First look inside luminous Museum of the History of Polish Jews

warsaw  |  “This was a world in color,” said Jewish studies professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, speaking of the 1,000-year Jewish presence in Poland, “and not the black and white we know from photographs.”

She made her point last week in Warsaw, standing beneath the massive, reconstructed 17th-century wooden synagogue roof that will be a centerpiece of the city’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Based on a shul from the town of Gwozdziec, the roof’s hand-hewn timbers contain no nails. Scores of artists used natural pigments mixed with water and glue to paint the kaleidoscopic ceiling as it looked centuries ago, a veritable Jewish Sistine Chapel with wild reds and pale blues accenting the signs of the Zodiac, harmoniously sharing space with images of 67 animals — elephants, ostriches, cheetahs and the Lions of Judah — along with passages from Torah.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett describes the brilliantly colored 17th-century synagogue ceiling inside the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. photo/dan pine

This 30-ton re-creation will be one of the most visually arresting aspects of the museum, which opened for previews on April 19. It speaks of a lost civilization, of the Poland that once served as home to the world’s largest Jewish diaspora community. The Holocaust nearly erased it. Now that Jewish community coming back, with the museum the most towering evidence of its revival.

When completed, the museum “is going to tell a very important story,” said Tad Taube, founder and chairman of Taube Philanthropies and president of the Koret Foundation, which together gave $16 million to the museum, the largest private commitment to the core exhibition being overseen by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “The thousand years of Jewish life is the bedrock of Western culture,” Taube said.

Born in Poland, Taube was a child when he and his family escaped just weeks ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1939. Today the Peninsula philanthropist is on a mission to speed the revival of Poland’s Jewish community, establishing the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and its Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland, which fosters interest in Poland and Polish Jews and supports the resurgence of Jewish life.

Making the museum a reality over the last 10 years has been a cornerstone of that mission.

Last week, a delegation of Bay Area museum benefactors and other visitors from around the world descended on the Polish capital for a one-day preview of the $100-million, 43,000-square-foot structure. The museum has inaugurated its cultural and educational programs, but the core exhibition — an interactive narration of 1,000 years of Polish Jewish life — will not be installed until the end of the year. The completed museum will include eight galleries, a 450-seat auditorium, educational resource center, café and gift shop.

Inside, the walls are still bare and little is on display other than the reconstructed synagogue roof. Until the museum’s grand opening in early 2014, visitors may take guided walking tours, and special events will be held on-site, such as films, lectures, panel discussions and workshops.

From the outside, however, the museum is pretty dazzling, a harbinger of what is to come. The giant rectangular edifice is all copper and glass, with the entrance appearing as an immense three-story gash to symbolize the irreparable wound of the Holocaust. Contrasting with the angular exterior, the curvaceous interior walls of Grand Hall resemble a desert canyon carved by flowing water.

The museum is designed to bowl over visitors, like San Francisco lawyer Joseph Tartakovsky. He loved the interior of the Grand Hall, which reminded him of the Israeli desert oasis of Ein Gedi.

Tartakovsky traveled to Poland with his wife and his mother, Jewish Family and Children’s Services Executive Director Anita Friedman. He said he went in honor of his forebears, who hailed from the town of Gniewoszhow, and to support a mission he considers of historical importance.

Museum chair Piotr Wislicki (from left), Taube Philanthropies CEO Shana Penn, Taube chair and Koret Foundation president Tad Taube and Koret CEO Jeff Farber flank the museum’s mezuzah. photo/taube philanthropies

“A former mayor of Warsaw told me he expects it to be one of the top three museums drawing visitors to the city and perhaps even one of the city’s main tourist attractions, period,” he said.

“Poland may never be what it was, but to remember the heights of the European Jewish civilization there and not just the depths of its final agony is, I feel, an act of piety. It is a final act of defiance against the Nazis — to rebuild what they tore down, to memorialize what they sought to extinguish, and to prove that Poland was once, for many millions of Jews, a place of joy and life.”

The museum preview was planned to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, arguably the most heroic act of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. The museum, in fact, sits on land that was once part of the ghetto. Opposite the main entrance stands the famed Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, erected in 1948 to memorialize those who died in the 28 days of fighting, as well as the hundreds of thousands of other Jews in the ghetto. It’s the same monument where former German chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees in remorse in 1970.

For the anniversary, dignitaries from around the world attended a solemn April 19 ceremony on the museum grounds. Wreaths were laid, speeches given and a 21-gun salute fired, as Polish soldiers, some with sabers drawn, shouted “Glory to them!”

