WARSAW, Poland − Hundreds of people, including many journalists and foreign tourists, waited in long lines and filled the square outside the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened Sautrday for the first time.
The visitors weren’t disturbed by the fact that the $100 million museum’s permanent exhibition has not been installed yet; they came to see the building itself, which was designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, and whose construction began in 2009. They also came to see a film about the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt hero Simcha Rotem, who on Friday was awarded the Grand Cross of the Polonia Restituta by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski in the main ceremony marking the uprising’s 70th anniversary.
Many of the visitors sported one of the 50,000 yellow flowers handed out at the museum in recent days. “It’s not a yellow star, there was no yellow stars in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Nili Amit, an Israeli who is a coordinator at the museum, is at pains to stress. “It’s the symbol of the Warsaw Ghetto, and I for one am moved by it. The Warsavites wear it with pride,” she adds.
Hagay Cohen, an Israeli who lives in Warsaw and works for Polish National Radio, explains that the custom began when a Jewish woman gave the uprising’s commander, Marek Edelman, a yellow flower after he saved her child’s life.
It will be months before the permanent exhibition will be ready for public viewing, and for now the museum’s most important exhibit is literally an underground secret.
To reach it, one must go from the back of the building through a construction site. Amit led us safely in and agreed to reveal, for the first time, the “astonishing” exhibit she says will be the museum’s focal point.
It is there, in the middle of the room: a precise replica of the wooden ceiling and roof of a 17th-century synagogue from the Polish town of Gwozdziec, complete with murals. Before the Holocaust, there were many wood-roofed synagogues in Poland. None has survived, but, thanks to a Boston company specializing in restorations using period materials as well as students who came from around the world to recreate the paintings, a part of the Gwozdziec synagogue has been brought back to life.
The new museum’s eight galleries will show, in chronological order, 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland. “The Shoah gallery will be the largest of all,” Amit says.
She stresses that the Polish government, not wanting to be seen as influencing the content, did not interfere with the development of the exhibits.
“Our museum doesn’t claim to hold the truth, we don’t supply prefabricated answers; rather, we encourage independent thought, courageous presentation of questions and confrontation between different opinions,” wrote the museum’s acting director, Andrzej Cudak, in a booklet given to visitors.
The 4,000-square-meter space of the main exhibit is the work of 120 historians and museologists, which will include an interactive journey through 1,000 years of Polish Jewry.
Only around 250 historical objects will be displayed, small compared to other historical museums, but as Amit explains, “We are a museum that tells a story, not artifacts. We don’t want our visitors to avoid visiting Auschwitz, for example.”
The exhibit that Amit calls her “baby” consists of paintings by Maurycy Gottlieb that will be on loan from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science. A small and inviting exhibition, ready for installation, shows the archive of Emanuel Ringelblum: thousands of documents from the Warsaw Ghetto that were hidden in milk cans during the war.
Prior to World War II, 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland. In Warsaw they comprised one-third of the population. More than 90 percent of Poland’s Jews died in the Holocaust, and most of the survivors emigrated after the war, in many cases due to persecution.
The museum, which will open to visitors only in 2014, is located across from the city’s memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto.
“[The memorial] commemorates the death of Poland’s Jews, while the museum commemorates their lives. The monument is a place for contemplation, the museum is a bridge between generations, between continents and between people. The history of Polish Jewry is not only the history of victims of the Holocaust. The history that is related by the museum began 1,000 years ago and it continues,” reads the information pamphlet.
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