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An interior view of the Warsaw museum
Image: AFP/Getty Images

Reviving Jewish history

Barbara Cöllen / gsw
October 31, 2014

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews has opened its highly anticipated permanent exhibition. It aims to restore erased chapters in Polish history and stands as a symbol of a changing and diverse country.

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The Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened its doors in 2013 and now also offers a permanent exhibition. The museum stands right on the historic site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, where - in a gesture of humility - German Chancellor Willy Brandt famously fell to his knees in 1970.

The building's architecture is already unique in itself. From the outside, the museum is a smooth block made of concrete, copper and glass, while the inside is dynamic and symbolic. But it's not just the architecture that distinguishes the Warsaw museum from numerous other Jewish institutions around the world.

The focus at this museum is not the history of the Polish Jews' persecution and suffering. Poland doesn't need a Holocaust museum, according to Jerzy Halbersztadt, one of the museum's main initiators. He told DW that for those who want to learn about the Holocaust, there already are numerous sites in Poland: the Nazi death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor.

'Museum of life'

Media from around the world have reported on the uniqueness of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in the Warsaw district Muranow - once the largest Jewish quarter in the world. The "New York Times" quoted Sigmund Rolat, one of the project's first sponsors, saying with satisfaction: "Ours is not another museum of the Holocaust. We are more than victims. Ours is a museum of life."

An exterior view of the Warsaw museum
Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki designed the building using glass and copperImage: AFP/Getty Images

In saying so, the Jewish businessman summarized the idea from which the museum was born in the early 1990s before being developed more fully by international teams of experts.

"We wanted to give insight into the thousand-year presence of Jewish life in Poland and how Poles and Jews lived together before the Holocaust," Halbersztadt said, adding that a further aim is to show how Jewish life has been revived in contemporary Poland - in a highly visible way.

This can be seen at the muesum, with numerous reconstructions, interactive installations and video productions spread across 4,300 square meters in eight galleries. The largest gallery - with the title "Annihilation" - examines the Holocaust, but it's only accessible by way of the so-called Jewish Street.

"It was important to us not just to show the monstrous drama and the unimaginable crime against humanity, but also to present the incredible culture and society that were destroyed along the way. The reduction to the role of victim has robbed all the generations of our ancestors of their identity because they were not solely victims - neither during nor before the war," said Halbersztadt, who was previously in charge of the Polish division of the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

An interior view of the Warsaw museum
The museum features a reconstruction of a wooden synagogueImage: AFP/Getty Images

Recalling a flourishing culture

The chronological narration of the thousand-year history of Poland's Jews in the Warsaw Museum makes clear that Polish culture would not exist without Jewish culture, nor would Poland's national identity exist without Jewish identity. The history museum, as an institution for education and cultural affairs, wants to point the way forward. Organizers hope it will serve as a platform for dialogue and bolster the re-emerging Jewish life in the country.

Ten years after entering the EU, Poland is standing up for its diversity. In many parts of the country, people are trying to revive elements of the local Jewish identity that have been lost.

Until 1939, 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland. But the census from 2011 recorded a mere 2,000 Jews living in Poland today - although other sources put the same figure between 8,000 and 12,000. Prior to the war in Poland, there were 996 Jewish communities. Today there are only nine left, but more and more are emerging.

Before the Second World War, Jews made up about half of the population in 1,200 Polish communities. After the Holocaust, Jewish life was almost eradicated and following communist agitation against Jews in 1968, their stories vanished almost completely from history books and from the public consciousness.

The new museum's permanent exhibition, which was opened under attendance from the presidents of Poland and Israel, represents an effort to bring these forgotten stories back to life. For Halbersztadt, the new facility is of great significance.

"It's about raising awareness among the public and spreading knowledge," he said, adding that such an approach can combat certain stereotypes and irrational reactions when it comes to modern anti-Semitism after the Holocaust. Halbersztadt says he is certain that inspiration for the present - not just in connection with Jewish life - can come about as a result.

An interior view of the Warsaw museum
Centuries of history are on display, and the emphasis is not on victimhood, curators sayImage: AFP/Getty Images

A new Poland

Almost 20 years have passed since the concept was turned into an actual museum thanks to the commitment of just a handful of individuals. Germany also contributed six million euros ($7.54 million), accounting for around seven percent of the total costs, and the German government was a major early supporter of the project.

The new Museum of the History of Polish Jews stands for a new Poland, according to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimbet, programming director of the historical exhibition. Her words also apply to the recently opened Solidarnosc Center in Gdansk. Both museums put Polish history in a broader European context - a development German daily "Die Welt" described as representative of the growing assuredness of Polish democracy.

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