Polish Jewish Museum - A Tough Sell Here

Some philanthropists dismissive of historical institution on site of  Warsaw Ghetto.

Steve Lipman - Staff Writer

The Jewish Week

Victor Markowicz, a Siberian-born philanthropist who grew up in Poland
and later moved to the United States, spends much of his time these days
asking fellow Jewish philanthropists in the U.S. to contribute to a
Jewish museum to be built in Warsaw in the next few years.

Markowicz's friends, in turn, ask him something: "Why in Warsaw? Why in

Many American Jews - born here or in the Old Country - support the idea
of a museum devoted to Jews from Poland, to which a majority of American
Jewry can trace their roots.

But they don't want to support an institution that is in Poland,
Markowicz said. And they certainly don't want to go there themselves.

"There are a lot of people who dismiss it out of hand," viewing Poland,
home to the world's largest Jewish community before World War II, only
as the place where much of the Nazis' Final Solution took place, he said.

That, Markowicz said, is one reason the Museum of the History of Polish
Jews is being built. "It will break stereotypes."

The museum will go up in the center of the capital, in a park clearing
on the site of the wartime ghetto, across from Natan Rappaport's
Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Groundbreaking is to take place
later this year; the museum is to open in late 2008 or early 2009.

While most prominent Polish politicians and publications have supported
the museum's creation, a small minority, mostly from right-wing circles,
have criticized the government's expenditures on the project, a Jewish
activist from Warsaw says.

The museum (www.jewishmuseum.org.pl) is under the auspices of Warsaw's
Jewish Historical Institute, the Polish government and the municipality
of Warsaw; the city donated the 3.2 acres for the museum grounds; Poland
and Warsaw, as well as the government of Germany, have contributed major
parts of the museum's initial $55 million budget, about two-thirds of
which has already been raised.

The museum's North American Council, on which Markowicz serves as
co-chairman, has conducted a series of fund-raising educational events
and parlor meetings over the last several years, and will sponsor a
benefit performance of "Brundibar," a children's opera originally
performed in Terezin, on Sunday, May 21, 5 p.m., at the New Victory
Theater, 229 W. 42nd St., Manhattan. A reception will follow the show.
(For information, call Christina Orwicz-Gantcher at [917] 612-4455.)

The museum is seeking to raise $7 million from private sources in the
United States. By way of comparison, the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A
Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Battery Park, raised $11 from
private funds, and the entire initial $168 million budget of the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington came from non-government sources.

The Warsaw museum, designed by the Finnish architectural firm Lahdelma
and Mahlamaki, will be three stories high, in the shape of an open book,
with a glass-copper façade.

Inspired by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which
opened in Washington a decade ago and immediately became a popular
destination for tourists, it will tell the 1,000-year story of Polish
Jewry in a high-tech, multimedia, interactive fashion, Markowicz says.
Plans call for it to include a recreated Warsaw street, projected films
of street scenes, accompanying voices in the background and a database
where visitors can research their own familial and shtetl ties.

The lives of Polish Jews who made their mark in this country, Israel and
other lands will be part of the permanent exhibit, Markowicz said. "The
history of Polish Jews continued when they emigrated."

The museum will be heavy on history, light on physical artifacts, said
Ewa Ziomecka, a Warsaw-born journalist who has served as a fund-raiser
for the museum and is on a leave of absence while serving as the Polish
president's minister responsible for Polish-Jewish relations. "Most of
the material artifacts were destroyed" during the Holocaust, she said.

The building will not be a Holocaust museum, "but the Holocaust is part
of it," Ziomecka said.

The museum's exhibits will feature the close interactions that
characterized Jewish-Polish relations at times, and the anti-Semitism
that led to Poland's reputation - according to many Jews - as a hostile,
Jew-hating country, Markowicz said. "Good things . bad things . happened
in a thousand years," he says. "Everything is addressed and honestly
addressed. It's not a tool of [pro-Polish] propaganda."

Visiting groups of Jewish youth, March of the Living participants from
the U.S. and high school students from Israel, will be invited to make
the museum a stop on their itinerary, he said. The groups often
concentrate on death camps, with little time spent on Poland's Jewish
history or its current Jewish community. "They leave the country with
hatred," Markowicz said.

He was born after the war, studied in Israel, and came to the U.S. in
1970, making his fortune as a designer of computerized lottery systems.
Most of his family died in the Shoah.

"I'm a Polish Jew. I consider myself a child of survivors," said
Markowicz, who divides his time between Boca Raton and the Upper East
Side, and was approached ten years ago by the museum's founders.

Other prominent donors to the museum's founding include the Ronald S.
Lauder Foundation, philanthropists Tad Taube of San Francisco and
Sigmund Rolat of New York City.

Markowicz said he considered the museum "a great idea" as soon as he
heard about it. "The idea of the Nazis was to erase the Jews and the
memory of the Jews."

Added Ziomecka: "There is no history of Poland without the history of
Polish Jews."

Her family is not Jewish. She grew up on the outskirts of the former
ghetto. "I played on the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto," she said.

Ziomecka said plans for the museum have received widespread support
among Poles, part of a growing interest in the country's Jewish past.
"Jews are in vogue," she said. "The Holocaust is now a part of the
curriculum" of Polish schools.

When the Polish Parliament approved funding of the museum three years
ago, "there was no opposition, even from the very right-wing of the
government," Markowicz said. "Everyone recognizes that Jews were a part
of Polish history."

However, Konstanty Gebert, publisher of the Polish Jewish community's
monthly Midrasz magazine, said the museum has brought "criticism .
expressed from the conservative end of the political spectrum."

"Why should Polish money go to a Jewish museum?" the critics ask, Gebert
said. They object primarily to government funds being spent on what they
see as a non-Polish cause, he said. "That it is Jewish makes it even worse."

The critics, a "small minority" in Polish society, are from the groups
who often express anti-Semitic opinions, Gebert said. Publicity over the
museum has not increased anti-Semitic feelings in Poland, he said, but
"it just gives the anti-Semites a platform" in right-wing publications
and on-line chat rooms.

"I think most Poles are indifferent to the museum," less interested in
it than in the major museum about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the
Nazis that opened two years ago, Gebert said.

One prominent Jewish-American supporter of the museum said its exhibits
on a millennium of Jewish-Polish relations, and about Poland's recent
outreach to the Jewish community, will show a side of the country
largely unknown among American Jews.

"Poland is the best friend the United States has in Europe . the best
friend Israel has in Europe," said Stephen Solender, former executive
vice president of UJA-Federation and co-chairman of the museum's North
American Council.

Without the museum, he said, "our children and grandchildren would only
know how we died in Poland and not how we lived," he says. "I felt I had
a responsibility to my own grandchildren."

Officials of the Catholic Church in Poland have been "helpful" in
supporting the museum, Solender said.

Museum exhibits will be accompanied by text in Polish and English, and
probably in Hebrew and Yiddish and several European languages, Markowicz
said. It will have a large library, and host cultural and academic events.

It will also serve as a clearinghouse for information about Jewish
activities in Poland, and help boost the post-communist revival of
Polish Jewry, he said.

Markowicz returns to Poland several times a year. He said he will
encourage skeptical friends, who have never set foot in Poland, to go
there to see the completed museum. "The museum itself might be the best
tool to convince them" that Poland has changed, he said. "They may come
to Poland when the museum is there." n