Americans hear of planned Jewish museum in Poland

Americans hear of planned Jewish museum in Poland

More than 150 people from the tri-state area attended a reception last Thursday to meet Maria Kaczynska, the first lady of the Republic of Poland, who told them about her country’s planned Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

Kaczynska – acting as special envoy for Poland’s president – Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, and Polish Secretary of State Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka were warmly welcomed by Holocaust survivors and their descendants at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan.

Maria Kaczynska, Poland’s first lady, speaks about Warsaw’s new Museum of the History of Jews in Poland. PHOTO BY Menachem Daum

At the event, hosted by the North American Council for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the synaoguge’s Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the foreign minister and secretary of state posthumously awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic, Poland’s highest honor, to Irena Gut, who hid 12 Jews from the Nazis in Tarnopol during the Holocaust.

The medal was accepted by Gut’s daughter, Jeannie Smith of Seattle. A benefit performance of the play about her mother, “Irena’s Vow” starring Tovah Feldshuh, followed at the Baruch Center for Performing Arts. Also attending the ceremony was Roman Haller, director of the Claims Conference Successor Organization in Munich -who was born in Gut’s hiding place after she convinced his mother not to end her pregnancy.

Sigmund A. Rolat, a survivor from Czestochowa who chairs the North American Council, said that the hi-tech, state-of-the-art museum – being built in Warsaw facing the Rappaport monument to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters – will tell of the almost 1,000 year history of the Jews of Poland. The museum is one of Poland’s largest public works projects, with $110 million committed to construction from the Polish Republic and the city of Warsaw. Another $35 million is needed to create the core exhibits.

Rolat, a former Bergen County resident, said he hopes the museum will be a portal to Poland and its Jewish history for visitors to Jewish heritage sites and the camps and sites of destruction. He is especially interested in bringing March of the Living participants and Polish students to what he said is expected to become the most important and unique museum of Jewish history in the world. “After the Inquisition, Poland welcomed us with open arms,” Rolat said, “and we thrived there compared to the rest of Europe.”

The museum is being designed to offer a perspective often neglected in the post-Holocaust period and present the rich Jewish culture that invigorated pre-Holocaust Poland. It will also tell the stories of those Polish Jews who, after the Holocaust, were instrumental in revitalizing Jewish culture and Judaism in America and around the world, and of those who are intent on re-establishing Jewish culture in today’s Poland.

“When children come on these trips,” Rolat said, “they rarely see anything positive that Jewish people have contributed to Polish society, and Polish youth also must discover the important and nation-changing contributions Jewish people made to Polish culture before the Holocaust – we were poets, artists, industrialists, philosophers and philanthropists, as well as Torah scholars, who were part of the fabric of Polish society.”

Rolat, himself a recipient of the Commander’s Cross, is a frequent visitor to Poland who often speaks in Polish schools. Over the years, Rolat said, he has been approached by hundreds of young Poles seeking their roots. He feels the new museum will be a good place for them to start. Many feel driven to study things Jewish and many suspect they are Jews. “I want to make it easier for them to discover who they are,” said Rolat. “This museum is needed. Anyone who visits it, if he is Jewish, will be proud, and if he is not Jewish, he will know all there is know about Jewish history in Poland. The past, after all, illuminates the future.”

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