Polish Jews museum to open on Warsaw ghetto anniversary

A museum dedicated to Polish Jews opens here Friday, on the 70th anniversary of the doomed Warsaw ghetto uprising against Nazi Germany in World War II.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews aims to reclaim the rich 1,000-year heritage which has been overshadowed by the Holocaust.

The striking glass building stands on the site of the former ghetto, where 200 poorly-armed Jews rose up in Europe's first urban anti-Nazi revolt.

Facing the museum is a tribute to the fighters -- the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes -- where former German chancellor Willy Brandt famously fell to his knees in 1970 to apologise for the war.

"The monument is a place where you can go to remember those who died," said curator Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.

"And when we go into the museum, we can honour them by remembering how they lived."

Jews first emigrated to Poland from western Europe to escape 11th-century pogroms.

According to Jewish legend, the refugees heard a voice from heaven say "Po lin" or "rest here" in Hebrew -- and Poland was given its name.

"For centuries, Poland hosted the world's largest Jewish diaspora," museum director Andrzej Cudak said.

While Jewish culture flourished, religious tolerance also had its limits.

This complex coexistence is laid out in a 4,000 square-metre (43,000 square-foot) core exhibition with eight themed halls.

Funded by private donors, German foundations, the Polish government, the city of Warsaw and the EU, the entire project cost 200 million zlotys (50 million euros, $65 million).

Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamaeki and Ilmar Lahdelma beat out more than 100 other applicants to design the building, which took four years to complete.

The space is defined by a glass facade split by a wide fracture directly opposite the imposing monument to the ghetto fighters.

"The design refers to the 1,000 years of Jewish presence in Poland, a presence that was broken by the Holocaust," said Mahlamaeki.

Nazi Germany's genocide wiped out 90 percent of Poland's pre-war 3.3 million Jews.

Not content with snuffing out life, the Germans razed the city building by building and turned Warsaw into a graveyard.

This presented the museum with a challenge.

"If you start from the rubble, you don't start from a historical building, and you don't start from a huge collection," Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said.

Only a small selection of tombstones and coins remain from the earliest years of Jewish life in Poland, plus Judaica and paintings from the later centuries.

The museum was forced to rely on multimedia and a little ingenuity, such as the idea to build a replica of an 18th-century wooden synagogue from the pre-war town of Gwozdziec, complete with a polychrome painted ceiling.

It also made a special Mezuzah, or decorative case containing parchment inscribed with a Hebrew prayer that is traditionally affixed to the doorpost for protection.

The case was made from a brick dug up from the foundations of a building at the site of the ghetto, once a vibrant Jewish neighbourhood.

By the end of World War II only around 300,000 Polish Jews remained.

Many of them emigrated to the United States or Israel, either immediately after the war or during waves of anti-Semitism driven by Poland's communist regime in the 1950s and 1960s.

Those who stayed often hid their Jewish roots, which Poles have been rediscovering since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

In the 2002 census only 1,133 people claimed Jewish roots, while last year the number had grown to around 8,000 people.

But according to various estimates, the true number could be as high as 20,000 to 50,000.

"We don't know (the exact figure) but tomorrow it'll be more," Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich told AFP.

The museum, whose main exhibition will be ready early next year, launches a roster of cultural events this weekend.

"The Germans attempted to wipe out the Jewish community of Poland, they almost succeeded, and here this museum is a tribute to those who created Jewish life for over a millennium," Schudrich said.

"And in some ways also to show the continuity, that it still goes on."