Museum to document 1000-year history of Polish Jews

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WARSAW — Work is under way in Warsaw on a multimedia museum and education center that will document the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland.

Ground has yet to be broken for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which will stand on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.

But organizers say that when complete, the $60-million complex will be the first of its kind in Poland — both in concept and style.

Project Director Jerzy Halbersztadt describes the planned facility as a "virtual museum" that will be a "mixture of content and interactive technology."

Rather than featuring traditional exhibits in glass cases, the museum will employ computer images, films, databases, dioramas, models and interactive technology in order to tell the story of Poland's Jews.

The aim, Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz told an international conference in Warsaw in April, "is to state the honest truth about the composite nature of Polish-Jewish relations; to show all of their light and dark sides. This is the only way of helping to abolish harmful stereotypes, xenophobic prejudices and unjust images of each other."

One section of the museum will be a life-sized recreation of a typical, bustling street in Warsaw's prewar Jewish Quarter, using photographs, projected images of moving people, sounds and even possibly smells.

The section on the Holocaust will be a self-contained unit of box-like enclosures surrounded by a wall.

"This will build an atmosphere of isolation, danger and the fact of being closed in," Halbersztadt said. "The idea is to expose visitors to feelings as well as to knowledge of that period."

Other sections will enable visitors to see computerized images of historical documents, photographs of shtetls, portraits of individuals and other material gathered from archives and collections in Poland.

To date, more than 40,000 photographs, paintings, documents and other artifacts have been found, photographed and scanned into cross-referenced databases that can be accessed with the click of a mouse.

Jews lived in Poland for nearly 10 centuries and played an important role in the development of the country.

Major Jewish movements, such as Chassidism, the Jewish Enlightenment and the socialist Bund, developed and flourished among Polish Jews. And Poland was a cradle of Jewish scholarly, religious and secular intellectual life.

Before the Holocaust, Poland had the largest Jewish community in Europe, and the vast majority of North American Jews trace their ancestry to Poland.

Some 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, Jewish life was suppressed under communism, and today, despite a revival of Jewish life during the past dozen years, the Jewish community only totals between 5,000 and 20,000 people.

Most foreign Jews who visit Poland come to commemorate the dead or seek their ancestral roots. Until the waning of communism in the 1980s, open discussion of Jewish and Holocaust issues was impossible in Poland. Most Poles still have little accurate knowledge of Jewish history and culture, and grass-roots anti-Semitism still lingers.

"We are interested in what the impact of the museum will be on visiting Jews as well as on local Poles," Halbersztadt said.

"We definitely want to confront stereotypes — Polish as well as Jewish stereotypes, including Jewish stereotypes about the Jewish past."

The idea for the museum emerged in the mid-1990s, but actual work got under way only about three years ago.

The museum complex will be located on a 13,000-square yard site donated by the city of Warsaw next to the Ghetto Heroes Memorial, a massive sculptural monument erected in 1948 to commemorate the Jews who fought and died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis.

The museum's exterior is slated to be designed by internationally acclaimed architect Frank Gehry, whose parents came from the central Polish city of Lodz.

Gehry, however, will not begin work until details of the permanent exhibit are finalized — and until enough funding is raised to pay him.

A team of international experts headed by Holocaust scholar Israel Gutman from Hebrew University in Jerusalem has been working to create a coherent historical narrative encompassing the complex path of Jewish life in Poland since the Middle Ages.

Organizers hope the museum can open by 2006, but funding remains an issue.

The Polish government has pledged financial support, but the country is in an economic slump and it is not clear how much it can provide.

Museum organizers have launched fund-raising initiatives in several countries. This year, they established a New York-based American Committee to Support the Museum aimed in part to raise U.S. funds to cover Gehry's contract.