Museum of the History of Polish Jews to open

In Warsaw, a museum on the history of Polish Jewry will be inaugurated on Friday, on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against Nazi Germany in World War II. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews aims to reclaim the rich 1,000-year heritage which has been overshadowed by the Holocaust. The glass building stands on the site of the former ghetto, where 200 poorly-armed Jews rose up in Europe's first urban anti-Nazi revolt.

Jews first emigrated to Poland from western Europe to escape 11th Century pogroms. According to Jewish legend, the refugees heard a voice from heaven say "Po lin" or "rest here" in Hebrew -- and Poland was given its name. "For centuries, Poland hosted the world's largest Jewish Diaspora," museum director Andrzej Cudak said. While Jewish culture flourished, religious tolerance had its limits.

This complex coexistence is laid out in a 43,000 sq foot core exhibition with eight themed halls. Funded by private donors, German foundations, the Polish government, the city of Warsaw and the EU, the entire project cost PLZ 200 million (US$ 65 million). Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamaeki and Ilmar Lahdelma beat out more than 100 competitors to design the structure, which took four years to complete. The space is defined by a glass facade split by a wide fracture directly opposite the imposing monument to the Jewish ghetto fighters.

"The design refers to the 1,000 years of Jewish presence in Poland, a presence that was broken by the Holocaust," said Mahlamaeki.

Ninety percent of Poland's pre-war Jewish population of 3.3 million was wiped out in the Shoah. By the end of World War II only around 300,000 Polish Jews remained. Many of them emigrated to the United States or Israel, either immediately after the war or during waves of anti-Semitism driven by Poland's communist regime in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 2002 census only 1,133 people claimed Jewish roots, while last year the number had grown to around 8,000 people. But according to various estimates, the true number could be as high as 20,000 to 50,000. "We don't know (the exact figure) but tomorrow it'll be more," Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told the news agency AFP.

The museum, whose main exhibition will be ready early next year, launches a roster of cultural events this weekend. "The Germans attempted to wipe out the Jewish community of Poland, they almost succeeded, and here this museum is a tribute to those who created Jewish life for over a millennium," Schudrich said. "And in some ways also to show the continuity, that it still goes on."

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