President Reuven Rivlin spoke at the opening ceremony of the core exhibit of the new Jewish history museum in Warsaw, recalling both the harmonious and deeply painful periods of Jewish existence in Poland.
“I do not stand here today as an individual, but rather as the representative of an entire nation,” Rivlin said in Hebrew during his first overseas visit as president. “A nation whose collective journey delves deep into the foundations of Jewish and human existence and into the depths of evil. As a Jew, even if you were not born in Poland, the very name, Poland, gives rise to a shuddering in your body and a longing in your heart. This country was the breeding ground for the soul of the Jewish nation, and unfortunately, also grounds to the largest Jewish cemetery.”
Polish President Bronisław Komorowski also attended the ceremony at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
“We forever remain aware of the danger,” Rivlin continued. “The State of Israel will pursue Auschwitz and what it symbolizes: the desecration of human dignity which was born the image of God, anti-Semitism in all its forms and manifestations, and Nazi ideology and racism. Israel continues to fight against all these evils and will not surrender. We build our future, with eyes wide open and alert.
“We do not belittle threats. We will not belittle shameful statements calling for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Holocaust continues to serve as a warning sign against non-banal evil.”
Rivlin also emphasized Jews’ yearning to return to Israel. “The Jewish journey started in the land of Israel, and it always strove to return there against all odds and all limitations.”
Komorowski dubbed the cutting edge 75.5 million euro ($96 million) multimedia venue “a good investment in future relations between our two nations and states.”
During statements to the media after his official meeting with Komorowski, before the ceremony, Rivlin announced that the countries had signed a research and development agreement, “which not only serves to acknowledge the excellent work being done under the Israel-Poland partnership, but will facilitate better relations, and encourage even more such projects…We have spoken today about a partnership and cooperation between two peoples.”
Rivlin also discussed the threat both face from from Islamist terrorism: “Our ideals are under the constant threat of extremism; whether in the form of radical Muslim groups, or the emergence of other elements seeking to deny the rights and freedoms of others.”
Komorowski promised that Poland “will serve as an important partner to Israel… Poland is a partner in ensuring that the security of Israel is an important factor for the international community to recognize.”
‘A moral obligation’
The lost Jewish community in Warsaw was once the world’s largest and most vibrant.
“We are reconstructing something that was completely destroyed,” said Dariusz Stola, director of the museum, whose core exhibition opened Tuesday.
“The void is the biggest monument of Jewish Warsaw — empty places — and this museum will compensate for it. It will show the story.”
While all the main Jewish museums in the world are centered around the Holocaust, he says, the idea here was to create a museum of life.
“The Holocaust has an absolutely cataclysmic, critical place,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, director of the museum’s core exhibition.
“But it’s not the beginning of the story, it’s not the end of the story. There’s a huge story there and we have a moral obligation to tell it.”
Built on the site of the former Jewish ghetto, the museum reflects a lightness that is in stark contrast to the imposing black granite monument facing it, which honors the heroes of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
The serenity of the 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 symbolizes the Red Sea crossing of Jews fleeing Egypt.
For many centuries, 80 percent of the world’s Jews lived in Poland, according to Stola.
Visitors can delve into the history thanks to multimedia installations, text, music, paintings and recreated scenes of everyday life.
“Our museum is the most technologically advanced in Europe,” claimed Stola.
The core exhibition begins with a legend about the arrival of the first Jews in Poland in the Middle Ages. Walking through the huge Polish forest, the Jews heard a voice from heaven say “Po lin” or “rest here” in Hebrew — and Poland was given its name.
Poland became a safe haven for Jews chased out of France, the Rhineland and Spain. By 1765, there were 750,000 of them were living across the United Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania.
That number was up to 3.3 million Jews in 1939, or around 10 percent of the entire Polish population. Only between 200,000 and 300,000 survived the war.
Most emigrated, with the last wave taking place after the communist regime orchestrated an anti-Semitic campaign in 1968.
That dark chapter of Polish-Jewish history, and others, are also addressed by the museum.
Today, some 7,000 Poles belong to around 30 Jewish organisations around the country, but several thousands more are also believed to have Jewish roots.
The highlight of the exhibition is a replica of the polychrome painted ceiling of an 18th-century wooden synagogue from the pre-war town of Gwozdziec, now a part of Ukraine.
The Holocaust-themed hall is dark and narrow, with words from key figures from the era posted along the walls.
The idea for the museum was conceived in the early 1990s after the fall of communism on the initiative of a few individuals.
The city of Warsaw and the Polish culture ministry paid for the building, a total of 42.5 million euros ($53.8 million).
The core exhibition was meanwhile funded by the Jewish Historical Institute and its donors to the tune of 33 million euros.
Since the museum opened to the public in April 2013, around 400,000 visitors have walked through its doors.
AFP contributed to this report.