Last Friday, on the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a world that had ignored the plight of its fighters and the rest of Polish Jewry came to the site of the battle to pay tribute and to participate in the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The museum is a beautifully and thoughtfully constructed landmark, and the Claims Conference has contributed funding toward the Shoah component of the forthcoming permanent exhibit. Visitors to Poland now and in the future will learn of the thousand-year history of a Jewish population that had grown to 3.3 million by 1939 before it was destroyed in less than six years.
Nearly 2,000 people attended the ceremony on April 19, held at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes opposite the new museum, including Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Also present were the President of the European Parliament and the Mayor of the City of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. Delegations from several countries as well as members of the Jewish community and representatives of European capitals also gathered at the monument. Guests of honor included Simcha Rotem, a participant in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, who was decorated with the Great Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta by President Komorowski.
Although the permanent exhibition has not yet been installed, the museum opened to visitors on Saturday, April 20. Hundreds of people came to see the building designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, which includes a full replica of the wooden ceiling and roof of a 17th-century synagogue from the town of Gwozdziec, richly decorated with murals. None of Poland’s many wooden synagogues survived the war so this painstaking recreation is all the more poignant.
The museum’s eight galleries will show in chronological order the 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland. Marian Turski, a member of our negotiating delegation, is the museum’s Chairman of the Council. Marian was born Moshe Turbowicz in Druskieniki, now in modern-day Lithuania, in June 1926. A teenaged Moshe was forced, with his parents and younger brother, into the Lodz Ghetto in 1942, and then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1944. He survived a death march to Buchenwald in January 1945, and was then sent on a second death march to Theresienstadt where, sick with typhus, he was liberated by the Soviet Army. Marian endured the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz with his boyhood friends Roman Kent and Noach Flug z”l.
Roman and fellow Polish survivor Ben Helfgott represented the Claims Conference at the ceremony last Friday, which Roman called “of the highest standard.” He shared with me some personal reflections as a Polish survivor to be there, so many decades later, at such an historic event. “After all, for us as Jews to be now recognized by the Polish government and the Polish people and give us credit for the heroic fight of the ghetto uprising – this meant a great deal to me as a Jew and as a Pole,” Roman said. “To have in Poland right now one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe as a museum depicting the thousand-year history of Polish Jews and giving them full credit for what they achieved is something outstanding.”
Hearing Roman’s thoughts and reading of the homage paid to this rich history and to the incredibly courageous ghetto fighters, I found myself thinking that if the world had paid as much attention to Polish Jews while the Nazis were exterminating them as it did last Friday that we might not need this museum today. As beautiful and educational and moving as this museum will be, it cannot ever bring back the world that was and the world that was destroyed. And we must ensure that this monument to a unique community and history continues to remind all its visitors of that.
- Click here to read the New York Times article about the reconstruction of the Gwozdziec synagogue roof.
- Click here to read the Ha’aretz article about the opening of the museum and the tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.