By VANESSA GERA, Associated Press
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The box-like glass building rises from soil marked by tragedy in the heart of Warsaw's former Jewish district. At certain angles, its luminous facade reflects the outlines of a dark memorial to those who fought and died in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis.
Yet despite reminders of Jewish suffering all around, the modern building will soon open as a key remembrance site of a mostly upbeat Jewish story, becoming home to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a major new museum dedicated to the 1,000 years of Jewish existence in Polish lands.
"It is a museum of life," said Sigmund Rolat, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor and American benefactor who has helped bring the museum to life. "We are showing 1,000 years of a magnificent history."
Construction of the building is nearly finished and the museum is scheduled to open in 2013 after nearly 20 years of planning. It will be a celebratory moment for those who have struggled to build a home for this story, among them Polish-born Holocaust survivors with a deep affection for their land of birth: Men like Rolat, 82, and Tad Taube, 81, a Krakow-born entrepreneur who leads two California-based philanthropies that have given $16 million to the project.
The museum fulfills a dream of Jews from around the world to preserve the rich legacy of their ancestors by creating what will be the first-ever museum of Polish Jewish history. Meanwhile, the Polish government, a major partner, also seeks to celebrate both the country's Jewish past and its own past eras of cultural tolerance and diversity. In doing so, the young democracy hopes to burnish its Western credentials and shed a reputation for anti-Semitism that has hung over it in recent decades.
Jewish history was largely ignored in the communist era, and the fact that the museum has risen with the help of the Polish government makes it a monument to a new consciousness and wealth.
"No doubt it is thanks to democracy in Poland that this museum could be created," said Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz.
The project has faced a number of delays, some caused by the global financial crisis that for a time discouraged donations needed to complete the more than $100 million project. A public-private initiative that relies heavily on private funding, the museum has also struggled at times to persuade Jews abroad to help a project "in a country which they feel has not been particularly friendly to Jews," Taube said.
"This was not a slam dunk," Taube said. "But it got easier as the project rose from the ground. Doubts began to be erased."
Museum officials say it will open in stages, with educational and cultural programs starting in April to mark the 70th anniversary of the doomed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Then in December the heart of the museum is scheduled to open: a core exhibition of eight interactive multimedia galleries organized chronologically. Using diaries, memoirs, film footage and other original sources, the story will unfold in the voices of those living in the historical moment.
With its opening, the museum is expected to join the ranks of world-class Jewish history museums like Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
What will set it apart will be its focus not on tragedy, but on creation, achievement and life. In keeping with that theme, the Warsaw museum will devote just one of the eight galleries to the Holocaust. Visitors, in fact, will not be able to access the Holocaust gallery without passing first through at least one other gallery, a reminder of the life that came long before and which still exists today in Poland's small but growing Jewish community.
The museum will show that the Holocaust — carried out by Adolf Hitler's Germany — was never the inevitable result of relations between Poland's Jews and Christians, despite periods of conflict. Still, museum creators say they will not shy away from showing ugly episodes of Polish anti-Semitism that led to economic boycotts, persecution and even massacres in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The complex message can be expected to challenge stereotypes held by some Poles and some Jews.
Poles, many of whom view their nation exclusively as a land of heroism that resisted the Nazi occupation, have reacted with defensive outrage in past years when acts of anti-Semitic violence during and after the war came to light. It's easy to imagine new controversies erupting when the museum opens and the Polish public is again confronted with oppression of Jews.