at the museum’s building—so full of light, so symbolic,” she said. “We need a light on our hearts, in our knowledge and on us. I hope it would make people reconcile their thinking and look to their own history and their family’s history.”

“I am so emotionally involved,” Juncyk-Ziomecka added. “I have the feeling of being about to give birth… It has really happened. It is an international event.”

1 Comment

  • I am leaving for Warsaw April 19. The tour leader — we are 20 travel agents — says her sources in Poland say the museum is empty and disputes the April 19 opening to the public. As a Jew whose family came from Poland, clearly I would want to see this museum if there was, indeed, something to see within its four walls. Can someone please clarifiy what the real situation is regarding the Museum?

    dziękuję

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    JNS.org – Five months after Israeli forces tried to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif in Gaza, Deif appears to have signed a letter that the terrorist group claims he wrote in hiding. The letter, addressed to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, expressed Deif’s condolences for the death of Hezbollah terrorists during Sunday’s reported Israeli airstrike in Syria. Deif is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts, but he has not been seen in public for years. According to the Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    JNS.org – The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them. Then came the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    A controversial scene in the season finale of Homeland sparked outrage by comparing former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a fictional Taliban leader, the UK’s Daily Mail reported. In the season 4 finale episode, which aired on Dec. 21, CIA black ops director Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham, justifies a deal he made with a Taliban leader by referencing Begin. He makes the remarks in a conversation with former CIA director Saul Berenson, a Jewish character played by Mandy [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Shining Light on Fiction During the North Korea-Sony saga, we learned two important lessons. The first is that there are two sides to this story, and neither of them are correct because ultimately we should have neither inappropriate movies nor dictators. The second is that we cannot remain entirely fixed on the religious world, but we also must see beyond the external, secular view of reality. It’s important to ground our Torah-based thoughts into real-life activism. To view our act [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    JNS.org – Hollywood has had its share of big-budget biblical flops, but until now, the Exodus narrative has not been among them. Studios have brought Moses to the big screen sparingly, but in ways that defined the image and character of Moses for each generation of audiences. The first biblical epic In 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille left it to the American public to decide the subject of his next movie for Paramount. DeMille received a letter from a mechanic [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time itself, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—fails to meet expectations. Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to service the story and ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Lifestyle ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    JNS.org - In December 2007, leaders of the Hazon nonprofit drafted seven-year goals for what they coined as the “Jewish Food Movement,” which has since been characterized by the increased prioritization of healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and food-related activism in the Jewish community. What do the next seven years hold in store? “One thing I would like to see happen in the next seven years is [regarding] the issue of sugar, soda, and obesity, [seeing] what would it be like to rally the [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Education Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    JNS.org – Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone? That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.