WARSAW, Poland – In the two millennia between ancient Israel and its modern rebirth, Jews never enjoyed as much political autonomy as they did in Poland, a land that centuries later would become intrinsically linked to the Holocaust.
The story of this great flourishing of political and cultural life is part of a 1,000-year history told in a visually striking new museum, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opens its long-awaited core exhibition to the public Tuesday amid days of celebrations.
The Polish and Israeli presidents will attend, along with Polish Holocaust survivors who helped create this memorial to the lost world of their ancestors.
Polin is Hebrew for Poland, and also means "rest here," a reference to a story Jews told themselves about their arrival in Poland in the Middle Ages: that they found favor from the rulers and were allowed to dwell there in tranquility. The result was centuries of a flourishing Yiddish-speaking civilization that made important contributions to Polish and world culture before being nearly wiped out by Nazi Germany.
"The Holocaust has cast a shadow onto this great civilization and the generations of Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before the Second World War, as if those centuries of life were little more than a preface to the Holocaust," museum director Dariusz Stola said. "But that is absurd. This museum stresses that 1,000 years of Jewish life are not less worthy of remembrance than the six years of the Holocaust."
Poland, in a union formed in the 16th century with Lithuania called the Commonwealth, became one of Europe's largest and most ethnically diverse territories. Jews benefited from tolerance and a large degree of self-governance granted by the rulers, growing into the world's largest Jewish community. Today 9 million of the world's 14 million Jews can trace their ancestry to Poland.
Despite their once-significant presence, memory of the Jews all but disappeared from public discourse in Poland in the communist era, leaving postwar generations largely unaware that their country was once a multiethnic land where Jews and other religions lived in relative peace, even avoiding the religious wars that devastated other European lands.
Poland's prewar population of 3.3 million Jews was reduced to 300,000 by Adolf Hitler's genocide, while communist-era persecution drove most of those survivors away. Today there are fewer than 30,000 Jews in Poland, though the community is again growing.
In the postwar decades, "Polish history didn't speak of Jews. It spoke of cemeteries, of the Holocaust, of the ghettos. ... It spoke exclusively of death," said Piotr Wislicki, who heads a Jewish historical association that raised $48 million for the exhibition. "And in the eyes of the world, Poland was just one big cemetery."
The museum is now part of a broader attempt by Poland's leaders and elite to reclaim that pluralism, an ethos that took root after Poland threw off communism 25 years ago.
Built with taxpayer money and private donations, the museum's liberal message has been welcomed by young Poles, many of whom flock to the dozens of Jewish festivals that take place in Poland each year. Days before the grand opening, the museum opened its doors to people living in the neighborhood, an area once the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto. The neighbors, many of whom have never been in a synagogue and know little about Jewish history, were enthusiastic.
"Even though we aren't Jews this is also a part of our history and we need to know about it," said Agnieszka Rudkowska, a 28-year-old preschool teacher who reads the poems of the beloved 20th-century Polish Jewish writer Julian Tuwim to her schoolchildren. "You can sometimes hear negative opinions about Jews in the media, but it is important to know the truth."
Poland's transformation is also changing perceptions of Poles by outsiders.
Shmuel Afek, a social studies teacher at a Jewish high school in New York, said he used to accept what he calls the "standard narrative" about Poland and Jews.
"That narrative says that the Nazis were bad but the Poles were worse, that the Holocaust happened in Poland because the Germans realized that the Poles were so anti-Semitic they were prepared to collaborate, and that, as former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said, 'Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother's milk,'" said Afek, a teacher for more than 25 years. "This is the kind of thing I grew up with and I didn't question it."
His views changed radically after he began visiting Poland three years ago, meeting with Poles and becoming acquainted with the museum's core exhibition ahead of its opening. He now knows that serious Holocaust scholarship has established that Germany carried out the Holocaust at death camps in Poland after occupying the country because that is where most of Europe's Jews were. And that while some Poles collaborated, some risked — and even lost — their lives helping Jews.
The museum carries these stories, along with episodes of persecution. Even the 16th and 17th centuries, sometimes called a golden age, saw Jews tortured and executed on false accusations of desecrating the host, the sacred bread said to become the body of Christ during Communion.
One of the most unique aspects of the museum is how the story unfolds solely in the voices of those living through the time, never looking ahead or adding analysis from later eras.
For instance, the gallery on the years between the two world wars shows an outburst of Jewish cultural and political creativity along with rising anti-Semitism, without hinting at the Holocaust to come. The idea is for visitors to experience the age as those living through it did.
"We try to stay in the moment and not to foreshadow," said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, program director of the core exhibition. "It's very important for us that our visitors not experience this period as a run-up to the Holocaust."
A few weeks ago an elderly Jewish-American couple who had left Poland before the war was brought to tears during a pre-opening visit to the exhibition, Wislicki said.
"When I saw them cry I was afraid that the Holocaust gallery had made that impression on them," Wislicki said. "But they said 'no, we are happy that we can show our children and grandchildren that even with all the problems like immigration and pogroms, Jews had an interesting and wonderful life, and that there wasn't only death."