Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Poland Reckons with Its Jewish History

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Poland Reckons with Its Jewish History

Article excerpt

Among civic leaders there is a strong sense that Poland will never fully recover from its 20th century traumas until it recognizes its Jewish past, and the opening of a Jewish museum is as a major step.

In the entryway of the new Jewish museum here on a recent afternoon, Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, tugged on a black cord, pulled away a white cloth and unveiled an unusual sculpture for the traditional mezuzah parchment: a large piece of hollowed-out brick with a Hebrew letter engraved on it.

The brick from a demolished tenement building on Nalewki Street, once a vital part of Jewish Warsaw, serves as an apt symbol for the relationship between Jews and Poles, troubled, buried and only recently unearthed.

When dignitaries from around the world gather here on Friday to commemorate the solemn occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they will find the imposing Monument to the Ghetto Heroes dwarfed by the grand new museum building, a shining symbol of the transformation of Warsaw from a dark and cheerless post-Communist city to a thriving Central European capital.

Among civic leaders here there is a strong sense that Poland will never fully recover from its 20th century traumas until it recognizes its Jewish past, and the museum is seen as a major step.

"Jewish memory is becoming part of Polish memory," Rabbi Schudrich said, in an interview in a small conference room at the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, "and the building we're sitting in is the best example of that."

Some 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland at the start of World War II. The last census showed a mere 7,508 people identifying themselves as Jews in 2011. But that was a sharp increase over the 1,133 who said they were Jews in 2002.

The Polish government, Jewish groups and private donors worked together to raise roughly $100 million for both construction and the permanent exhibition. The city provided the land free and along with the government paid for the building. The Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland was in charge of the museum's content, which was not ready for the soft opening this week. A full opening is scheduled for next year.

"Poland has matured enough right now to have this museum," said Andrzej Cudak, the museum's acting director.

Clad in glass panels on the outside, a curved passageway inside runs from front to back, almost like a natural canyon, which the building's architect has compared to the parted Red Sea. A meticulous re-creation of the painted ceiling of a wooden synagogue is complete, but coiled cables rise from the bare concrete floor, waiting to be connected to the multimedia displays that have yet to be installed.

"Economically we are not a poor country anymore," said Waldemar Dabrowski, the minister of culture's liaison for the museum. "As a society it is healthy to be morally capable of doing such a thing."

While many significant donations came from American organizations and individuals, the single largest donation came from Poland's richest man, Jan Kulczyk, who is not even Jewish. He gave 100 million zloty, or roughly $32 million, last summer, completing the fund-raising for the exhibition.

"When the Jewish nation and the Polish nation, when we are together, when we look in the same direction, it is great for us, great for Poland and great for the world," Mr. Kulczyk said.

In neighboring Germany the relationship with Jews may be fraught, but it is far simpler. German society has accepted collective guilt as the perpetrators of the Nazi genocide and recognizes the Jews as its victims. But Polish identity is also bound to the nation's victim status after a history of centuries of conquest, partition and occupation.

A proposal to build a monument to Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust on the same square has provoked passionate opposition. …

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