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Building a Glass House

Machla Abramovitz

A new museum in Warsaw tells the story of 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland. But is the architectural gem a recognition of Polish anti-Semitism or just the latest attempt to whitewash history?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It’s a stark, glass-encased edifice, an icon of modern architecture, built in the middle of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto, the burial and deportation site of half a million Polish Jews. Still, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews that is scheduled to open in October is not simply a memorial to the dead, but rather a commemoration of 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland, the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in pre-War Europe. Funded largely by Poland’s Ministry of Culture and the Municipality of Warsaw, it symbolizes reconciliation and a new understanding between Poles and Jews and is but the latest by-product of what is referred to as the “Jewish revival” in Poland.But the museum also represents the contradictions of Polish Jewish history. On the one hand, the permanent exhibition on Jewish life in Poland will describe how Jews fleeing persecution in Western Europe found a safe haven in the 11th century and how Jews did enjoy periods of plenty and peace. On the other, the museum will tell the story of discrimination and death that also characterized the Polish Jewish experience, ending in the murder of 90 percent of the Jewish population during World War II — often at the hands of Poles themselves.The story of these two faces of Polish Jewish history finds expression in today’s Jewish revival. Jews living there are more assertive about their religion and identity than they have been in decades — and some Poles are even converting to Judaism — but some are still struggling to reconcile being both tormentors of Jews and victims of the Nazis during World War II.MichaelRosenbaum, chair of the Friends of the Forum, an Illinois-based organization that seeks to build bridges between American Jews and Poles, says Poles are experiencing a kind of “phantom pain” of a lost limb. Poles not only miss their Jews, but feel nostalgia for a bygone era when Poland was a multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious society in which Jews played a prominent part.  

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