Jewish museum in Poland set to open in 2008
Staff Reporter
Canadian Jewish News

Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka

In the first project of its kind in Poland, a museum of Polish Jewry
will be built in Warsaw, on the site of the Nazi wartime ghetto.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which will be a cultural
centre as well, will be opened in the second half of 2008, said Ewa
Junczyk-Ziomecka, the deputy director.

In Toronto recently to publicize what she described as the biggest
museum project in Europe today, she said it will celebrate the
millennium-long Jewish presence in Poland.

Scheduled to be constructed on 13,000 square metres of land adjacent
to Warsaw's Holocaust monument, it will offer a multimedia narrative
of 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland.

The museum will be housed in nine galleries, and the newest exhibition
technologies will be used to engage visitors. It is expected to draw
up to 500,000 visitors annually.

"This is not a Holocaust museum, but a museum of life," said
Junczyk-Ziomecka, a 55-year-old former journalist, in an interview.

"It will be a significant statement about the importance of Jews in
Poland yesterday and today," noted Peter Jassem, the president of the
Polish Jewish Heritage Foundation, which sponsored her presentation at
the University of Toronto's Wolfond Centre.

The museum may well alter popular perceptions of Poland. "For many
Jews, Poland is a giant cemetery," Junczyk-Ziomecka admitted,
referring to the virtual decimation of Polish Jewry during the Nazi

She understands why most Jews regard Poland as little more than a vast
graveyard. "The Germans picked Poland to build most of their
concentration camps."

 From her perspective, however, Poland's enduring image as a Jewish
killing ground is unfair and in need of revision because Poland was a
safe haven for Jews for centuries.

"We owe so much to Jews, who participated in the culture, economy and
science of Poland. There is no history of Poland without Jews."

Jews in prewar Poland comprised 10 per cent of its overall population.
The comparable figures in France, Holland and the former Soviet Union
were 0.8 per cent, 1.7 per cent and 1.6 per cent, respectively. Apart
from Jews, Ukrainians and Germans also formed important minorities in Poland.

Yet until the collapse of the Communist regime in 1990, the rich
symbiotic relationship between Jews and Poles was all but unknown and
the multicultural nature of Polish society was buried under layers of
Polish nationalism.

"There is a lack of knowledge," said Junczyk-Ziomecka, a former
Solidarity movement activist who temporarily settled in the United
States upon leaving Poland in 1982 after being forbidden to practise
journalism. "It would not have been possible to build a museum like
this during the Communist period."

Taking the story of Polish Jewry up to the year 2000, the museum will,
among other things, electronically reproduce the interior of a
synagogue in Pinczow, part of a "Jewish" street in interwar Warsaw and
a fragment of a shtetl in the countryside.

A separate gallery will deal with the Holocaust. Nor will the museum
shy away from unpleasant aspects of the encounter between Poles and
Jews, said Junczyk-Ziomecka.

"It will tell the truth, and anti-Semitism is part of the truth," she
acknowledged. "We are not afraid of the truth. We will also cover the
dark side."

Hewing to this balanced approach, exhibits will document the 1946
Kielce pogrom, the 1968 state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign and the
emigration of Jews in the aftermath of these events.

On a positive level, the museum will chart the post-Communist revival
of Poland's Jewish community, whose current size is estimated to run
from 10,000 to 30,000.

Asked whether she agrees with the thesis that Jews and Poles have had
a contentious relationship, she replied, "There was not that much love
or hate. There was coexistence for 900 years, until the 1930s, when a
big wave of anti-Semitism covered Europe. "

In her view, anti-Semitism is a problem that transcends Poland's
borders. "We hope our museum will explode stereotypes about Jews."

The brainchild of the Jewish Historical Institute Association in
Warsaw, the museum was designed by the Finnish firm of Lahdelma &
Mahlamaki Architects.

The winning design was drawn from 11 shortlisted entries, including
one submitted by Daniel Libeskind, the designer of Berlin's newly
inaugurated Holocaust memorial.

The cost of building the museum is expected to be around the $52 to
$55 million (US) mark.

The Polish government and the municipality of Warsaw have donated half
of the required funds, $26 million. Poland's former president,
Aleksander Kwasniewski, was very supportive, she said.

Jewish philanthropists from Poland, Belgium, France and the United
States have pledged $7 million. Germany has promised to send additional funds.

"We need at least $17 million to complete the project," she said.
"We'd like the Canadian Jewish community to participate."

Asked whether the museum may fall short of its fundraising target, she
said, "I can't imagine that." But she conceded that many potential
donors have rejected her overtures for assistance.

In the meantime, the museum is looking for Jewish artifacts to
register and post on its database. So far, 60,000 artifacts have been
registered and posted.

Junczyk-Ziomecka joined the museum as director of development in 2000.
Before returning to Poland 13 years ago, she worked for
Polish-language newspapers in the United States.

She learned a lot about Polish Jews while living in Detroit and New
York. During her sojourn in America, she was a member of Dialog, a
group that fosters good relations between Poles, Jews and Ukrainians.