WARSAW (Reuters Life!) - With psalms, poems and popular Yiddish songs, Poles and Jews celebrated on Tuesday the start of construction of a new museum that will chronicle Poland’s rich and colorful Jewish heritage.
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, set for completion in 2011, is being built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, razed by the Nazis in 1943 after an abortive Jewish uprising.
“This is going to be a living museum located in a place scarred by death,” Warsaw’s mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, said at a ground-breaking ceremony also attended by Poland’s culture minister, foreign ambassadors and U.S. Jewish groups.
For centuries, Poland was home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities, providing a climate of relative tolerance for Jews fleeing persecution elsewhere in Europe.
Most of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War Two.
Organizers say the five-storey, multi-media museum, which will include a library, a cinema, a concert hall and cafes, is intended to document a millennium of Jewish life in Poland. Only a relatively small section will cover the time of the Holocaust.
“There are already a number of museums devoted to the Holocaust. But this museum is going to show the civilization and culture that the Holocaust destroyed,” said Marcin Swiecicki, chairman of the Polish committee supporting the museum.
“This museum aims to show the importance of pluralism as well as allowing visitors to see how their ancestors lived.”
The museum will tap into a revival of interest among Poles in their Jewish heritage, providing “virtual journeys” through time that will explore how Jews, Poles and other ethnic and religious groups lived together and interacted.
Organizers said the museum would also encourage discussion and debate and not lay down a single view of the past.
“This museum will show the truth about how Jewish life flourished here, the truth also about how there were problems here,” Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, told Reuters, adding that he would welcome lively debate.
“The point about dialogue is understanding what causes pain to the other side. As long as we remember that, there is a chance we can get closer to the truth... A nation that does not have truth can’t really know its past or build for its future,”
After the ground-breaking ceremony, cantors — singers of liturgical chants at Jewish religious services — gave a performance next to the monument to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Here, in 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt famously kneeled during a visit to then-communist Poland in an act of silent repentance and apology for the atrocities committed by his countrymen against Jews and Poles.
Around 100 cantors, from around the globe, will sing liturgical chants at Warsaw’s Grand Opera on Tuesday evening in the first such performance in Poland since the Holocaust.
The chief organizer of the performance is American cantor Nathan Lam of Los Angeles, who told participants at the museum ceremony of his own family’s ties to Warsaw.
Today, Poland’s Jews are believed to number just 20,000 but growing numbers of Jews from Israel, the United States and western Europe visit the country to trace their family roots.
Poland lost some six million of its citizens during the war, including three million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Additional reporting by Paulina Pielichata, editing by Paul Casciato