WARSAW, Poland — The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which officially opens its doors on April 19, the 70th anniversary of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, welcomed 600 teens from Canada, who were the museum’s first visitors in late March.
The young people were part of approximately 10,000 students and adults who took part in the 2013 March of the Living, a weeklong program in Poland that includes visits to once-thriving sites of Jewish life and culture, followed by a march from Auschwitz-Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in memory of the victims of Nazi genocide. In Canada, the program is sponsored by Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA and by local federations.
Although the museum’s permanent exhibit will not be on display for another year, March of the Living organizers felt it “important that students visit this landmark museum, since it is, in fact, the world’s only museum dedicated solely to the history of Polish Jews,” said Eli Rubenstein, national director of March of the Living Canada and director of education for March of the Living International.
Małgorzata Berger-Jankowska, the museum official in charge of visiting groups, enthusiastically welcomed the young students from Canada attending the 2013 March of the Living, as well as students from other March of the Living groups. “For me personally, I’m very excited to let in our first visitors here and to let them see what we are looking at every day,” she said.
“The guides, the educators, are telling them about the history of this building, the symbolism of the architecture in the main hall, about which different people says different things – the parting of the Red Sea, the Egyptian desert, the colours of Israel. Every person has his own imagination about what it should symbolize.”
Rubenstein said that “one can’t help but notice the tremendous enthusiasm, energy and passion that staff members have for their museum. It’s quite inspiring.”
Berger-Jankowska added that the “first day we came to the museum to work… I was like… ‘wow!’… I started to explore the building. Everyone was very excited. No one really did their daily work, we were all just looking around… exploring the different parts of the museum.
“I feel proud that we are showing this group of young people this museum for the very first time. We are very excited, as you [the March of the Living students] are the very first people here,” she continued.
“We are supposed to be the museum of life. We, of course, will tell about the Holocaust, about what the war did to people, but we want to celebrate life. We want to show that the war, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising wasn’t the end. I think, personally, that young people… want to see light at the end of the tunnel, and I think the museum is the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The young Canadians who visited the museum reacted positively to the experience.
“Overall I really like the museum. It was really cool to see how it was built and all of the history that is behind it,” said Simon Unger.
“I thought the tour guides were very informative… fantastic architecture. I had an absolutely riveting experience. Ten out of 10,” said Steven Janowski Adler.
“I thought the tour guides were very interesting. They knew a lot of facts, and we had a lot of questions… we need to come back another time to see all of the exhibits,” said Noah Harrison Flatt.
“The experience was very meaningful. When you walk in and see the walls… in my opinion it symbolizes the parting of the Red Sea. That’s an important part of Jewish history,” said Daniel Weiman.
Their adult guides also shared the students’ upbeat impression of the museum.
“What a positive thing it is to have a museum in 2013 dedicated to the Jewish people who lived in Warsaw and Poland. Kudos to the Polish people, to the government today and kudos to this wonderful museum,” said Rabbi Chezi Zionce of Beth Rayim Synagogue in Toronto.
Shahar Fertig, a tour guide from Israel said, “I think that the museum is fantastic. The vision is amazing… The architecture is beautiful. It is so clear, it symbolizes so many things that you can see when you just stand there. I can’t wait to see the full exhibition!”
Survivor Sidney Zoltak said, “I think the idea is great – the building is wonderful, and I can’t wait to see the story they will tell.”
Currently living in Montreal, Zoltak is originally from Siemiatytcze, Poland, about 70 kilometres from Treblinka, where most of his family and virtually the entire town was murdered.
“Showing 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland is an excellent idea and a very important story to be told, not only to the Jewish people around the world, but also for the local Polish people living here,” Zoltak said.
The Canadian students were to visit the museum a second time to meet local Polish students before they departed for Israel, for the second leg of their journey, to celebrate Israel’s 65th anniversary on Independence Day.
“Dialogue between young Poles and Jewish youth is essential to the goals of the March of the Living. By reaching out to each other, by building bridges of understanding between each other, both Poles and Jews can and will build a hopeful future together,” said Rubenstein.
“I am grateful that this exceptional museum, with its evocative architecture and innovate exhibits, has the vision to also strive to be a centre of active learning, for dialogue, for coming together, to learn from, about and with each other.”
The museum, which began construction in 2007, features an exhibition area of 140,000 square feet. The building is funded by the Polish government and the city of Warsaw, while the museum core exhibition is supported by private donors, foundations and companies. Estimated to cost more than $105 million, the museum contains eight differently themed halls, where visitors can explore the history of the Jews in Poland who fled Spain and learn about how Jewish life once thrived in Poland until the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The last halls are related to the Holocaust and the postwar period.
The building, a modern structure in glass and limestone, was designed by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamäki and Ilmari Lahdelma. The museum is built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, facing the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, by Nathan Rappoport, which commemorates the heroes of the uprising.
Distinguished guests from around the world are expected to attend the museum’s official opening, including the president of Poland, Bronislaw Komorowski.