Jewish Life in Poland
Saturday, August 08, 2015
In 2013 a new museum opened in Warsaw. We visited it today. It is a public/private partnership between the Polish, German and Norwegian governments and many corporate and individual donors. It is in a magnificent building standing in what was once the Warsaw Ghetto. It is understated on the outside but has a spectacular interior. The design of the entrance hall suggests, with its curved walls, the Bible story of Moses parting the Red Sea.
There are few artefacts inside, perhaps because few survive. Each one is embellished, illustrated and put in context by multimedia presentations that invite visitors to touch and engage. Even on a day when temperatures in Warsaw reached 38º Celsius, it was very well attended. I briefly wondered if the glossy, corporate presentation might trigger "rich Jew" stereotypes in any anti-semites who visit. But then I reflected that (a) it's unlikely to attract anti-semites and (b) to hell with them!
The exhibition tells the long joint history of Jews and Poles from the beginnings of the Polish state to today. Interestingly the country was first mentioned in writing in Hebrew (written in Arabic script!) by a visiting Jewish merchant. Our educational tour this week has focussed on the horrific end to that story. There's no avoiding the fact that the Holocaust now defines the history of the Jews in Poland in most peoples' minds, but there were many centuries during which Jews lived, raised families and knew both joys and sorrows.
Of course the exhibition addressed the horrors. How could it not? But it at least raised the prospect that the good history might not be entirely erased. In an optimistic film screened in the final room of our visit, Rabbi Michael Schudrich - Chief Rabbi of Poland and someone I knew when I lived here because our daughters were school friends - even suggested that as the small community rebuilds itself, there may be a future for Jews in the country where so many of them lived for so long. Amen to that, optimistic though I fear it may be.
My fellow participants then went to walk around the Old Town. As I visited it almost every week in the eleven years I lived in Poland and given the temperature today I sat that one out. If it's cooler before I leave on Tuesday maybe I will have a chance to stroll around it with my camera. I hope so.
Now I am off to our final dinner, after which the tour (although not my visit) is over.
The updated map of the tour is here and all of my photos are here in as high definition as your screen can support.