Warsaw Ghetto memorial reflects a changing Poland

By Vanessa Gera

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 15 2013 7:00 a.m. MDT

However, Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Polish Jewish commentator, says the monument belongs near the museum and ghetto memorial. Putting it anywhere else, he said in an interview with The Associated Press, "would be incomprehensible at best and an insult at worst. If we begin by seemingly diminishing the importance of Polish heroism, then how can we expect the Poles to accept the darker side? It would be unfair."

In general, state officials, intellectuals and younger Poles have increasingly shown a willingness to make an honest reckoning with the past, something that comes amid a broader interest in celebrating the many contributions Jews made to Polish culture.

The museum, nearly 20 years in the making, will at first hold temporary exhibitions and other cultural events. It will tell the 1,000-year story of Jewish life in Poland, showing how periods of tolerance allowed Polish Jews to develop a flourishing culture and become the largest Jewish community in the world for a time.

"With its opening, the museum will become a physical space that for the first time will present the entire history of Polish Jewry, which I believe is fundamental." said Gebert.

"This change was made possible because Poland is a success story — and the fact that Poles feel good, by and large, about their country and therefore have the courage to also accept that the country has done horrible things in the past."

Visually, the large, glass-paneled museum has already transformed the heart of the former ghetto where the Nazis imprisoned nearly half a million people, subjecting them to killings and starvation before sending them to the gas chambers of Treblinka.

The space around the museum already attracts huge numbers of visitors who pay homage to the ghetto fighters, many with candles or wreaths.

Multitudes come from Israel, where the uprising has long been nurtured as a symbol of national pride to counter the image of Jews meekly filing into the gas chambers. Many survivors of the uprising managed to reach Israel, which became a state three years after the war ended, and some of them founded their own kibbutz, called the Ghetto Fighters' Kibbutz.

 "It makes me shiver to stand on this blood-soaked land," said Ori Horenstein, a 55-year- old lawyer from Tel Aviv who was visiting days before the anniversary. "But it makes me proud to see that there were a few who decided to go down as brave heroes."

Those fighters will be honored during next Friday's ceremonies, to be led by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.

The big celebrity, however, will be Simha Rotem, born in 1924 and one of the very few remaining survivors of the uprising. Most were killed in the fighting, though a few dozen managed to escape the ghetto through sewage canals, with Rotem himself leading about 40 others out that way to the city's "Aryan" side.

The uprising broke out April 19, 1943, when about 750 young Jewish fighters armed with just pistols and other light arms attacked a German force more than three times its size. In their last testaments they said they knew they were doomed but wanted to die at a time and place of their own choosing.

In the end, the fighters held out nearly a month, longer than some German-invaded countries did.

As part of the new desire to celebrate Poland's Jewish past, organizers, led by the city of Warsaw, are making an unprecedented effort to get residents involved in four weeks of commemorative films, lectures, even a communal cleaning of the Jewish cemetery. They wrap up on May 16, the day in 1943 when the Nazis, having killed most of the fighters, celebrated their victory by blowing up the city's Great Synagogue, a jewel of 19th-century architecture.

To raise awareness of what the Jews suffered, hundreds of volunteers will go around the city handing out small paper daffodils for people to pin to their clothes as a sign of respect. On their website, organizers lament that the uprising, "which in the world is a symbol of the struggle for dignity, is little known in Warsaw" and say they want it to become "the common historical awareness of Poles and Jews."

Online:

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews: www.jewishmuseum.org.pl/en

Vanessa Gera can be reached at twitter.com/VanessaGera

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