Remembering the diversity, creativity and significance of Poland’s Jewish community

National Post, October 30, 2014

It was a truly extraordinary event, in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Monument, where former German Chancellor Willy Brandt spontaneously knelt to pay homage. A Polish honour guard saluted while Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin laid wreaths at the foot of the memorial. Though it was an exceptionally cold day, at least 2,000 people sat on fold-out chairs and listened to speeches honouring the history of Jews in Poland – a subject that would normally bring tears of rage to the eyes of some survivors – but not today.

On October 28, we celebrated the opening of a museum celebrating a thousand years of Polish Jewish history in a place where that history almost ended.

President Komorowski said it was impossible to understand the history of Poland without the history of the Jews and, equally, the history of the Jews without understanding the history of Poland. The word “polin” in Hebrew means “here you shall rest,” and that’s what the Jews did after their expulsion in the middle ages from much of Europe. The thousand years here, he said, were, generally, tolerant until 1918 and the rise of xenophobia and anti-Semitism that infected Europe.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, while not arguing with the Polish President’s words, said he stood here as a representative of a nation “whose collective memory delves deep into the foundations of Jewish and human existence and into the depths of evil. As a Jew, the very name of Poland gives rise to 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 the largest Jewish graveyard.”

The Jewish community of Poland was once the largest in the world. Not much of it remains today, but that is no reason not to remember its vast diversity, creativity and significance. As Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, director of the Museum’s core exhibition explained: “The Holocaust is not the beginning or end of the story and we have a moral obligation to tell it.”

The museum is a massive building with a glass façade that allows the light in to the upper levels, while the core exhibit is below ground. It occupies an area of Warsaw where Jews had lived before World War II and where the Germans eventually ghettoized the Jews after they invaded the country. The exhibition takes visitors on a journey from the first Jewish settlers till the present. It is an interactive installation, one that engages the visitor in listening and reading stories, in watching scenes of everyday life of merchants, and students, of families, of musicians and artists, the rich and the poor. You can pick a person whose story interests you and follow it, or decide on a town or a region.

By 1500, there were some 100 Jewish communities in Poland. They had a vibrant culture, rabbinical authority, respected scholarship during the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – at least until 1648 when the Khamelnytsky uprising destroyed many of the communities.

A 1765 map shows the 1,200 towns where Jews were living — then still the largest Jewish presence in the world.

A beautifully painted wooden synagogue, based on the plans of the original in Gwozdziec, was created specially for the museum using traditional tools and techniques. It took almost 400 volunteers 10 years to complete; and I can attest that it is spectacular.

Of its eight galleries, only one is devoted to the Holocaust. Despite the relatively small space it occupies, it is a shattering experience to walk through watching events unfold as life under the German occupation became less and less tolerable. About three million Polish Jews were driven to death camps, whose names – Chlemno, Belzec, Sobibor, Auschwitz-Birkenau – still conjure memories of the horror inflicted on innocents.

The Postwar Years exhibit injects a ray of hope into the 1000-year history, as does the fact that the Museum was built here, in Warsaw, with the support of all governments. Museum authorities, curators, and historians have tried their best to strike the right balance. I am glad I could be here to see it.