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The Warsaw Voice » Society » March 27, 2013
Politics & Society
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Moral Obligation
March 27, 2013   
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Waldemar D±browski, the director of the Wielki Theater/National Opera who has been tasked by the government with overseeing the construction of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.

Who came up with the idea of building a museum in Warsaw focusing on the history of Polish Jews?
When I was culture minister back in 2002-2005, I had the compelling feeling that I was under a moral obligation to honor the memory and achievements of a nation that shared its history with the Polish people for a thousand years.

Poland was where Jews lived, worked, developed their culture and established social organizations while at the same time contributing tremendously to the country’s development. Their contribution is without a doubt far greater than the number of Jews in Polish society today might suggest.

The moral obligation that I’m talking about is particularly strong when it comes to Warsaw, a city which before World War II was home to over 350,000 Jews, more than any other city in the world. All that called for the establishment of an institution to cultivate the shared heritage of Poles and Polish Jews.

The then mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczyński, subscribed to that view. I told him that we—he, as the mayor Warsaw, and I, acting on the government’s behalf—had to put real money on the table before funds would start pouring in from the Jewish diaspora. And that was exactly what happened, and in 2005 a trilateral agreement was signed by myself, Mayor Kaczyński and Marian Turski, the chairman of the Jewish Historical Institute association. With the agreement, we established the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

At the same time, architects from around the world were asked to submit design concepts for the building. Submissions were made by many internationally famous architects and the winning entry was what I consider a phenomenal design by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki. His vision incorporated the building into the minimalist architecture of the square where the museum will stand.

The entrance to the building symbolizes the crossing of the Red Sea. Many more symbolic references of different kinds can be found inside and outside the building, including those to the nearby Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto. The building will be officially unveiled to the public this April on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The museum as a whole is scheduled for opening in the first half of 2014. We want the event to be accompanied by Jewish-related exhibitions in several cities in Poland.

Other than the sense of moral obligation, what else has given shape to the museum?
The other important thing has been to ensure that young generations are educated in the spirit of a modern, tolerant Europe. A Europe that is free from xenophobia and understands the notion of “the little homeland” cherished by Polish Jews scattered all over the world. In the most touching way, they feel an emotional bond with Polish cities and towns where their ancestors came from.

Probably the most difficult challenge we need to face now is to overthrow the horrible stereotype of Poles as anti-Semites. Obviously, there is anti-Semitism in Poland, just like anywhere else in the world. But it also has limits and is much less widespread than in France, for example. Think of the 15-percent of votes Jean-Marie Le Pen got in the French presidential election in comparison to the fraction of a percent garnered by the Polish presidential candidates who used anti-Semitic slogans in their campaigns.

What can the museum do to counter such stereotypes?
The museum will not engage in polemics, but it will seek to show the real picture of what happened, both during the several years of the Holocaust and over the millennium of history that Poles and Jews have shared. Using documents and historical research findings, the museum will show both the good and the bad aspects of this co-existence, all in the right proportions.

Negative stereotypes also originate from events such as the annual March of the Living. When young Israelis come to Poland, all they see are Holocaust memorial sites such as Treblinka, Auschwitz and Birkenau.

As a result, the young people leave Poland convinced that Jewish burial grounds are all that is left on Polish soil. To add insult to injury, in the past decades we have been witnessing a process whereby responsibility for the Holocaust seems to be shifted and the phrase “Polish death camps” is replacing the correct reference to those as Nazi or German camps. I hope the museum will help remedy this situation.

So the Holocaust will not be the museum’s central theme?
No, and that is the difference between our museum and other similar institutions in the world. The Holocaust will only account for one-eighth of the exhibition space. The museum is there to celebrate a shared life and not death.

The tour of the museum will start with a section called First Encounters, that is the Middle Ages when the first Jewish merchants came to visit Poland. The next section, Paradisus Judaeorum, tells the story of the 15th and 16th centuries when Jews from across Europe came to Poland to escape persecution in their home countries. Visitors will then proceed to the 17th and 18th centuries and the Small Town section dealing with the shtetl, which was the very foundation of Poland’s Jewish community.

The next section are Challenges of Modernity; it explores developments in the 19th century, including the emergence of anti-Semitism as we know it today. Then, the Second Republic of Poland section looks at the relations between Jews and Poles when Poland regained independence after a hiatus of 123 years and later over the two decades leading up to World War II. Then we will show the tragic Holocaust years and, in the Postwar Decades section, the difficult postwar years of communist Poland. The final section, Heritage, will show how Polish Jews have shaped the culture, education and social and political life of Poland over the centuries.

What is the cost of the project and who is picking up the tab?
According to my estimates, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews will cost a total of $100 million to build and organize. The most generous individual benefactor is businessman Jan Kulczyk. The richest man in Poland for years, Kulczyk has donated zl.20 million to our museum. I would also like to mention three Poles of Jewish descent who have for many years lived in the United States. All three are businessmen and they are Victor Markowicz, Zygmunt Rolat and Tad Taube.
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