Remembering Poland's hidden Jewish history

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The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw

The opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw represents a milestone in confronting both the country's history and present day anti-Semitism, writes Andy Zebrowski.

Anti-Semitism remains the most common form of racism in Poland. The sweeping under the carpet of Jewish history is one aspect of this. The newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw is an important opportunity to remember the millions the Nazis murdered.

The museum is a splendid monument, majestic and architecturally interesting. It stands in the old Jewish area of Warsaw facing the monument to the Ghetto Heroes, where clashes between the Nazis and Jewish fighters took place during the Ghetto Uprising in 1943. But the museum deals with more than the Holocaust.

The visitor learns that Jewish merchants were present in the future Polish lands even before 966CE — the year given by mainstream history for the birth of Poland. The centrepiece is a replica of an 18th century wooden synagogue from Hvizdets, in today’s Ukraine. The interior is spectacular with its gorgeous red, blue and gold colours and charming painted pictures of animals and flowers. It was built by local artisans — Jewish and non-Jewish.

You can sit in at a lesson in a Yeshiva school projected onto a wall screen. The teacher is a master in the critical interpretation and exposition of texts — showing the importance of this intellectual training that was handed down for centuries, something Karl Marx was proud of. The Polish-Lithuanian multi-ethnic kingdoms of the 15th to 17th centuries at times stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. They were the granary of Europe and one of the wealthiest parts of the continent before the onset of economic regression. For part of this time Jews had a form of self-government and were attracted to these lands because they were relatively tolerantly treated.

You can see glimpses of revolutionary hope in some of the exhibits. One of the great revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote extensively in Polish, is almost entirely ignored in Poland. So I was glad to see her mentioned and to see her life-size head and shoulders photograph, though I could find no mention of the revolutionary organisation she built in Poland and Lithuania, the SDKPiL.
Polish independence from the Russian Tsarist empire came at the end of the First World War in a Europe swept with revolution. Even before independence was declared revolutionary militias were formed in the mining areas of Silesia and elsewhere. But the new state was anti-revolutionary — the workers’ councils that had also sprung up were abolished in 1919.

The new Poland was engaged in half a dozen wars to extend its borders — including against the Russian Bolshevik revolution which was just emerging victorious from the civil war. These wars involved pogroms and repression by the Polish army against Jews, which the museum touches on. The museum speaks of the various strands of Jewish politics in the 20th century. Zionism is there but it does not dominate. You can learn that in the 1930s the most popular political force among Jews was the Jewish socialist party, the Bund. There is a fantastic photograph of a huge May Day demonstration in Warsaw organised by the party. In 1938 they gained seats in 102 town councils.

There is also a fascinating display of posters and newspaper front pages from the 1920s and 1930s. You can see a Communist Party poster hand painted in red, Bund posters written in Yiddish and Polish, and examples of disgusting anti-Semitic leaflets distributed by fascist organisations. The museum is deliberately called a museum of life so as not to concentrate on Jewish deaths. But the Holocaust necessarily takes up a major part of it. We are shown a comprehensive and sickening account of the horrors of the Nazi genocide. On one wall there is a list of hundreds of ghettos in towns across the country. We are placed in a tram and out of its windows we can see the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto shown in black and white footage.

The Nazis located all their six extermination camps in Poland. They killed six million Jews — half of them were Polish. Jews made up one third of Warsaw’s population and 10 percent of Poland’s. The Nazis burned down synagogues throughout the country; until recently there was only one synagogue left out of 440 in pre-war Warsaw. The museum includes accounts of the pogroms of Jews after the war as well as the vicious anti-Semitic campaign of Poland’s Stalinist rulers.

The fantastic Solidarity movement of 1980, one of the greatest workers’ revolts in history, pushed anti-Semitism into the background. Only in late 1981 when the movement ran out of steam did the racists gain a hearing. The museum provides an account of how in the 1980s Solidarity boycotted the annual official commemoration of the Ghetto Uprising and organised its own ceremony, involving one of the uprising’s leaders, Marek Edelman.

The visitor learns that throughout the centuries the contribution of Jews to art, science and culture was massive. Like the Irish in English literature, many of the best Polish writers were Jews. The Nazis tried to wipe out all memory of the Jews’ existence. This museum celebrates their memory.

It shows how national, religious and regional cultures feed into each other. You can glimpse hope for the future in its examples of socialist workers’ solidarity.