New Polish museum to celebrate Jewish life

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JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp and this is The World. A history museum is under construction is under construction in Warsaw. That's hardly surprising. The Polish capital has an especially rich past. But this museum is different. It's devoted exclusively to the history of Jews in Poland. That history nearly ended during the Holocaust. This museum will look past that tragedy to the centuries of Jewish life and culture in Poland. Report Ewa Kern Jedrychowska says the museum comes as dialogue is opening up about the complicated Polish-Jewish relationship.

[SOUND OF CANTOR CHOIR]

EWA KERN JEDRYCHOWSKA: A choir of cantors and a song of thanksgiving at the ceremony to start construction for the museum earlier this summer. In the small crowd of guests was New Yorker Zygmunt Rolat who survived a Nazi labor camp in Poland.

ZYGMUNT ROLAT: I think that too many of my Jewish compatriots here confuse the horrible experiences during the war, the Holocaust, with the very long history of the almost millennium of Jewish coexistence in times good and bad.

JEDRYCHOWSKA: After the war Rolat immigrated to the US. Now this successful businessman and philanthropist is raising money to support the new museum in Warsaw. Rolat belongs to a small but growing group of Jews who are trying to rebuild Polish-Jewish relations both in the US and in Poland. Part of that is for discovering Jewish history.

ROLAT: The fact is that when Spain, when Portugal, was expelling their Jews, Polish kings, Polish nobles, were receiving Jews not only with open arms but granting them special privileges.
JEDREYCHOWSKA: Until World War II started Warsaw was a center of Europe's Jewish community. At that time every third citizen of this city was Jewish. The museum will stand where the Jewish district once was located just next to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial. Inside visitors will see interactive reconstructions of a Jewish home and a synagogue. They will learn about the first Jewish merchants who arrived in Poland in the Middle Ages, the spread of Hassidism, the role of Jews in the development of Poland's industry, and Jewish cultural contributions.

BARBARA KIRSHENBLATT-GIMBLETT: We really want to capture the quality on an everyday basis.

JEDREYCHOWSKA: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett walks around the future site of the museum in Warsaw. She's a professor at New York University and head of the core exhibition planning team.

KIRSHENBLATT-GIMBLETT: The way we put is this: We'd like to communicate the lived experience of what it meant to a Jew in Poland across this enormous period. What was Polish about it? What was Jewish about it? What was unique about it? What did it share with those non-Jews among whom Jews lived?

JEDREYCHOWSKA: In the museum the Holocaust will be just one of seven galleries. The controversial post-war years will conclude the exhibit. Under communism the Polish government led an anti-Zionist campaign which forced tens of thousands of the remaining Polish Jews to leave the country in 1968. But now Poland's chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich says the situation is different. The Polish government is a strong ally of Israel and Schudrich says Poles have a new attitude.

MICHAEL SCHUDRICH: While there are anti-Semites in this country there's even a larger number, and that group is growing faster, of people opposing anti-Semites � the anti-anti-Semites.

JEDREYCHOWSKA: Still problems remain. Right-wingers, including Father Tadeusz Rydzyk who runs a radical and notoriously anti-Semitic radio station, continue to attract listeners especially older Poles. The restitution of Jewish property confiscated during World War II is still an unresolved issue. For their part many Jews still cannot forget that some Poles collaborated with the Nazis during the war.

ERIN EINHORN: I had always been told that Poland was a country of anti-Semites.

JEDREYCHOWSKA: Erin Einhorn, a 36-year-old American writer lived in Poland for a year researching the story of her mother who survived the Holocaust because she was hidden by a Polish family near the southern city of Krakow. When she arrived in 2001 Erin recalls she was afraid of hostility. Instead she found that many younger Poles were fascinated by Jewish culture.

EINHORN: You'd walk into a restaurant and there'd be Jewish music playing and there were these klezmer festivals and people studying Yiddish and you'd go to synagogue services and there'd be young Poles there just curious to see what the service would be like and just really expressing an interest and feeling that this was their way of showing tolerance for Jews.

[SOUND CLIP OF PRAYERS AT SYNAGOGUE]

JEDREYCHOWSKA: This is evening prayers at Warsaw synagogue. Poland is in the midst of what some call a Jewish renaissance. Twenty years after the collapse of the communist regime and more than 60 years since the end of World War II many Poles are looking for their Jewish roots � roots that used to be dangerous, sometimes deathly dangerous, to acknowledge. No one knows how many Jews live in Poland toady but everyone agrees the community's growing. Changes like these have made the construction of the museum possible. But not everyone supports it. Some Poles worry that they will be shown only in a negative light. Many Jews are nervous that anti-Semitism will be white-washed. Again Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.

BARBARA KIRSHENBLATT-GIMBLETT: When we present the museum and people learn more about it, they become very enthusiastic. I've even heard individuals say I'm converted.

JEDREYCHOWSKA: When Poland was still ruled by communists, Zygmunt Rolat used to take his family there to show them where he grew up.

ROLAT: I think that it is very important that my children, my grandchildren, and for that matter all Jewish children and as a matter of fact not just Jewish children but young people in Poland in the world should know, should know and should learn and should be very proud of the long, long Jewish experience in Poland.

JEDREYCHOWSKA: For The World I'm Ewa Kern Jedrychowska.

SHARP: That report was produced with the help of Feet in Two Worlds, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.