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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 June, 2005, 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK
Warsaw's Jewish heritage remembered
By Jan Repa
BBC Europe analyst

Architects' impression of the museum (pic: Architects Lahdelma & Mahlamaki)
Submissions were numbered to ensure architects' anonymity
A design by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamaki and Ilmari Lahdelma has been chosen for a new Jewish museum to be built in Warsaw.

The Finns beat an international field of architects, including the likes of Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman and Zvi Hecker.

Work is scheduled to start next year, with a view to opening in 2008.

According to the sponsors, this is not meant to be another Holocaust museum, but mainly a celebration of centuries of Jewish life in Poland: a complex and vibrant community virtually wiped out during the Nazi occupation of World War II.

This is not the first attempt in recent years to establish a museum of Jewish memory in Poland.

A much more modest version already exists in the southern city of Krakow, the brainchild of British photojournalist Chris Schwartz.

There were hundreds of thousands of Jews in Poland to whom Polish was an unfamiliar as Turkish
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Polish-born novelist
"What we want is for people to get a real understanding if they are not Jews - a pride if they are Jews - of the Jewish culture that existed here before the Holocaust," Mr Schwarz says.

"For nearly 1,000 years this was the Jewish homeland. At one point, 90% of the world's Jews lived around here.

"You cannot turn your back on 1,000 years of history and just pretend it did not happen."

Differing histories

On the most optimistic estimates, there are perhaps 20,000 Jews left in Poland today - out of a pre-World War II population of 3m.

About 30% of pre-war Warsaw was Jewish, a situation replicated in most other Polish cities.

Architects' impression of the entrance hall (pic: Architects Lahdelma & Mahlamaki))
The museum's jagged entranceway is a metaphor for Jewish history
Many small towns, particularly in the east of the country, were overwhelmingly Jewish.

One 17th century Vatican diplomat described Poland as "Paradisus Iudaeorum" - a Jewish Heaven.

The Jewish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, who emigrated to the US in 1935, declared: "There were hundreds of thousands of Jews in Poland to whom Polish was an unfamiliar as Turkish.

"My forefathers lived in Poland for centuries, but in reality, I was a foreigner with separate language, ideas and religion."

The popular impression among Poles is that Poland, historically, was a haven of toleration, to which Jews flocked from all over Europe.

The popular Jewish image of Poland is of a country of vicious anti-Semites.

Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Warsaw newspaper columnist and editor of the Polish-language Jewish periodical Midrasz, describes conditions immediately before and during the Nazi occupation.

"You knew more or less what to expect in France, in Germany, certainly Russia," he says.

"But in Poland, the appearance of anti-Semitism as a mass phenomenon in the first half of the 20th century, was still within living memory.

"People remembered how Poland changed overnight. And they were shocked.

Architects Ilmari Lahdelma (l) and Rainer Mahlamaki
The purpose [of the entrance passageway] is to prepare the guests for the silence.
Proposal by architects Ilmari Lahdelma (left) and Rainer Mahlamaki
"It is very clear from the historical record that the overwhelming majority of Polish non-Jewish society was indifferent to the suffering of the Jews, and a sizeable minority volunteered to participate in their persecution.

"Having said that, it is fundamental to remember that thousands of Poles risked their lives to save Jews."

According to some recent estimates, as many as one in 10 of Warsaw's non-Jewish population may have been involved.

Some sceptics, including Konstanty Gebert himself, have suggested that what Jews in Poland today need most is not more history, but money and resources to keep alive what Jewish culture still remains.

There have also been suggestions that the planned museum could perpetuate other stereotypes: kaftans, beards and shtetls, or eager young Communist agitators.

Different futures

Part of the problem seems to be that there is no consensus among Poland's Jews themselves.

For some, Jewishness means, above all, rediscovering Judaism - often of a highly traditional, orthodox variety.

Others see it as a broad tradition, embracing various outlooks and ideologies.

Some define themselves as Poles. Others claim to feel a sense of alienation from mainstream Polish society.

Some identify strongly with Israel. Some do not.

Poland's former foreign minister and wartime resistance fighter, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, considering the situation a century ago, suggests it was ever thus.

"What national identity could there be between a Jew born in Krakow under the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph; a Jew who lived under the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, in Kalisz [a small town in western Poland] or in Pomerania; and a Jew who lived under the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, in Brzesc [Brest-Litovsk]?" he asks.

"The first two spoke German and Polish. The third spoke Russian and Yiddish."

Mr Bartoszewski - a non-Jew - was a founder member of a Polish resistance group set up to help Jews during the Holocaust.

Poland's current foreign minister, Adam Rotfeld - who is a Jew - says Jews cannot expect to receive compensation on terms more favourable than non-Jews for assets lost during the war.

Warsaw's Jewish museum will almost inevitably generate great interest and controversy.

After a century that saw the collapse of empires, frequent regime changes, drastic changes of frontiers, mass exterminations and the disappearance of entire communities and social classes, today's Poles often have a poor grasp of their own traditions and identity.

With luck, the Jewish museum could prove a stimulus to a broader examination of the region's past.

Berlin opens Holocaust memorial
10 May 05 |  Europe
Warsaw Jews mark uprising
20 Apr 03 |  Europe
Country profile: Poland
19 Oct 04 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Poland
12 Apr 05 |  Country profiles


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