Warsaw Jewish Museum Opens on Ghetto Uprising Anniversary

Poland is hoping for an image makeover today as it marks the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising with the unofficial opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The 13,000 square-meter (140,000 square feet) building sits on the historical site of the Warsaw Ghetto amid gray apartment blocks built using rubble left over from the destruction of Europe’s biggest Jewish neighborhood during World War II.

“This museum will be a major bridge between Poland and Israel,” Nili Amit, who handles relations between the two countries at the museum, said last week. “People from all over the world will love it.”

Poland’s role in the Holocaust is often miscast by global media, prompting criticism from Warsaw. About six million Jews were killed during World War II as Germany’s Nazis ran a campaign across Europe that included random executions, plunder and death camps, many of them set up in occupied Poland.

By showing the coexistence of the two peoples through the centuries, the new museum will attempt to change Poland’s image as the home of camps, including the biggest one in Auschwitz.

Obama’s Remark

Last May, Poland demanded a “strong and clear response” from the U.S. after President Barack Obama’s cited a “Polish death camp” while honoring a Pole who told the world about the Holocaust. Since 2004, Poland has sought clarifications from such media as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for using the phrase “Polish concentration camps,” according to the Foreign Ministry.

The Jewish population in Poland grew to 3.3 million before World War II. About 90 percent of them perished in Holocaust. The remainder left the country after the war in part due to communist-era persecutions.

The museum will run temporary displays, film screenings and educational workshops until the grand opening of the permanent exhibition featuring the history of Jews in Poland since the Middle Ages. That’s planned for the beginning of next year, according to Piotr Kossobudzki, a spokesman.

The museum’s exterior features glass panels with the patterns of the word “Po-lin” in Hebrew and Latin. It refers to a myth of the first Jewish settlers fleeing persecutions in western Europe in the 13th century. They settled in Poland after hearing a divine voice in the wood telling them “Po-lin,” which means “you should rest here” in Hebrew.

Virtual Shtetl

The museum is also running a web-based Virtual Shtetl database that compiles information about Jewish places in Poland from before and after the war. “Shtetl” is the Yiddish word for small town.

About 30,000 Israeli students visit Poland annually, according to Israel’s Education Ministry. The ministry wants to “integrate the museum” into the schedule of those trips, according to Amit. “There is huge interest to find your roots,” she said.

The main hall of the building, designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, features undulating sand-colored walls linked with one of the building’s five bridges. The rift between the walls is meant to symbolize the void left by the Holocaust.

Sirens Blare

Sirens rang out across Warsaw at 10 a.m. to mark the start of today’s events, with volunteers set to hand out thousands of daffodil badges in remembrance of Marek Edelmann, the last surviving uprising leader who died in 2009. Edelmann had laid daffodils at the monument to the uprising’s heroes in front of the museum.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski addressed a gathering at the monument, including two survivors of the uprising: Havka Folman Raban and Simha Rotem, who’s known as “Kazik” and helped Jewish fighters flee through an an underground passage.

“Due to Germany’s insane plan, Warsaw became the biggest ghetto of occupied Europe,” Komorowski said today. “The uprising is an important part of the history of Warsaw and Poland.”

The uprising began on April 19, 1943 as Nazis attempted to wipe out the remainder of Jews living in the ghetto in time for Hitler’s birthday the next day. The Germans, facing fighting groups and inhabitants barricaded in bunkers, began systematically burning down the ghetto. For almost a month, the Jewish fighters battled the Germans in what was the first popular uprising in a city in Nazi-occupied Europe.

As many as 3,000 people holding burning candles will line what once were the ghetto walls in the so-called “chain of remembrance” to commemorate the dead on April 21. Jews made up one-third of the capital’s population before the war.

A survey by the Homo Homini research institute found that 23 percent of Polish high-school students thought Jews won the ghetto uprising. The poll, commissioned by Jewish Community of Warsaw, was carried out among 1,250 students aged 17-18 and didn’t give a margin of error.

“Young people in Poland aren’t really aware of the common history they share with Jews,” said Piotr Wasowski, 16, one of the organizers of today’s events. “I’m hoping this will change.”