New Museum Marks 1,000 Years of Polish Jews

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WARSAW - An empty lawn in the heart of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto will soon become a place not only of mourning, but of celebrating the Jewish life that flourished in Poland before it was destroyed in the Holocaust.

Jewish leaders and President Lech Kaczynski will break ground tomorrow for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It sits on a highly charged site - next to the city's monument to the Jews who resisted the Nazis during the 1943 ghetto uprising, and just down the street from the rail siding where many were deported to their deaths.

The multimedia museum will have exhibits on the Holocaust, but organizers say its primary purpose is to remember the vibrant Jewish community that flourished in Poland for a thousand years through varying degrees of anti-Semitism and discrimination.

"This will not be another Holocaust museum," said Marian Turski, one of the museum founders and president of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland. "It will be a museum of life."

The building, an austere glass and limestone structure designed by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamaki and Ilmari Lahdelma, will feature a jagged chasm that cuts through the entire museum, and an interior of undulating forms that alludes to Moses' parting of the Red Sea while fleeing slavery in Egypt - symbolic of Jewish survival in the face of catastrophe.

On par with Yad Vashem

When it opens in two years, Polish and Jewish leaders hope it will become a cultural landmark in a league with Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Berlin's Jewish Museum and Holocaust Memorial.

To many, such a center is long overdue in a country that had Europe's largest Jewish community until the Second World War, numbering about 3.3 million, or 10 percent of the total population. The society produced a vibrant Yiddish-speaking culture and a string of great scientists, writers and thinkers.

Poland is also where Nazi Germany built Auschwitz, Treblinka and the other extermination camps where 6 million Jews - half of them Polish - were killed.

Yet Jewish history and suffering were taboo themes for decades under communist rule, which collapsed in 1989. Only about 30,000 Jews live in Poland today.

Museum creators say the project will chronicle the fate of Jews in their Eastern European homeland with interactive and multimedia displays and video - not just traditional artifacts and exhibits - to give visitors a deeper sense of what was lost.

The plans include reconstructing the painted ceiling of an 18th century wooden synagogue almost to its original size.

"It's beautifully painted, and we want our visitors to feel as if they were in the actual place, and to intuitively grasp the richness of the inner life and artistic breadth of Polish Jews in the 18th century," said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an American scholar leading an international team developing the exhibition.

In another room, a typical bustling Jewish street of the 1920s will be conjured with images projected onto white building facades typical of the era.

"It's closer in many ways to theater than it is to a didactic display based on a collection," said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an expert on East European Jewish culture and museum development with New York University.

Eight galleries will narrate a story starting in the 10th century when Ibrahim Ibn Jakub, a Jewish merchant from Moorish Spain, first arrived in the Polish kingdom.

It then moves on to a section called Paradisus Judaeorum, the paradise Jews said they found in Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries after they were expelled from other European lands, and on through the centuries that saw Jewish society grow and flourish.

The experts working on the displays say they are struggling with the sensitive question of how to depict Polish-Jewish relations in a land that was at different times a place of tolerance for Jews, and of painful anti-Semitism, discrimination and segregation.

"The goal," Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, "is to show the complex spectrum of relations. For instance, the museum will show how Jews were granted a degree of autonomy to practice their religion, do business and run their own courts."

The final rooms are devoted to the Holocaust, with a focus on the suffering of Warsaw Ghetto residents, as well as the postwar period, which saw pogroms and state-sponsored anti-Semitism.

It concludes on a hopeful note by showing a revival of Jewish life and new tolerance of the young Polish democracy - an openness that is itself a key factor in making the $65 million project possible. The project has received partial funding from the Polish government and the city of Warsaw. The remaining help comes from private donors.