Entertainment Warsaw museum sheds light on 1,000-year history of Poland’s Jews

Warsaw museum sheds light on 1,000-year history of Poland’s Jews

Polin. Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Polin. Museum of the History of Polish Jews

The Israeli and Polish presidents on Tuesday hailed a Warsaw museum chronicling the vibrant 1,000-year history of Poland’s Jewish community devastated by the Holocaust, as an investment in future ties between their countries.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was “symbolic of our looking to the future”, speaking in the Polish capital on his first trip abroad since having taken office in July.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski echoed him, dubbing the cutting edge 75.5 million euro ($96 million) multimedia venue “a good investment in future relations between our two nations and states”.  

Built on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, the museum will be “a game-changer” for Polish-Jewish relations, the country’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich told AFP.

“That does not mean the relations were bad, but it means it will make them better,” he said.

The presidents gathered Tuesday for the long-awaited unveiling of the museum’s core exhibition to the public.

The museum itself has been open to the public since April 2013 and has already drawn more than 400,000 visitors — in part thanks to its eye-catching design. 

The serene, glass facade of the building — which has already become an icon of modern architecture — is broken only by a wide, irregular opening that serves as the entrance and main hall.

According to its Finnish architects, Rainer Mahlamaeki and Ilmar Lahdelma, the fracture symbolises the Biblical parting of the Red Sea as Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt.


– ‘Rest here’ – 

The POLIN museum — named after the Hebrew word for both “Poland” and “rest here” — uses narrative to bring the past to life, said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, director of the museum’s core exhibition. 

Rather than showcasing myriad artefacts, the museum recounts that past with the help of multimedia installations and by recreating scenes of everyday life. 

That account includes dark chapters like the World War II Holocaust, during which Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews in occupied Poland, and the anti-Semitism that was an undeniable fact of Jewish life throughout Europe, Poland included. 

But the exhibition also sheds a rare light on the richness of Jewish life in Poland — once home to the world’s largest Jewish community.

Jews first arrived in Poland in the Middle Ages. 

By the mid 18th-century, there were 750,000 living across the United Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, having been chased out of western Europe.

By 1939, that number was up to 3.3 million Jews, or around 10 percent of the entire Polish population. Up to 300,000 survived the Second World War.

Most emigrated and now the active Jewish community numbers only around 7,000. 

Tens of thousands of other Poles have Jewish roots but either do not identify with the community or are unaware of their heritage.

The museum’s creation has coincided with an unexpected “coming out” of a third-generation of descendants of Jews who survived the Holocaust.

For instance, a play entitled “The Hideout”, which premiered in Warsaw on Saturday, tells the tale of people who spent two years in hiding in closets or under floors during the Nazi occupation.

Over the course of the play, it becomes clear that the trauma of the Holocaust runs so deep that survivors dare not speak of it to their children and grandchildren.  

The subject is also taboo for the Christian Poles who hid them. 

Private donors, Diaspora Jews and Poles raised 33 million euros ($42 million) to pay for the museum’s core exhibition, while the city of Warsaw and culture ministry funded the building to the tune of 42.5 million euros.

“The level of anti-Semitism in Poland is much less than in countries like France, or Austria, or Hungary,” said Schudrich.

“But whatever is left, certainly this museum will help to make anti-Semitism even smaller.”