Jerzy Halbersztadt: Cornerstone laid for Museum of Polish Jews

Source: AFP, 6-30-09

The cornerstone of the long-awaited Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a major step towards reviving Poland’s Jewish heritage after the Holocaust, was laid in Warsaw on Tuesday, organisers said. In the works for a decade, the long-awaited multi-million dollar, multi-media facility is expected to open its door in 2011. “Prior to the Holocaust, the Shoah, Warsaw was one of the world’s main centres of Jewish life where politics, culture, publishing and Jewish theatre thrived — in fact it was the leading centre, surpassing other cities in the US and Europe,” project director Jerzy Halbersztadt told guests at the site.

During the Holocaust, the district was inside the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, where all told Nazi Germany imprisoned more than 400,000 Polish Jews, many of whom died of starvation or disease or were sent to death camps. The bricks used as the cornerstones came from the World War II-era foundations of the last headquarters of the Council of Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, the scene of a famous wartime uprising, Halbersztadt said.

“So we have come full circle and beginning the construction of the museum is also an element of closing this circle,” he added. Led by the Jewish Fighting Organisation (ZOB), the doomed World War II rebellion was among the first armed insurgency by partisans against the Nazis in all of occupied Europe. The museum will face the imposing monument dedicated to those who died in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Cantors, or Jewish liturgical singers, from around the globe sang at the foot of the black marble monument Tuesday as part of the ground-breaking ceremonies.

“It’s surreal to be here — this (Warsaw) was the epicentre of cantorial music in the early 1930’s and 40’s,” president of the international Cantors Assembly, David Propis, from Houston, Texas, told AFP. Around a hundred cantors from the United States, Canada, various European states and Israel will sing in the Polish National Opera in Warsaw Tuesday evening, reviving the art of Jewish liturgical song nearly wiped out in Poland by the Holocaust. Designed by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamaeki and Ilmari Lahdelma, the façade of the future museum will be symbolically ruptured, opening onto undulating walls in an allusion to the Biblical parting of the Red Sea. The museum’s virtual arm — the “Virtual Shtetl” web portal was launched in June — is aimed at giving it a head start online before its doors open.

Prior to World War II, Poland was home to some 3.5 million Jews, roughly 10 percent of it’s pre-war population with nearly a millennium of Jewish settlement within its borders. Some three million Polish Jews perished in the Holocaust which claimed six million of pre-WWII Europe’s estimated 11 million Jews. A third — 350,000 — of Warsaw’s pre-war population was Jewish. Today, out of an overwhelming Roman Catholic population of 38 million, various sources peg Poland’s Jewish population at just 3,500 to 15,000. Slated to cost a total 144 million dollars (102 million euros), the museum is being co-funded by the Polish government, the city of Warsaw and funds raised from private and institutional donors world-wide.

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