Siegmund (Zishe) Breitbart, a Polish Jew born in 1893 near Lodz, was a major celebrity in Europe and the United States in the early 20th century. Breitbart, an early version of Israeli psychic Uri Geller, performed in circuses, doing his bit bending iron bars, breaking chains and crushing rods with his bare hands. He died on the job in 1925 after accidently driving a spike into his knee.
Breitbart will come back to life Tuesday, with the opening of the permanent exhibition of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews opens in Warsaw. The exhibition cost 145 million zlotys ($43,600), covered by donations from individuals and organizations around the world.
The building itself, designed by Finnish architects, cost another $70 million to put up. The huge museum, whose planning began 20 years ago, sits in the heart of what once was the Warsaw Ghetto, opposite the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes.
It was almost a mission impossible: to present in one exhibition 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland — the creativity and prosperity as well as the persecution. And of course there was the Holocaust, much of which took place on Polish soil after the Germans invaded in 1939.
But the museum’s directors make clear that this isn’t a Holocaust museum. “We’re not concentrating on one period like other Jewish museums worldwide — we’re also dealing with life before and after the Holocaust,” said a spokesman for the museum.
According to Nili Amit, the museum’s Israeli coordinator, “The museum celebrates life in order to show what was lost in the Holocaust.”
As the museum’s director, Prof. Dariusz Stola, puts it, “If someone kills me tomorrow, I would want people to remember my life, not just my death. Our basic idea is to show that Jewish life in Poland was richer than the six years of the Holocaust.”
Despite the interest stirred by the museum worldwide, the place is designed mainly for the Poles. In Poland, which only 25 years ago was liberated from the Communist rule that followed the German occupation, there is still no historical museum that tells the country’s story. The Jewish museum thus plays a particularly important role.
“Our message to the Poles is simple: You won’t understand your history without being familiar with its Jewish chapter,” says Stola.
Some Polish visitors might fidget uncomfortably in front of some of the exhibits. “We’re showing the bad as well as the good. We’re presenting all of history,” Amit says.
In one gallery, an entire wall is devoted to pogroms by Poles against their Jewish neighbors during and after the Holocaust. In another area, a late-19th-century anti-Semitic Polish newspaper is on display; it once published a poster of a pig with the inscription: “Only swine buy from Jews.”
But Israelis can learn about heroes who didn’t make it into their textbooks. One is Berek Joselewicz, an 18th-century Polish-army colonel who became a Polish national hero after commanding a Jewish brigade against the Russians in a failed Polish bid to regain independence.
The museum is full of pictures, films and documents, but there are very few original artifacts. Still, it offers a rich and comprehensive survey of the centuries.
Twenty-five years after the fall of Communism, the museum marks another stage in Poland’s dealing with its complex past and present.