Poland’s Jews: Under a New Roof

Shelley Salamensky in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_894 Dec. 07 17.17Exiled from Canaan in antiquity, Jews are famously scattered around the world. So, it seems in recent years, are Jewish museums: Paris, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, but also across the globe in more than one hundred cities, from Dnipropetrovsk to Shanghai, Caracas to Casablanca. Tel Aviv has one. Manhattan has two. Yet Warsaw—capital of the nation that once held more Jews than any other—was conspicuously absent from the list until the opening a few weeks ago of POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Few cities would seem more suitable for a Jewish museum than Warsaw. Jews have lived in Poland for a thousand years, and by the eve of World War II made up over a third of the population of many parts of the country, including the capital. Half of all Jews who perished in the Holocaust were from Poland. Most American and European Jews can trace their roots to the region. And while many do not acknowledge it, 25,000 Polish citizens today are believed to be of at least partial Jewish heritage. But Poland’s complicated postwar history has rendered the recovery of its long Jewish legacy a thorny task.

Under the Communists, education about Poland’s Jews was suppressed. And many non-Jews—scarred by the Nazi occupation, their own great wartime losses, the Soviet takeover, ongoing destitution, and in some cases fear of losing plundered property or guilt over misdeeds—found it least painful to simply forget. The Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was opened by the Polish parliament for tours two years after the end of the war, yet for decades little information was provided about those who suffered there. Jewish cemeteries were abandoned to overgrowth, synagogues fell into disrepair, and though some Jews remained in Poland, Yiddish theater, klezmer music, and other signs of life disappeared from the scene, as though Jews had never lived there.

More here.