Nożyk Synagogue in Warsaw (Wikimedia Commons)

Nożyk Synagogue in Warsaw (Wikimedia Commons)

This week sees the presidents of Poland and Israel officially open a new museum in Warsaw charting 1,000 years of Jewish life in the central European country. 

The exhibitions combine medieval city models, maps, film, photographs, audio, and touch-screens to tell the story of the first Jewish settlers from 960 to today.

It shows how Jews built a buzzing, vibrant Poland, where they made up 44% of the population, after fleeing expulsions and wars in Western Europe.

Polish rulers allowed this 250-year period of freedom by giving Jews the right to settle, form communities, engage in certain occupations and – importantly – follow their religion. 

To help show this, the exhibition houses a spectacular reconstruction of the ceiling of a 17th century wooden synagogue from Gwozdziec, with intricate painted animals and signs of the zodiac. 

There is also space dedicated to Chasidism, which was founded in the first half of the 18th Century in Poland and had a major impact on the Jewish world.

In a country that has strong associations of Nazi occupation and with the Holocaust, in particular due to Auschwitz and other death camps, programme director Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said this was a breath of fresh air.

“The last thing Poland needed was a Holocaust museum because the whole country is a Holocaust museum,” she said. “We have a moral obligation to remember not only how Jews died but also how they lived.”