The Warsaw act to honour Jewish life

Warsaw’s striking Museum of the History of Polish Jews documents the past glories of the country’s Jewish population and could be a keystone in its Jewish future

Mon, Jul 1, 2013, 01:00

On an April morning in 1943, the last 50,000 of Warsaw’s once thriving Jewish community decided to die with dignity.

For three years they had been stripped of their humanity by degrees. First came the ghetto, concentrating 400,000 people into a 3km by 3km walled-in space behind brick walls. Packed eight to a room in increasingly squalid conditions, the occupying Nazi forces watched and waited as starvation and disease did their terrible work. After the Final Solution was agreed, a mass deportation in 1942 to the nearby death camp of Treblinka emptied the ghetto of 300,000 people. Having learned of what fate awaited them, the remaining 50,000 ghetto inhabitants vowed to put up the final fight of their lives.

Deported to their deaths

On April 19th, 1943, when their Nazi tormentors entered the ghetto to complete the deportation, they were beaten back by residents armed with guns, grenades and molotov cocktails.

The Nazis retaliated with heavy artillery and flamethrowers. A month later, with further 13,000 residents killed in the fighting, the largest armed uprising by European Jews in the second World War was over. The surviving 50,000 Jews were deported to their deaths and the Warsaw ghetto, once a thriving Jewish neighbourhood, was demolished – building by building. On May 16th 1943, the city’s SS commander Jürgen Stroop concluded crisply: “The former Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no more.”

After 1945, when the Third Reich itself ceased to exist, the sea of bricks in Warsaw was cleared and a memorial to the Ghetto Uprising heroes was erected on the site in 1948. It was here that West German chancellor Willy Brandt famously fell to his knees in 1970.

Historic disconnect

Today it is a drab neighbourhood of grey postwar apartment blocks. Decades of historic disconnect are closing, however, thanks to a landmark new building – the Museum of the History of Polish Jews – telling the story of the rich contribution to Polish life of its Jewish community, once the largest in the world.

The permanent exhibition, 10 centuries of Jewish life in Poland, is currently being installed for opening next year. Until then, like Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, the building by Finnish architectural studio Lahdelma and Mahlamäki is the main attraction.

And what an attraction. Passersby see a rigid, somewhat austere glass box with a gash in the front facade. Step inside and the hard exterior lines give way to an undulating, sandy concrete interior with curves and waves, broken up by a cross-hatch pattern that appear to shift as the sun moves.

“The building is a simple form split by a wide fracture,” said architect Rainer Mahlamäki, a reflection of the millennium of Jewish life in Poland, interrupted by the Holocaust.

Safe homeland

A closer look at the hundreds of glass panels in the museum windows reveals the words Po-lin –“rest here” in Hebrew.

Those were the words that, according to legend, attracted the first Jewish settlers eastwards in search of safety and gave the future country its name.

By medieval times, more than 100 Jewish communities settled in the region under the protection of local rulers and by 1500, this relative security made Poland a relatively safe homeland for the Ashkenazi Jewish world.

After recovering from 17th-century pogroms, Polish Jews embraced modernity with contemporary forms of Hebrew and Yiddish culture until being pushed into the black hole of the Holocaust.

The highlight of the main exhibit is the reconstruction of the Gwozdziec synagogue, built in 1791 near today’s Ukrainian city of Lviv. Considered a highpoint in Jewish religious art, the wooden structure was razed in the 1940s but has now been rebuilt with traditional methods, complete with a dazzling technicolour ceiling, thanks to a remarkable collaboration of Boston-based architects and Polish and American student volunteers.

Though conscious of the shadow of the 20th century, the museum is designed to document how Polish Jews lived, not died. The curators’ challenge to visitors is to cast aside hindsight and view Jewish life as it looked to contemporary Jewish eyes, when even the harshest winds of history could not halt their lives being driven forward.

“We want to be a theatre for history, a walk through 10 centuries of Jewish life in Poland,” said Nitzan Reisner, spokeswoman for the museum.

“We want to show there is no Jewish history without Polish history and vice versa. We hope people leave confused and questioning their preconceptions about Polish and Jewish life.”

There is no way around admitting that, down from its prewar three million to 20,000 today, Jewish life in today’s Poland is a faint shadow of its former self.

Where Jews once made up a third of Warsaw’s population, today they represent just 2,000 out of 1.7 million.

That much was clear to me some years ago over a bizarre dinner in a restaurant in Krakow’s former Jewish quarter, complete with synth renditions of tunes from Fiddler on the Roof.

In Polish public debate, crude anti-Semitic utterances can still be heard from people for whom Judaism is as much a phantom as the idea of Polish Jews.

And yet, in the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, a thaw has set in. Some older Poles “came out of the closet”, revealing to their children a Jewish identity they kept hidden to avoid difficulties with communist authorities who, in 1968, conducted an anti-Semitic campaign to drive out many Holocaust survivors.

Many younger generations of Poles, or of Polish emigrants, are rediscovering Jewish roots they never knew they had. Katka Reszke learned she was Jewish when she was 17 and is typical of a younger generation revitalising Jewish life in Poland.

Jewish identity

Now 35, she has written of her experience in the book Return of the Jew.

“Since then, we might say that Polish Jews have reached a level of Jewish literacy,” she writes. “Poland has become a true hotbed of contemporary Jewish identity debate … the Jewish identity experience in Poland is unfinished and fluctuating in its nature.”

The thaw has complicated the relationship between Poland and its Jews. Historians trawling previously closed archives have produced troubling details of wartime pogroms by Poles against their Jewish neighbours.

Honoured by Israel

At the same time, more Poles have been honoured by Israel for saving the lives of Jews during the war than any other nation. Only in post-communist Poland did many get proper recognition at home, like doctor Irena Sendler who smuggled more than 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto.

Though so much was lost, a walk around Poland’s bigger cities today reveals some green shoots of Jewish life: kippas, kosher delis and, this year, the 25th annual festival in Krakow celebrating Jewish culture that attracts thousands of visitors.

Warsaw’s gleaming new museum is an attempt to build on this progress and to challenge a widespread view outside Poland of the country as a vast Jewish graveyard, signposted by former Nazi death camps stretching from Treblinka to Auschwitz.

Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews, like the white walkway spanning its gaping, golden atrium, is an overdue attempt to reconcile a country with its Jewish heart. By documenting Poland’s Jewish past, the museum’s curators are determined to make their institution a keystone in Poland’s Jewish future.

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