Reporting from Warsaw in Poland, Jack Mendel covers the historic opening of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
On a crisp, sunny Warsaw day, in the shadow of the memorial to the city’s famous uprising, the presidents of Israel and Poland stood side by side in front of a new museum built to showcase and strengthen Jewish-Polish identity.
In front of large crowds and a glistening new building, they opened the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews and emphasised the inseparable nature of Poland from its Jewish heritage. More importantly, they highlighted the need to strengthen the Jewish Polish future, by reclaiming lost history.
Security was understandably tight. Armed officers were perched on the roof of the museum, above a jam-packed open air audience. But this event was all about the message, delivered to Jews and non-Jews alike, to survivors, descendents and dignitaries.
Polish President, Bronisław Komorowski spoke about “inseparable histories” and he was proud that Poland had, for so long, been a safe haven for Jews, a place of tolerance, despite the Holocaust shattering most prior memories of this happier time.
Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, also recognised Poland’s special place in Jewish history, saying the country bred “the soul of the Jewish nation”.
Inevitably, the Holocaust weighed heavily on the occasion. The new museum, Rivlin highlighted, drew upon Poland’s Jewry as the epicentre of so much of Jewish identity, culture, tradition and history – all of which was almost destroyed by the Nazis.
Fittingly, but not coincidentally, the word ‘Polin’ means ‘here you shall rest’. It was how Jews referred to Poland in Hebrew.
“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,” said Rivlin.
“It was the breeding ground for the soul of the Jewish nation, and unfortunately, also grounds to the largest Jewish cemetery.”
Marian Turski. chairman of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute and of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, linked the past, present and future.
And he repeatedly used the phrase ‘Mir Zenen Doh’ – meaning ‘We are here’ – when describing the defiance of those who fought in Warsaw’s ghetto uprising, for example, or when talking about the growing acceptance of being Jewish in Poland today.
All the while, looming behind the speakers, sat the museum itself, a vast and modern complex filled with historical artefacts. It was fitting that such a state-of-the-art facility would now be the link between past and present, that will allow so many people to discover the long intertwined Polish-Jewish history.
And what a history! Jews have lived in Poland since the 11th century at least, so viewing Poland through a dark lens of the Shoah does it a disservice. Of course it must be remembered, everyone recognised, but it should be remembered for what it destroyed, and how Jews in Poland have responded.
On the tour, it becomes apparent that this museum brings resonance to Poland’s lost Jewish past. From the 12th century tools used by Jewish Polish farmers, to the enormous exhibition on wooden synagogues, including a reconstruction, you get a palpable sense of walking through history.
But it is a past the museum wants to reclaim. Today, Poland is experiencing a resurgent Jewish identity. Poles are discovering their (previously-unknown) Jewish roots, and as several rabbis on the delegation noted, Poland is now once again safe for Jews. Expressing your Jewish identity on the streets brings far less anxiety than you might imagine, they said.
As the day drew to an end, there was time for reflection. If anything can be taken away from attending the opening of this new museum, it is that Poland is not a Holocaust museum. It is a Jewish museum. The Jewish-Polish connection did not start with the Warsaw Ghetto and end with Auschwitz. It is not just a story of death and despair. It is a story of regeneration and opportunity too. Just like the Jewish story as a whole.
Enormous credit must go to Filip Slipaczek for his instrumental role in the organisation of the trip.