WARSAW, Poland — A millennium of Jewish history in Poland was obliterated by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust. Now, a new Warsaw museum is celebrating a lost Jewish community that was the world’s largest and most vibrant.
“We are reconstructing something that was completely destroyed,” says Dariusz Stola, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, whose core exhibition opens 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,” says 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 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,” claims 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.
“A climate of tolerance and empathy is emerging today, and even if it’s not widespread, it’s making way for another lasting Jewish presence in Poland,” says Marian Turski, a former Auschwitz prisoner and one of the museum originators.
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.
“The main purpose of the museum is to raise awareness, both in Poland and abroad, of the fact that Jews were a permanent part of the Polish scene for 1,000 years,” says Stola.
“The story we’re telling is part of European history.”