The newest Jewish commemorative institution scheduled to open in Europe this year is The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto According to Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett, the director of its Core Exhibition, the museum will honor the memory of those killed during the holocaust and other pogroms by remembering how Jews lived in Poland for 1,000 years. The governments of Warsaw and Poland have contributed much of the funding for this venture but Jewish philanthropists have given many millions of dollars to this 200 million dollar project and luminaries such as Elie Wiesel have affirmed its importance as an exposition of the full and varied lives lived by Polish Jews throughout the centuries.
For most people, Poland remains the primal scene of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. The word Auschwitz alone is emblematic of all Nazi death camps and the ready cooperation of Polish citizens with the Nazis in the goal of ridding their own country of Jews has been well and often documented. At the beginning of World War 11, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, over 3 million people, 90% of whom were slaughtered during the war. For the remaining stragglers who made it back to their hometowns, there were incidents such as the pogrom in Kielce in which 80 Jews were killed and more than 50 wounded, and later government sponsored anti-semitic incidents in 1956 and 1968. The extermination of 6 million European Jews, half of whom were Polish, did little to abate the long-standing anti-semitism of the Polish people. After the war, 1,000 delegates of the Polish Peasants Party passed a resolution thanking Hitler for annihilating the Jews and urging the expulsion of those who had survived.
Since the fall of communism in 1989, there has been a very small-scale renewal of Jewish life and culture in Poland. Cracow has become a kitschy center of klezmer music, Jewish restaurants and memorabilia offered enthusiastically by Polish citizens to the Jewish tourist trade Now that Poland has been cleansed of Jews, they’ve decided that Jewish culture is appealing, lively and profitable to boot. Such prominent institutions as the 92nd Street Y offer guided tours to Poland to participate in this dubious experience and now, this new museum will be another destination to attract foreign Jewish visitors to augment the Polish economy. The argument for studying the history of Jews in Poland is worthwhile - the question is why wasn’t this museum built in Israel with its own rich heritage of Polish Jewish founders, leaders and influences? Why wouldn’t American Jews prefer to give Israel the benefit of their philanthropy instead of a country with such a sordid track record that some Polish Jews believed they might be better off with the “civilized” Germans when they first invaded. On the video demo for the new museum, the narrator claims that emphasizing the continuity of Jewish habitation in Poland shows that Hitler didn’t win - a perverse and insulting statement for all people. There is no up-side to genocide.
Ironically, the proliferation of holocaust and heritage museums here and abroad has not had the desired effect of strenghtening Jewish affinity through education. Today, when asked to name the most important aspect of their Jewish identity, 46% of American Jews cited their commitment to social equality; only 20% chose to cite support of Israel. For Jewish voters, asked at exit polls to choose the most important issues in their choices, 51% chose the economy, 4% chose Israel and 2% chose Iran. Anti-semitism throughout the world has once again become vocal and active, this time stimulated by Radical Islam with other hate groups attracted into the fold. Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and even Fatah have announced their determination to destroy the Jewish state and the Jews who they claim to be descendants of apes and pigs. We have numerous museums all over America that record the history of the rise of Nazism, yet American Jews don’t seem to see the parallels between these two radically anti-semitic ideologies, nor are they politically concerned about the growing threats to Israel’s very existence.
When asked to contribute money to restore the Jewish cemetery of Sochaczew, the shtetl where my then octogenarian mother had lived as a child, she vehemently demurred. When I questioned why, she looked at me with an exasperated expression and said simply, ” All of Poland is a Jewish cemetery, forever soaked in Jewish blood I won’t give a penny to that - give my money to the living in Israel.” In her memory, and in honor of her innate wisdom, I won’t be one of the contributors or visitors to the new, resplendent Museum of the History of Polish Jews .
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