Newly Opened Museum Aims to Show Jews Not a ‘Footnote to Polish History’
by 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 Friday (April 19th) – 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 Gwozdziec 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 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.”