The Donations That Threw a Lifeline to Poland's New Jewish Museum

Donations allow for the completion of a multimedia exhibition on 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, from the Middle Ages to the present day.

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The Museum of the History of Polish Jews will open in autumn next year thanks to two donations announced this week by Poland's Minster of Culture and National Heritage, Bogdan Zdrojewski. The museum's completion had been postponed twice due to a shortage of finances.

Most of the exhibition will be opened as soon as April 2013, on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

One of the donations is from Jan Kulczyk, a Polish oil tycoon, who announced a gift of 20 million Polish zlotys ($6 million) this week. The other is a joint $7 million donation from the Koret Foundation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, California-based organizations chaired by Tad Taube, a Polish-born American businessman. The west-coast foundation has already raised $9 million for the museum in the past.

Among the participants at a celebratory ceremony on the ground floor of the museum last week were the United States Ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, council chairman of the museum, Marian Turski, and Israeli sculptor Dani Caravan, whose statue will be part of the museum's core exhibition.

The museum building, standing in the heart of the former Warsaw Ghetto, was planned by Finnish architects, and cost about $65 million to build. It was financed equally by the city municipality and state funds. The core exhibition was financed by Jewish organizations from across the globe.

The fundraising campaign, which was supposed to raise more than $35 million, was coordinated by the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland. But conflicts and a power struggle between the organizations prevented the goal from being reached, and until recently it was impossible to know when the operation would be completed.

During the ceremony this week, Piotr Wislicki, the chairman of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, said that "the two donations – both the one from Jews in the United States' west coast and that from a Polish man from the center of the state, symbolize the fact that the museum does not separate the two nations, but brings them together."

Taube, aged 80, was born in Poland and escaped with his father two months before the Second World War broke out. He serves today as the chairman of the Silicom Corporation in California, and is known as a sports fan who has made significant donations to that cause. Since 2007, he has served as a Polish honorary consul in the United States.

Jan Kulczyk, a millionaire who conducts most of his business endeavors today in Europe, started his career as an agent at Volkswagen in Poland. He was once close with Polish government elites, and some say those connections helped him make his fortunes.

The two donations that were announced this week will enable the museum to complete its core exhibition, which was planned by a team of thirty architects and graphic artists, and is based on historical documentation prepared by a team of 120 scientists. The core exhibition will present 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland in a multimedia space that will guide visitors chronologically from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Until shortly before the Holocaust, there were about 3.5 million Jews living in Poland, the largest Jewish community in the world and the land of ancestry for many Jews living across the world today. Polish Jews were also about 10 percent of the larger population of Poland, and they made significant contributions to Polish culture, science and politics.

"There is no history of Poland without the Jews and no history of Jews without Poland," said Piotr Wislicki, the chairman of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland.

The museum says it expects to become Europe's largest Jewish history museum and an institution that will "take its place as one of the most important institutions of its kind."

A worker polishes a recently restored monument to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which stands across from the nearly finished Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland, on WeCredit: AP