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What Lay Here Before

Warsaw’s newest museum rests on the site of the former Jewish ghetto

Stephanie Butnick
April 19, 2013
Museum of the History of Polish Jews.(Abigail Miller)
Museum of the History of Polish Jews.(Abigail Miller)

This looked different in July 2010.

“On this site rises the Museum of the History of Polish Jews,” the sign on the chain-link fence read when I was last here. Behind it lay only a construction site, but the ambitious institution-to-be was already pulling no punches about its gravity and importance. Its mere location was already deeply significant—inside the former Warsaw Ghetto, the largest in occupied Europe, and directly across from the ghetto fighters monument, Nathan Rapoport’s large-scale memorialization of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The marketing worked; I was struck by the enormity of the project. The site was massive, with structural beginnings springing up mechanically from the ground. The building’s still-undefined innards, coupled with the omniscient tone of the sign identifying the building, suggested an almost biblical arrival. From the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, quite literally, was emerging an institution dedicated to not just the Holocaust, but the entirety of Jewish life in Poland.

But like anything built on the infamous site, the project was mired, existentially and physically, in its past. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest Jewish revolt during the Holocaust, lasted for 27 days before the Nazis reestablished control over the ghetto, killing resistance fighters and setting fire to buildings, many of which had people inside. The Nazis murdered approximately 7,000 Jews during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the last 50,000 ghetto residents were sent to concentration camps. The remaining ghetto was eventually razed, and after the war new buildings went up. Some parts of the former ghetto, though, like the land on which the museum was eventually built, lay fallow—flat, field-like expanses that served, unofficially, as grim memorials.

Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, enlisted the help of a Rabbinic supervisor as construction crews began digging the ground to build the museum. Though gruesome, human bones not an uncommon discovery around there. Just a few weeks ago, Schudrich told me, workers repairing a burst pipe inside the former ghetto area came across human remains. Just as he did then, Schudrich, along with the Rabbinic supervisor, oversaw the removal of the bones and swift reburial in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery. The site chosen for the museum, it seems, was all too appropriate.

Today the Museum of Polish Jews makes its grand entrance into Warsaw’s cultural landscape as part of the official commemoration ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The ceremony, taking place this morning on the cobblestone plaza between the museum and the monument, with its two large stone-carved menorahs solemnly ablaze, solidifies the museum’s prominent, and quite intentional, positioning in Warsaw’s Jewish narrative.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

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