Warsaw: Museum of the History of Polish Jews on the site of martyrdom

warsaw Museum History Polish-Jews

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is located in Muranów – the heart of the former Warsaw Jewish district. This is where the characters in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novels lived, the centre of the world of Yiddish speaking traders wearing gabardine and long beards. The site was also an eyewitness of the tragedy that befell the Jewish residents of Warsaw.

Muranów was built on the site of a ghetto established by the Germans during the occupation of Poland. The uneven street levels typical of this part of the city are reminders of the fact that it was built from the rubble of the ruined city. A labyrinth of former basements is located under the residential buildings. The Museum is situated in the vicinity of Umschlagplatz, a gathering point from which Jews were deported to the death camp in Treblinka. It is also situated in the proximity of a bunker on Miła street, in which fighters led by Mordechai Anielewicz committed mass suicide thus ending the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

For many years, the square that currently houses the Museum has been visited by those who wanted to pay tribute to Warsaw Ghetto victims and to the memory of Polish Jews. In 1948 the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes was erected in the square by sculptor Nathan Rapoport. President Nixon and Marlene Dietrich are among some of the public figures who have laid a wreath at the Monument. However, the founders of the Museum do not want to focus solely on the martyrdom of Jews. It is their intention to document the thousand year history of the Jewish people in Poland, starting from the Middle Ages through contemporary times.

The idea for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews was born in 1995. Ten years later the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, the President of the capital city of Warsaw and the Director of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland signed the Museum’s founding act. The Museum is the first institution in Poland formed as part of a private and public partnership and jointly financed by the central government, local government authorities and the non-governmental organisation. The total cost of the Museum was PLN 330 million, one-third of the funds coming from private donors.

The winner of the competition to design the building was Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki. The key element of the building, which occupies around 12,800 square metres of usable space, is a vast chasm splitting the building and opening with large windows which face a green square on one side and the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, on the other. Mahlamaki says that this chasm represents a range of symbolic meanings. It may evoke connotations of the parting of the Red Sea before the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land, the spreading of the Jewish diaspora throughout the world or the rupture in the history of the Polish Jews created by the Holocaust.

The Museum opened its doors to the public on 20 April 2013 during commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. For the time being, it functions as a cultural and educational centre. The Core Exhibition, a result of the collaboration of an international team of 130 scholars, is scheduled to open at the beginning of 2014.

The exhibition will be composed of eight galleries: “Forest”, a symbolic representation of the forest in which Jewish traders for the first time encountered ancestors of contemporary Polish people, “Middle Ages”, a narrative of Jewish settlement, “Paradisus Judaeorum” (15th-16th), a portrait of life in the Jagiellonian era which was the golden age of the Jewish community in Poland. The “Into the Country” gallery (17th and 18th centuries) will feature a Jewish shtetl with stalls, Jewish houses and the synagogue with a replica of the roof of the seventeenth-century wooden synagogue from Gwoździec, a town in the former eastern provinces of Poland. The “Encounters with Modernity” gallery (19th century) will depict the Jewish community in the 19th c. and “The Second Polish Republic” will be a realistic reconstruction of a pre-war street in Warsaw. From there, visitors will move on to the dark and dramatic “Holocaust” gallery, only to end their journey in the final “Postwar” section the Exhibition. (PAP)


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