Warsaw museum sheds light on 1,000-year history of Poland's Jews

Michel Viatteau, Mary Sibierski
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin will on Tuesday inaugurate a Warsaw museum chronicling the vibrant 1,000-year history of Poland's Jewish community, all but wiped out during the Holocaust (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynski)

Warsaw (AFP) - The Israeli and Polish presidents on Tuesday hailed a landmark Warsaw museum chronicling the vibrant 1,000-year history of Poland's Jewish community, devastated during the Holocaust, as an investment in future ties between their countries.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was "symbolic of our looking to the future", speaking in the Polish capital amid a heavy security presence on his first trip abroad since having taken office in July.

"When you're a Jew, even if you were not born in Poland, the very name 'Poland' stirs up trembling and longing in your heart.

"Although Jews were torn away from Poland, it is difficult, or even impossible to tear Poland away from Jews. It is impossible to erase history so rich, so full, and so extremely painful," Rivlin said at the long-awaited public unveiling of the museum's core exhibition.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski echoed him, dubbing the cutting edge 75.5 million euro ($96 million) multimedia venue "a good investment in future relations between our two nations and states".

"I'm confident the museum will rebuild a world of deep, good feelings between Poles and Jews."

Built on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, the museum will be "a game-changer" for Polish-Jewish relations, the country's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich told AFP.

"That does not mean the relations were bad, but it means it will make them better," he said.

The museum itself has been open to the public since April 2013 and has already drawn more than 400,000 visitors -- in part thanks to its eye-catching design.

The serene, glass facade of the building is broken only by a wide, irregular opening that serves as the entrance and main hall.

According to its Finnish architects, Rainer Mahlamaeki and Ilmar Lahdelma, the fracture symbolises the Biblical parting of the Red Sea as Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt.

"It's a historic moment," Warsaw resident Katarzyna Horn told AFP as she attended Tuesday's grand opening.

"I'm here simply because I hail from a Jewish family from Kobryn in Belarus."

"This museum is great because up to now, the focus has always been on how Jews perished on Polish soil. Here, we see how they lived among us," Ewa Jozwiak, a senior official in Poland's small Evangelical and Reformed Church, told AFP.

- 'Rest here' -

The POLIN museum -- named after the Hebrew word for both "Poland" and "rest here" -- uses narrative to bring the past to life, said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, director of the museum's core exhibition.

Rather than showcasing myriad artefacts, it recounts that past with the help of multimedia installations and by recreating scenes of everyday life.

That account includes dark chapters like the World War II Holocaust, during which Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews in occupied Poland, and the anti-Semitism that was an undeniable fact of Jewish life throughout Europe, Poland included.

But the exhibition also sheds a rare light on the richness of Jewish life in Poland -- once home to the world's largest Jewish community.

Jews first arrived in Poland in the Middle Ages.

By the mid 18th-century, there were 750,000 living across the United Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, having been chased out of western Europe.

By 1939, that number was up to 3.3 million Jews, or around 10 percent of the entire Polish population. Up to 300,000 survived the Second World War.

Most emigrated and now the active Jewish community numbers only around 7,000.

Tens of thousands of other Poles have Jewish roots but either do not identify with the community or are unaware of their heritage.

Private donors, Diaspora Jews and Poles raised 33 million euros ($42 million) to pay for the museum's core exhibition, while the city of Warsaw and culture ministry funded the building to the tune of 42.5 million euros.

"The level of anti-Semitism in Poland is much less than in countries like France, or Austria, or Hungary," said Schudrich.

"But whatever is left, certainly this museum will help to make anti-Semitism even smaller."