New museum on the history of Polish Jews - ground-breaking ceremony

Warsaw is to have a Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The recent cornerstone-laying ceremony brought together prominent personalities from Poland and around the world, including Polish current and former presidents, past and present Israeli ambassadors to Poland, rabbis and Catholic Church leaders. 'This won't be another Holocaust museum' - stress the project authors - but a center for dialogue, culture and education about the long and rich history of Polish - Jewish coexistence.

The sound of music composed specially for the occasion marked the groundbreaking ceremony in the heart of what, before the war, was Warsaw's Jewish district. It will now be the location of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a state-of-the-art center of education in Polish - Jewish history and tradition. And there is a lot to educate about, says Shewach Weiss, former Israeli ambassador in Poland.

"We're talking of approximately thousand years of Jewish life here in Poland. The development of Jewish culture, religious groups, religious movements, the Yiddish language, the language of our mothers. It was here, especially in Poland, the development of economy, of Jewish talents."

The museum is also meant to become a place of intercultural and inter religious dialogue. Rabbi Meir Lau of Tel Aviv:

"John Paul II, let his memory be blessed, he knew about the rabbi of Krakow. But the next generation, without this museum, will they know somehow, somewhere, the names, the people the history?"

For many of those attending the ceremony it was a highly emotional moment.

"I've been waiting for this day. The only day I'm waiting for even more so is the day of the opening", said on participant. "It was a very, very exciting event. I've come all the way from the United States to be here, to witness this."

The exhibits will give insights into all aspects of Jewish life in Poland. A typical street in pre-war Warsaw's Jewish district will be reconstructed and a wide range of multimedia techniques will be used to give visitors a feel of the atmosphere of the place. The museum building has been designed by a Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, says Jerzy Halberstadt, the director of the museum:

"Compact, gentle outside form, strengthened by a dramatic, expressive interior. The core of the museum will be a permanent exhibition. Eight galleries will present eight main chapters in the Jewish history on the Polish soil, starting from the middle ages to the contemporary times."

Holocaust survivor Marian Turski says the location of the museum is very special.

"This was the heart, the core of the ghetto. A place, where there was Jewish administration. The first shots of the Jewish uprising were fired here. Not far from here, just four hundred yards, is the place of deportation of three hundred thousands Warsaw residents of Jewish nationality to extermination in Treblinka. This is the place, where it should be."

The initiative, which originated with the Jewish Historical Institute, quickly gained support of the Polish authorities and the international Jewish community worldwide. The first donations came from the London-based Polonia Aid Foundation Trust. President Lech Kaczynski, who'd given the initiative wholehearted backing when serving as Mayor of Warsaw, is among the leading supporters of the project. The City of Warsaw donated the plot of land. The Polish side is to cover construction costs.

Project authors hope that it will help clear up misconceptions and stereotypes about the Jewish presence in Poland. Zygmunt Rolat of the American committee supporting the museum:

"Jews thrived here, they were received here with friendship and even privileges in some cases, at the time when Spain and Portugal, for example, were expelling Jews. Children from all over the world, both Jewish and Christian, will be able to learn all about the history of Jews in Poland And I think that it's a very glorious history, of which we can be very, very proud, but which up to now was actually not shown correctly to the vast majority of young, Jewish people coming to Poland, who invariably concentrated on seeing Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, but very little of where Jews lived and thrived and accomplished so much for so long."

The construction of the museum is to begin in March 2008. It is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2009.