At the time of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943 there were officially 30,000 Jews left in the city, and perhaps another 30,000 hiding underground. Before the war, there had been 380,000, approximately 1/3 of the entire population, making Warsaw the second most Jewish city in the world after New York. After the German invasion, another 450,000 Jews from all over Poland were crammed into the ghetto. The vast majority of these 830,000 Jews had been deported and murdered in 1942. Those remaining were the most able-bodied, used for slave labor, but also most capable of resistance.
Though von Ribbentrop reported to his superiors in Berlin that the ghetto was pacified without a fight, in fact the Germans were only able to quash the resistance by systematically destroying the entire neighborhood, house by house, block by block. As a result, when the dust had settled, there was nothing left but dust. Not a building was standing. Shortly after the war ended, a small memorial was dedicated. Buildings were gradually built along the edges of the ghetto, and then moved inward. But at the heart, surrounding the memorial, there was nothing. It was a park of sorts, and as a result of the war and the uprising it was also a large unmarked cemetery.
Today, in the middle of this large open space, a beautiful but simple building rises. It is the home of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The permanent collection will not open officially until October 28, but through the auspices of the Foundation for Polish-Jewish reconciliation, we were privileged to have a private tour with the director and one of the docents.
The building itself was designed by the Finnish architect Mahlamaki who won the job after a competition which included the likes of Daniel Libeskind. It was the simplicity that swayed the judges. Mahlamaki i says that the modest but elegant rectangle is like a gift box with a jewel - the collection - in its center. He did not want his building to draw attention away from the jewel. In a way, he suggests, it is also like so many of the old European synagogues: modest on the outside to avoid attention, beautiful and filled with life on the inside.
And this notion of life links to a second important idea: this is not a Holocaust museum. Rather, it tells the story of 1000 years of Jewish life in Poland. To be sure, It covers the Holocaust - how could it not - and in some ways it seems even more tragic set in the context of so much history. But it also continues after the Holocaust and speaks about the ongoing presence of Jews, and the small but growing rebirth that is taking place at this very moment. This museum truly will be a jewel, one which will require several visits to take it all in.