Tuesday marked the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, a ceremonious event attended by dignitaries from all over the world. Its directing scholars tout the museum as a monument to one thousand years of “Jewish Life,” in Poland, a country whose recent Jewish history is dominated by Holocaust study.
“The last thing Poland needed was a Holocaust museum; the whole country is a Holocaust museum,” said Director Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett at a press conference held in anticipation of the event. “What it lacked was a museum to how Jews lived in Poland.”
The museum’s main exhibition features eight galleries depicting Jewish life in “Greater Poland,” an area based on Poland’s political borders during the sixteenth century, known as the country’s “golden age,” which includes parts of modern day Germany, Ukraine, and Lithuania. The exhibition begins with the first Jewish settlements in medieval times and spans up to present day.
“We do not start with the Holocaust and we do not end with the Holocaust,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “It is important to tell this story without it leading up to the Holocaust.”
She stressed that the museum, which of course dedicates a gallery to the Holocaust, attempts to put visitors in the “historical present,” that is, to treat each period of history as an era in and of itself, not as an elaborate prelude to its horrific interruption.
The building cost an estimated $55 million and is a large modern structure designed by Lahdelma & Mahlamaki architectural studio of Helsinki, Finland. It covers 43,000 square feet and stands in the center of what was the Warsaw Ghetto.
A question that the museum’s staff was eager to address was why such an elaborate and expensive monument to Jewish history had been built in a country with fewer than 30,000 Jews.
“Jews were 10 percent of Poland’s population, but their influence on Polish culture went far beyond that,” said Tad Taube, a Polish-born businessman, who is one of the museum’s main financial supporters. “When they [Polish Jews] were obliterated, a part of Polish culture was amputated. It is important that the Polish people think of this as their museum as well.”
Reports stressed that since the fall of the Soviet Union, an important part of Poland’s embrace of democracy is to rediscover its diverse past, of which Jews played a vital role. They also said that there was tremendous power and importance to placing the museum on the site that the story it tells took place.
The international crowd attending the opening ceremonies included representatives from an array of nations, Holocaust survivors and many others. It was addressed by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Israeli President Reuven Rivlan. The U.S. delegation was led by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, (D-N.Y.).
“We do not treat religious life as a separate subject, but rather part of the picture of Jewish life itself,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett in response to a question from Hamodia regarding the museum’s treatment of religious life in pre-war Poland. “Our presentation on politics includes the Agudah, whose endurance we treat as part of the story … Our presentation on Zionism tells the story of the Mizrachi as part of the movement’s development.”