Museum of the History of Polish Jews

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews was probably the most needed repository of memories in the country. The core exhibition is still under construction, however the Museum’s building is already open for visitors.

- It has been a few years since we started working on the core exhibition. This is how we started the whole project of the Museum. Firstly we produced a concept of the exhibition and the building was tailored to what we wanted to show – says Piotr Kossobudzki, spokesperson of the Museum. The task of fitting the needs of the place must have been challenging and received large interest in the architectonic milieu. Finally Rainer Mahlamäki and his studio Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects won the competition. A large, regular hexahedron has landed in the middle of Muranów, an area located not far from the Warsaw’s Old Town.

The place was not chosen by chance. The building is situated in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, in the area that used to be densely populated by the Jewish community. The Museum softly converses with the surrounding architecture and the adjacent park. It opens to the park with a large glass wall resembling a light-green curtain. The entire glass surface is covered with a print designed by Klementyna Jankiewicz, saying "polin", which means "rest here" in Hebrew. When Jews reached Poland in the Middle Ages they decided to settle there – to rest. Sharply defined walls covered all in silk printed glass panels open in a dramatic entrance inviting into an extensive hall. The hall’s unique double-curved walls symbolize the Jerusalem valleys and the Red Sea opened for the Biblical passage of the Jews. It might also seem that the opening in the walls can reflect the drama of Holocaust. The jury of the project competition believed that that the concept of the whole building has been produced “without unnecessary rhetoric, with simplicity and elegance”, which was smartly realized in Warsaw. On its three floors the building hosts not only the exhibition space located in the basement but also offices, information center, auditorium and classrooms.

There is no exhibition though. - Right now the exhibition produced by the Jewish Historical Institute Association in Poland is being installed. We need around 9-10 months to be ready. We decided though, that if the building is ready, all the rooms can be opened any time and the staff of the Museum is extremely eager to start working, we will not wait until the core exhibition is ready, but we will start the programmatic activities earlier – says Kossobudzki. This means that the Museum became a center for culture and education and from the very beginning attracted crowds of guests both from Poland and abroad. Everyday, guided walks are offered in and the Museum invites for its events and temporary exhibitions. So far the Museum has organized several debates, movie screenings, concerts, workshops, meetings and theater shows.

Interestingly, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is the first public-private partnership type of investment in Poland. Joint efforts of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Jewish Historical Institute Association in Poland and the City of Warsaw as well as many private donors were needed to launch this 110 million USD worth project. This structure of funding caused some several issues while designing and building of the Museum. For example the head of the Museum has been changes several times. Currently the head is charged with leading the work of the Museum’s team up to the opening and afterwards a new head will be appointed. – One of the features we will be looking for is strong personality. There have been many stereotypes attached to the topic we are dealing here with. We need a visionary who will know how to present the history of Polish Jews both here and abroad – says Kossobudzki.

Indeed, the expectations are high. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews will need to confront the stereotypes about the Jews that still are present in the Polish society as well as explain role of the Jews in Poland in the last 1000 years and today. Before the war, 10% of the Polish population was Jewish or was of Jewish origin and in a result of Holocaust and communist repressions basically the whole population of three millions Jews disappeared from Poland, for the benefit of all a museum like this needed to be created in order to show the richness of the Jewish culture, its significance for Jews and non-Jews. It is also a large awareness-raising enterprise: many Poles are not cognizant of the role that Jews played both in history and in daily life. More importantly however, it is charged with showcasing that the relationship between Poland and Jews is much deeper than just Nazi concentration camps and Holocaust. - Often the groups from Israel or from the US visit only concentration and several cemeteries to later head off home, then they have a distorted view of contemporary Poland but also of the history of Polish Jews – underlines Kossobudzki. Some initiatives are in progress. From April 2013 on the Museum has been hosting groups of students who visit the Museum in the framework of their history classes. Students often experience a clash between the knowledge they can find in their textbooks and what we convey. – Obviously, there is a tendency to show one truth, so when groups will come to visit the Museum and will explore the history of the same period told from a very different perspective. It might well be that it will be a significantly contrastive one. We expect those surprises. Some events that were extremely important for the Poles were not that important for the Jews. At the same time, the period of partitions was extremely interesting from the Jewish perspective, as falling under Russia, Prussia or Austria meant a lot for the Jewish population – says Kossobudzki. In a similar spirit international exchanges are organized. Special attention is given to the groups from Israel. – We are striving to include into their trip to Poland a day that they could spend with their Polish peers. They are able to see that there are not many differences between them. Also the officers of the Israeli army who come to Poland meet their counterparts here.

The opening of the core exhibition is planned for September 2014. The public is expecting that the core exhibition will match the virtuosity of Mahlamäki’s project and contribute to a better understanding of the complicated history it aspires to tell. We shall be in touch from Warsaw soon.

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