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Museum in Poland to honor Jewish life

Groundbreaking set for tomorrow

WARSAW -- An empty lawn in the heart of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto will soon become a place not only of mourning, but of celebrating the Jewish life that flourished in Poland before it was destroyed in the Holocaust.

Jewish leaders and President Lech Kaczynski will break ground tomorrow for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It sits on a highly charged site -- next to the city's monument to the Jews who resisted the Nazis during the 1943 ghetto uprising, and just down the street from the rail siding where many were deported to their deaths.

The multimedia museum will have exhibits on the Holocaust, but organizers say its primary purpose is to remember the vibrant Jewish community that flourished in Poland for a thousand years despite varying degrees of anti-Semitism and discrimination.

"This will not be another Holocaust museum," said Marian Turski, one of the originators of the idea for the museum, and president of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland. "It will be a museum of life."

The building, an austere glass and limestone structure designed by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamaki and Ilmari Lahdelma, will feature a jagged chasm that cuts through the entire museum, and an interior of undulating forms that alludes to Moses's parting of the Red Sea while fleeing slavery in Egypt -- symbolic of Jewish survival in the face of catastrophe.

When it opens in two years, Polish and Jewish leaders hope it will become a cultural landmark in a league with Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, the United States' Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Berlin's Jewish Museum and Holocaust Memorial.

To many, such a center is long overdue in a country that had Europe's largest Jewish community until World War II, numbering about 3.3 million, or 10 percent of the total population. The society produced a vibrant Yiddish-speaking culture and a string of great scientists, writers, and thinkers.

Poland is also where Nazi Germany built Auschwitz, Treblinka, and the other extermination camps where 6 million Jews -- half of them Polish -- were killed.

Yet Jewish history and suffering were taboo themes for decades under communist rule, which collapsed in 1989. Only about 30,000 Jews live in Poland today.

Museum creators say the $65 million-project will chronicle the fate of Jews in their Eastern European homeland with interactive and multimedia displays and video -- not just traditional artifacts and exhibits -- in order to give visitors a deeper sense of what was lost.

In one room, a typical bustling Jewish street of the 1920s will be conjured with images projected onto white building facades typical of the era.

"It's closer in many ways to theater than it is to a didactic display based on a collection," said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an American specialist in East European Jewish culture and museum development with New York University and leader of the team developing the exhibition.

The specialists working on the displays say they are struggling with the sensitive question of how to depict Polish-Jewish relations in a land that was at different times a place of tolerance for Jews, and of painful anti-Semitism, discrimination, and segregation.