Stanley Diamond, an avid genealogist, treasured the old blacksmith’s tongs that had belonged to a murdered relative in Poland. They were a tangible connection to his family’s past.
But when historian Jerzy Halbersztadt, the primary creator and, until a year ago, the director of the in-progress Museum of the History of Polish Jews (MHPJ) in Warsaw, saw the artifact, he told Diamond he must have it.
The tongs had belonged to Diamond’s Montreal-born father’s first cousin, Moszek Widelec (1908-41), a blacksmith in the town of Poreba Koscielny. He was shot by the Germans while trying to smuggle food into the ghetto.
Diamond acquired the tongs in the late 1990s from an elderly blacksmith named Czeslaw Szymanski living in Poreba, 90 km northeast of Warsaw. This non-Jewish man had been an apprentice to Widelec. He cherished the tool, too, but realized their meaning to Diamond.
The four-foot iron tongs, which were used to hold horseshoes to the fire, will be part of the collection of the MHPJ, a $120-million project conceived in 1996 and set to finally open in the fall of 2013.
“I realized my kids are not going to want them,” said Diamond, who is in his 70s, “and I wondered what would happen to them after me. My first inclination was to give them to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Museum, but their space is limited.”
That will not be the case at the MHPJ, which is being built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Diamond said the 140,000 square-foot museum will not only be able to display them, but will use them to illustrate the story of the vanished Jewish life of Poreba, supplemented by other archives, such as photos and Diamond’s taped interview with Szymanski.
Diamond, one of the world’s leading experts on Polish Jewish genealogy, is the co-founder and director of Jewish Record Indexing – Poland (JRI), a massive online database of indexed Polish Jewish vital records going back to the early 19th century. JRI is working closely with the MHPJ project, which aims to tell the 1,000-year history of Jewish life in Poland.
Their websites are already linked, and visitors to the MHPJ’s more than 1,000 “virtual shtetls” can research those towns’ birth, marriage and death records on the JRI site.
MHPJ’s volunteer representative in Canada, Polish-born Toronto architect Peter Jassem, was the guest speaker at a public event April 22, organized by the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, sponsored by the Polish consulate in Montreal and held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
He said the MHPJ will rank with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem.
However, the Holocaust will be portrayed in but one of the eight galleries. Others will depict the centuries-long Jewish civilization in Poland and Jews’ important contributions to the country. The exhibition will continue with the aftermath of the destruction of 90 per cent of the country’s more than three million Jews and postwar antisemitic violence such as the 1946 Kielce pogrom and the political persecution in 1968.
The permanent exhibition, whose international design team is headed by Toronto-born New York academic Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, will also depict the modest, but determined, revival of Jewish life in Poland since the fall of Communism.
While, at most, there are 30,000 to 40,000 Jews in the country today, the Jewish heritage is being recovered by countless non-Jews throughout the country, Jassem said, and Poles are frankly facing its dark periods.
Thousands of Poles have also discovered that they are Jewish or have Jewish ancestry. Jassem, who was born in 1952, is one of them. He learned about 20 years ago that his father was Jewish and that members of his extended family died in the Holocaust or were living in Israel. Since then has become an enthusiastic student of his and Poland’s Jewish past.
He is the chair of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation’s Toronto chapter and a JRI board member.
“Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t advertise you were Jewish in Poland,” he said. “But it is a good time to be Jewish in Poland today.”
The Polish ministry of culture and national heritage and the city of Warsaw are committed to fully financing the construction of the building, said Jassem, while the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw – the project’s initiator – is responsible for finding the money for the permanent exhibition. The price tag has reached $40 million, of which $28 millon has been raised mostly from donors abroad.
The two levels of governments’ contribution is remarkable, Jassem said, because Poland remains a country with many demands on its treasury.
Jassem is appealing for donations from Canadians, who have yet to be major financial contributors. A charitable Canadian friends organization is in the process of being registered.
Polish Consul General Tadeusz Zylinski said, “The extermination of Polish Jewry did terrible damage also to Poland because we lost a very valuable part of our society.” The most important role of the MHPJ will be to teach Polish youngsters that this history is integral to their own, he said.
Diamond thinks Jews shouldn’t be skeptical about this project. “The Poland of today is not that of even 1995. It’s amazing the interest young people are showing in Jewish history, and older people, too. Everyday, I hear about new projects.
“They feel an obligation. It is sincere. And the museum will ensure new generations know, not only about Jewish death, but Jewish life, in their country.”