Warsaw museum on the verge of breaking ground

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

For years now, Jews have traveled to Poland to visit the remnants of the shtetls or cities from where their families came, as well as the death camps. But there has been virtually nothing testifying to the vibrant Jewish community that was all but wiped out.

A museum of Jewish history in Warsaw would change that. It would give visitors — both Jews and non-Jews — a sense of exactly what was lost during the Holocaust.

That’s why a group of people has banded together to establish the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. And now, only $7 million is needed to finish the project.

Stephen Solender, the former president of United Jewish Communities, is one leader of the effort. And on a recent visit to San Francisco, he explained why the Jewish community should support this project.

Noting that a full 65 percent of American Jews have Polish roots, he said, “Up until now, American Jews, Israelis and European Jews and non-Jews go to Poland to see how we died, not how we lived for thousands of years. They don’t see how we contributed so significantly to Polish culture, European culture and Western democracy.”

Quoting Israeli former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Solender said, “Poland was pregnant for 900 years and gave birth to Israel because so many of its initial leaders were born in Poland.”

Solender emphasized that unlike other Holocaust museums this one would focus exclusively on the Jews of Poland.

The idea for this museum has been floating around for about a decade, and plans now are being finalized for a groundbreaking in a few months.

The Polish government and municipality of Warsaw have shown their support. Not only have the two bodies donated the land facing the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw, but recently they pledged that the Poles will contribute $26 million of the $33 million needed to construct the building, and 97 percent of the money needed for its annual operating budget.

“This is absolutely unprecedented, that any Polish government would give this kind of support to an international Jewish project,” said Solender. “This assures that it will be successful.”

A competition to design the museum is underway, with 11 architects in the final round. An international jury will select the winner by June. Solender predicted that if fund-raising efforts go as planned, the museum will open in 2008.

From his 45 years of Jewish communal experience, Solender said, he has seen how San Francisco often leads the nation on certain initiatives. Noting that the Bay Area was one of the first communities to form groups for children of Holocaust survivors, he said he thought they would want to support this cause.

Solender recently led a mission of members from Congress to Poland, to teach them about the museum effort. The trip was funded by the S.F.-based Koret Foundation. And the Taube Family Foundation recently has signed on, pledging to help Solender educate the public as to why such a museum is needed.

The museum will become part of the curriculum of the Polish school system, meaning every Polish student will visit it at some point. It will also become a premier research institution, on par with Yad Vashem in Israel and the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum.

Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services is aiding the efforts locally, and Solender invited those interested to join Friedman and him on a mission to Poland for the groundbreaking in June. Information: (415) 449-1200.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."