But no speech was more moving than that of Simcha Rotem, one of three surviving ghetto fighters.

Rotem, 88, strode to the podium, the very figure of a veteran warrior. Against a backdrop of Polish and Israeli flags, he told the throng, “The thought of waging an uprising was dictated by our determination. But to this day I have doubts as to whether we had the right to carry out the uprising and shorten the lives of people by a day, a week, two weeks. No one gave us that right, and I have to live with my doubts.”

Despite that misgiving, history vindicated his decision. The fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising are revered worldwide.

It is all part of a long and complicated Jewish history in Poland. Despite periodic outbreaks of anti-Semitism, the community thrived for the most part, living alongside non-Jewish Poles in a region noted for its tolerance.

Members of the Bay Area delegation to Poland view artifacts at Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute photo/taube philanthropies

The first merchants and artisans arrived in the 10th century C.E., dubbing the land “Po Lin,” Hebrew for “rest here.” And so they did.

“Poland was a good country for the Jews,” said Trinity College professor Samuel Kassow, a scholar of the Warsaw Ghetto and a consultant to the new museum. “Legend had it that when Noah sent out the doves in search of dry land, Poland was a resting place.”

For centuries, Poland was the world’s largest and one of its most important centers of Jewish life. The Vilna Gaon, the Ba’al Shem Tov and other Jewish sages called the region home, and Jews contributed to most aspects of the economy and society.

Life for Jews worsened in the late 18th century when Poland lost its independence and was divided among the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Even so, at the dawn of World War II, Jews constituted a third of Warsaw’s population.

The Holocaust wiped out 90 percent of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews. Many of the 350,000 who remained eventually left for Israel and the West, fleeing the anti-Semitism of their new communist overlords. Those who stayed often buried their Jewish identities, hiding it from their children, some of whom were baptized in an effort to blend in.

Not until the fall of Communism did some Jews take their first small steps toward re-establishing Jewish life. They were helped along by the country’s burgeoning embrace of multicultural democracy. But they couldn’t do it alone. Agencies like the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and philanthropists such as Taube and Ron Lauder invested in the fledgling Jewish community.

One thing the museum brings into sharp focus is the growing vitality of Jewish life in Poland today. According to official government estimates, there are 4,000 Jews in the country, but more than 10 times that number claim Jewish ancestry. Jewish day schools, Jewish community centers, Birthright trips, a Moishe House, synagogues and cultural festivals abound.

“The museum now becomes a portal of resources and creativity for the Jewish community and Jewish culture,” said Shana Penn, executive director of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and a scholar of Poland. “It will be a world center of Jewish heritage. People will make pilgrimages to the museum and to Poland. There’s so much more potential now for letting go of old wounds.”

The Taube Center over the years has invested in the life of the community in a variety of ways.

Visitors mill about the museum’s Grand Hall on preview day photo/museum of the history of polish jews-magdalena starowieyska

It works in cooperation with the Jewish Historical Institute, which houses the Ringelblum Archives, materials collected by Warsaw Ghetto resident Emanuel Ringelblum and his staff and then buried when it became clear they all would perish. Two caches were dug up after the war; a third has not yet been found.

Those materials — everything from diaries, drawings and ration cards to candy wrappers, along with the tin boxes and milk cans they came in — are kept in temperature-controlled vaults at the institute and studied by scholars from around the world.

The Taube Center also created a genealogy center to help Polish Jews trace their roots, and it sponsors programs like Mi Dor Le Dor, which trains young Jewish Poles to become Jewish educators largely by having them conduct independent research on their heritage.

As Polish Jews build infrastructure, they are building bridges with their non-Jewish neighbors. Non-Jewish Poles, including many contemporary Polish scholars, take great interest in their country’s Jewish past.

“This is a 21st-century European cultural hub,” Penn said in Warsaw. “It’s not the past anymore. It’s really changed here. There’s so much national pride [over the museum] and real pride in bringing Jews and gentiles together again.

“Polish ownership of Jewish history is part of the democratic culture that has been developing here,” she said. “It’s part of the consciousness that has its roots in Solidarity. People wanted to know what happened in the war, why their parents didn’t talk about it or anything of the Jewish experience.”

