Almost nothing remains of the old Warsaw Ghetto: a few buildings here and there, a synagogue, some fragments of a brick wall. The rest was blown up by the Germans in their onslaught against the Jews who took up arms against them.
Now this Holocaust-era prison of misery and death is undergoing a dramatic transformation in time for Friday’s anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a revolt that ended in death for most of the fighters, yet gave the world an enduring symbol of resistance against the odds. The change in this district of the capital and its place in Polish consciousness is embodied in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews that has risen up in a vast square in the heart of the vanished ghetto, ringed by Holocaust memorials and shabby communist-era apartment buildings.
It celebrates the Jewish life that flourished in Poland for centuries before the Holocaust, and dares to confront Poles with a truth many would once have strongly denied: that this country has had its own dark chapters of anti-Semitism. Funded largely by Polish taxpayers, the museum’s existence is a powerful sign of how far Poland has come in embracing tolerance and its own multicultural past since toppling communism 23 years ago — a new openness bolstered by a blossoming economy.
At the same time, the exhibits will take care to emphasize that Polish acts of persecution never approached the scale of Adolf Hitler’s genocide and that the Holocaust was Germany’s crime, not a product of any local Polish-Jewish tensions.
Still, many nationalistic Poles prefer an image of their country as a model of heroic resistance to centuries of past oppression, both by Germans and Russians. Many grew up under a communist regime that assumed the right to dictate whose suffering should get attention.
Among painful episodes that the museum will address in the permanent exhibition opening next year are pogroms in the late 19th century, boycotts of Jewish businesses in the 1920s and 1930s and calls to deport Poland’s 3.3 million Jews, the largest per capita Jewish population in any European country. Its materials promise to tell the story of the Jedwabne massacre in World War II, when about 40 Poles hunted down the town’s Jews, shut them in a barn and set it alight, killing more than 300 people. Also to be included is an account of the massacre in the city of Kielce, when 42 Jewish Holocaust survivors were slaughtered a year after the war ended, and the expulsion in 1968 of thousands of people of Jewish ancestry.
Even now, controversy bubbles. Krzysztof Jasiewicz, an eminent professor, recently claimed in a magazine article that the Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves by their behavior over generations. The article provoked widespread academic protest, but drew considerable support in online forums.
Another debate is over the idea of raising a memorial to Polish “Righteous Gentiles” — those who saved Jews during the war — next to the new museum. Poles protected Jews at a huge risk to their own lives and their families, and more than 6,000 are officially honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial — by far the largest number in any country occupied by the Nazis.
However, critics say that while the Righteous Gentiles deserve a monument, putting it by the museum would be an expression of Polish nationalism that would lead some to falsely believe that most Poles acted as rescuers during World War II.