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Dr Catherine Chatterley

New Jewish Museum scheduled to open in Warsaw

Dr. Catherine Chatterley: New Jewish Museum to Open Next Year in Warsaw

October 25, 2012

The new Museum of the History of Polish Jews is scheduled to open in Warsaw in early 2013. Designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki and curated by a team of historians under the direction of Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Professor of Performance Studies and Affiliated Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, the museum is built on the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto facing the famous Rappaport monument depicting the Ghetto Fighters.

A millennium of Jewish life in Poland is the focus of the museum, which will provide what Dr. Kirschenblatt-Gimblett calls “constructive engagement,” acting as both a “site of conscience” and a “trusted zone” in which to engage the most difficult subjects. The museum will complete the Warsaw memorial complex by depicting the “uniquely Jewish and distinctly Polish civilization” that made Polish Jewry the largest Jewish center in the world until its destruction during World War II.

Inspired by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews was first proposed in 1996 by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, a private Jewish NGO (non-governmental organization) based in Warsaw. Launched in 2005, the museum is a joint venture. The Association is in charge of financing and organizing the creation of the core exhibition while the Polish Ministry of Culture and the City of Warsaw provides the financing for the building and operating costs. The total cost of the museum is 105 million dollars, with the government assuming 60% of the cost and the Association paying the balance.

The historical exhibition was created before the building and then placed into the physical structure of the museum, which is characterized by a massive chasm at its center symbolizing the Holocaust and its catastrophic effects on Jewish Europe. Never to be repaired, the chasm however has bridges that connect the two sides of the building open to the entrance hall below. Dr. Kirschenblatt-Gimblett describes the museum itself as a kind of bridge, from the past to the present, connecting different generations and groups of people to one another.

The eight galleries of the museum’s core exhibition will cover 1000 years of history in 43,000 square feet of space. The story begins in 950 CE in a gallery called “Forest” that recalls the Jewish mythologies of why, when, and how Jews settled in the area, and ends with a circulation area with news feeds to every corner of the contemporary Jewish world. The six historical galleries are divided as follows: First Encounters (950-1506), Paradisus Iudaeorum [Jewish Paradise] (1506-1648), Into the Country (1648-1795), Encounters with Modernity (1772-1914), The Street (1914-1939), Holocaust (1939-1945), and Post War Years (1945-).

The exhibit uses source materials – drawings, photographs, film, and articles of everyday use to tell an interactive story about Jewish history, culture, and religion in Poland. A constant theme running through the exhibit is the Polish Jewish symbiosis, a highly complex coexistence based on cooperation, competition, respect and hostility. Poland, once the center of Jewish life with a pre-WWII population of over 3 million Jews, now has a Jewish minority estimated between 5,000 and 10,000 people.

Designed by a team of four historians, the Holocaust gallery is one of eight sections rather than the focus of the museum. The history of the Shoah is told from within the Polish context so while the rise of Hitler and the assault on German Jewry is addressed in the pre-war gallery, the Holocaust per se begins with the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland on September 1, 1939. Using the principle of pars pro toto, the voices of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Ghetto, and historian Emanuel Ringelblum are used to narrate the desperate experience of g

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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