Polish Jews, Centre Stage

After nearly twenty years of planning and fundraising, the Core Exhibition of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews opens today in Warsaw, amidst celebrations featuring Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Poland’s political class and other major figures. The museum, situated on the site of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, will celebrate Poland’s thousand years of Jewish history and culture. In a press release, the museum called the location “haunted by ruins…a gap in space and memory, crying to be filled”. And fill this gap it does.

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Poland occupies an important place in Jewish history, explains Prof. Adam Daniel Rotfeld, a museum board member and Poland’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs. “There is no history of Jews in Europe without Poland, just as there is no history of Poland without the Jewish community”, he said. “It is here that the fates of these two nations became inextricably linked—in good times and in bad, in times of hardship and tragedy”.

Opening the Core Exhibition is the Forest Gallery, giving visual representation to an old Polish-Jewish legend. A thousand years ago, “Jews fleeing persecution in Western Europe came to the Polish lands, where they heard birds chirping ‘Po-lin! Po-lin!’”, say museum officials. “This is one of the Hebrew and Yiddish names for Poland, but it also means ‘Rest here’. The Jews considered this a sign from heaven that they had reached a safe haven where they could develop their spirituality, culture and learning”.

The museum is the “most ambitious cultural institution to rise in Poland since the fall of Communism”, according to the New York Times, which also noted its broad political support with “only scattered, mild protest” domestically.

Construction of the building, designed by Finnish architecture firm Lahdelma and Mahlamäki, was completed in 2012 to great critical acclaim, most recently winning the Association of Polish Architects (SARP) Award of the Year for 2014. The Times of Israel says that the striking building “has already become an icon of modern architecture”.

The structure brings serious presence to this once bustling but later deadened district. Its glass exterior is at first glance a demure study of modernism, yet it offers dramatic structural cut-outs on its sides. These invite closer inspection of the interior’s undulating, almost living walls, projecting onto the nearby square the irrepressible energy of a people once nearly wiped from its history. The Museum adjoins the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, which celebrates the 1943 uprising. While the Monument is a “place of silent reflection and commemoration”, the Museum—its ideal companion—sees itself as “one of discovery and exploration”.

Mayor of Warsaw Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz emphasises the importance of the museum to history. “Peoples that lose their memory, lose their life”, she said. “The Museum is being created so that we remember”.

Gronkiewicz-Waltz will be joined by a delegation of senior United States officials, led by New York Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney and including Stephen D. Mull, the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Poland; Ira N. Forman, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism; and Lesley L. Weiss, Chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

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