New York–born Rabbi Michael Schudrich moved to Poland in 1991 to take the reins as chief rabbi at Warsaw’s famed Nozyk Synagogue, a striking neo-Romanesque structure. The Polish Jewish community back then had just begun to build infrastructure and needed outside intervention, both financial and human capital. People like Schudrich and Jonathan Ornstein, the American-born director of the JCC in Krakow, stepped up to help foster Jewish life in a land thoroughly stripped of it.

A voluble man with seemingly boundless energy, Schudrich says he would rather see a Polish-born chief rabbi, and it’s only a matter of time before that happens. “We now have two rabbis here who are Polish-born. The director of one of our Jewish schools, a graduate of Yeshiva University, came back. There is going to be a next generation.”

He added that outside financial assistance like that of the Taube Foundation is still needed, both for large projects such as maintaining neglected Jewish cemeteries, and because Poland has not yet developed the personal and foundational philanthropy necessary to sustain Jewish institutions over the long term.

“Three words to remember about the Polish Jewish community are ‘work in progress,’” Schudrich said. “In 1989, there was no infrastructure. The Communists had succeeded in undermining what little there was after the war. Everything had to be rebuilt, from kashrut to a mikvah to education to welfare for the elderly. It’s pretty amazing that in the course of 23 years we’ve done a lot.”

“There’s a belief now that there’s a future for the community,” said Ornstein. “These are not the last days of the 1,000-year history.”

As the crow flies, distances between most points in downtown Warsaw are not great. The city streets wend and wind from roundabout to roundabout. It’s all chokepoints, bottlenecks and jaywalkers, and rush hour lasts all day.

There is, however, more to look at than there used to be. After the Nazis reduced Warsaw to ruins, the Communist era turned the city into a gray repository of Stalinist architecture, with boxy apartments and hideous, spire-topped skyscrapers. Only with the fall of Communism did Warsaw begin to show some flair.

A wildly daring new residential tower, designed by Daniel Libeskind (the architect responsible for San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum) is nearly done. Young Poles dine at sushi bars and Mexican restaurants. Billboards advertising chic brands make some parts of Warsaw resemble Times Square, circa 1975. The country, already galloping ahead economically, is trying to catch up to Western Europe.

But what of Poland’s unshakable reputation as a black hole of anti-Semitism? This is, after all, the land of the Nazi death camps, home of the people who former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said “drink anti-Semitism in their mother’s milk.”

Is Poland awash in a less overt but no less virulent anti-Semitism, or has the country undergone a galvanizing and permanent shift away from bigotry?

A study conducted by the American Jewish Committee found a 10 percent increase in hatred of Jews in the 10 years between 1992 and 2002, a total of 27 percent of Poles with anti-Semitic views. That study found that many Poles resent the Jewish “monopoly” on suffering during the Holocaust to the exclusion of undeniable Polish suffering under Nazi occupation.

Poland’s former ambassador to Israel, Maciej Kozlowski, believes the locus of Polish anti-Semitism lies with what he calls “football fans,” i.e., soccer hooligans, and elements within the Catholic Church. “We won’t defeat anti-Semitism unless we reach the church,” Kozlowski said.

He cited as the most overt example Radio Maria, a Catholic talk radio network that spouts openly anti-Semitic rants, many of them spewed by its resident star, a priest named Tadeusz Rydzyk.

Kozlowski quickly spins the conversation to the positive, noting Poland’s excellent relations with Israel since the fall of Communism, and the many thriving Jewish studies programs at universities across Poland. He also feels the new museum will be “enormously important. It will teach about [Poland’s] multicultural, multiethnic past.”

Schudrich believes Poland’s social transformation to one of tolerance is deep and real. But American Jews are “stuck in 1938” when it comes to their perceptions of non-Jewish Poles.

“That is a fundamental mistake and unfair,” the chief rabbi said. “A lot has happened here.” Pointing to the tremendous changes that have taken place in Poland these past two decades, he added, ”It’s a very exciting place to be, and nobody expected it.”

Taube ran into those same perceptions as he tried to raise money for the museum, a task he admitted was not easy. “People are very local in their philanthropy, and most people we were enlisting support from had never been to Poland, or had bad feelings about it,” he explained. “But slowly we were able to establish a positive profile for Poland.”

Last week’s unveiling of what eventually will be a magnificent testament to 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland is, Taube believes, a key development in the Jewish community’s ongoing story.

“[Nazi Germany] aimed to obliterate Jewish life from the Earth, and they almost succeeded,” Taube told museum visitors on preview day, something he had looked forward to for so long. “And here we are.” n

J. senior staff writer Dan Pine was in Warsaw to attend the museum’s opening ceremonies.


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.