Museum in Poland opens new chapter in Jewish life

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warsaw, poland  |  In 1942, as the Warsaw Ghetto was being liquidated, doomed artist Gela Seksztajn buried a handful of her paintings in a damp basement, along with a letter conveying her hope they would be displayed one day in a future Jewish museum in Poland.

That museum opened to the public this week.

Delegation led by Tad Taube (left) and Koret Foundation CEO Jeffrey Farber visits reproduction of an 18th-century Polish synagogue roof and bimah. photo/aleksander prugar

Rising majestically from a once-empty plaza behind the famed Warsaw Ghetto Heroes monument, the $110 million Museum of the History of Polish Jews is more than a major new cultural institution relating the thousand-year story of Polish Jewry. It is a statement — that Jewish history is inextricably bound up with the history of Poland, that one cannot understand either without understanding both. It’s a statement that the country is more than a graveyard for millions of Polish Jews, that the world can best remember the victims by publicizing the country’s rich Jewish past, and that Jewish life in this land persists.

“This is a museum of life, not of death,” said Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski, 89, deputy chair of Warsaw’s nonprofit Jewish Historical Institute (JHI) association. Speaking at the opening ceremony on Oct. 28, he noted that the anthem of the Jewish partisans in World War II was “Mir Zenen Do” (“We Are Here”). “Now with this museum I, a member of the Polish Jewish community, can say the same: ‘Mir Zenen Do!’ ”

The museum and its implications are stunning.

It’s overwhelming, in size and financing. The 43,000-square-foot museum represents Poland’s first and largest public-private partnership — a collaboration between the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the Municipality of Warsaw, which together gave $60 million for land and construction, and the JHI association, which developed the core exhibition and raised funds from donors worldwide.

In the museum’s Paradisus Iudaeorum (15th and 16th centuries) gallery photo/jta-ruth ellen gruber

Many of those donors came from the Bay Area, where efforts were spearheaded by Tad Taube, chairman of Taube Philanthropies and honorary consul for Poland in the Bay Area. He’s also one of the museum’s founding benefactors.

Taube, who escaped Poland as a child in 1939, led a large delegation of donors and scholars to Warsaw this week for the grand opening ceremony. They were among the first outsiders to visit the core exhibition — a massive undertaking that fills eight galleries, each worthy of its own museum — which follows the Jewish journey in Poland from the arrival of the first Jewish merchants in the 10th century, up through the revival of Jewish life in the free, post-1989 state.

Considered simply on its aesthetic merits, the core exhibition is gorgeous, fascinating and eminently accessible. Inspired by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., this museum is constructed as a narrative journey. The story told is not that of a minority within a majority culture, for that is not the Polish Jewish experience; rather, visitors learn that Jews in this land thrived, survived, and were an integral part of Polish development in the pre-modern period.

“The message of this museum is that the thousand-year Jewish history of greater Poland marks the underpinnings of Western civilization,” Taube said. “The museum will give the Jewish people globally a sense of their past and its contribution to the present, which maybe they didn’t have before.”

The exhibition is fun to go through, with plenty of visuals and interactive displays. In the medieval gallery, visitors learn of an early Hebrew printing press, and then can make their own print using ersatz period technology. The yeshiva is presented as a series of wooden shtenders (lecterns for Jewish study) arranged in a circle where visitors can explore Jewish law books and take quizzes.

The Ghetto Heroes Monument (left) and the new museum photo/wikimedia commons

“I’m over the top with emotion,” said Bay Area philanthropist Roselyne Swig, who visited the museum this week with the Taube donor delegation and, like others in the group, has roots in Poland.

She said she was struck by the exhibition’s depth. “It’s much larger and deeper than I anticipated. [They have] done an amazing job.”

Much of the history presented is not widely known. For example, through the medieval period Jews not only fled to Poland to escape persecution elsewhere in Europe, but were also invited in by kings and nobles to develop the economy and build Poland into the powerhouse it became from 1569 to 1648, a brief golden age for Poland and Polish Jewry alike.

Another little-known fact persuasively illustrated in this museum is that on the eve of World War II, more than 10 percent of the entire country was Jewish; in most cities, Jews made up 25 to 90 percent of the population. Polish Jews were overwhelmingly urban, educated and entrepreneurial. Unlike the fictional village of Anatevka, Polish shtetls were “company towns” where Jews lived and ran businesses in the city center; they were often the majority culture, a unique diaspora experience.  

Most of what people know about Polish Jewish history is the Holocaust. And while museum organizers in no way belittled that genocide, this is not a Holocaust museum. Polish history, they say, did not begin or end with the Nazi destruction of 90 percent (about 3 million) of the country’s Jews, but is a long, complicated chronicle of integration and alienation, cooperation and discord. And the museum does not shy away from difficult stories.

“We have consistently tried to avoid apologetics, the desire to show things as better than they were, which has been the besetting sin of both Polish and Jewish historiography,” said Antony Polonsky, Brandeis University history professor and the museum’s chief historian. “At the same time, we reject the view that the history of Jews in Poland is one solely of persecution.”

Donors view diorama of medieval Krakow. photos/aleksander prugar

Planning for the museum started in 1993, but this week’s public opening came at an interesting time, according to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, program director of the core exhibition.

“Just as anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, Poland opens a museum of Jewish history,” she said. Noting that Poland “stands in stark contrast” to the rest of Europe in this, as well as its willingness to look openly and self-critically at its past, she said, “On the Polish side, there’s a tremendous desire to embrace Jewish history as Polish history.”

 If the Museum of the History of Polish Jews has as one of its main goals the elucidation of a new narrative about Polish Jewish history, it has another aim, one not usually associated with a museum: cultivating pride.

“It makes me proud to be Jewish, and to be Jewish in Poland,” said Warsaw resident Magda Dorosz, 30. “There’s a lot of international attention now on the museum, and I hope it will break the stereotype that Jewish history in Poland stopped in 1939.”

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, who spoke at the opening ceremony just before Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, echoed that hope and also noted the part Poland played in the establishment of the Jewish state.

“Half of Israel’s first Knesset spoke Polish,” he remarked.

Now the museum can, he said, stimulate honest conversation within Poland about its Jewish past, for good and for ill, and contribute to the country’s ongoing democratization, a process that began just 25 years ago.

The intended audience is certainly Polish citizens, but the museum — which also features a 450-seat auditorium, educational resource center, café and gift shop — is aimed at an international audience as well, including Israelis.

Anna Azari, Israel’s newly appointed ambassador to Poland, recalled her first diplomatic posting in San Francisco nearly 30 years ago. She remembered thinking at the time that there was “something wrong” with the prevailing sense of Jewish identity in the U.S., which was so centered on the Holocaust. Today, she said, the same thing is happening in Israel, where “40,000 schoolchildren visit Poland every year, and none of them see Poland at all; they are coming to the death camps.

“It’s important to visit the camps and remember, but that’s not enough,” she continued. “I hope every Israeli visitor will see this museum.”

Sue Fishkoff is editor of J. Her trip to Warsaw was sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute New York and Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].