Life Not Death: A New Museum of Jewish History in Warsaw

04/07/2013 12:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2013

In October 2013, President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres are expected to attend the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. The presence of such dignitaries attests to the tremendous significance that this endeavor holds for Jews worldwide as well as Poles.

The museum describes itself as devoted to "the history of Polish Jews and the rich civilization they created over the course of almost 1000 years." This comparatively tranquil millennium of Jewish existence has often been obscured by the word-and-thought-defying murder of more than 3 million Polish Jews during the Holocaust (and after the war as well). It is this contradiction between two narratives that is examined in this episode of Faith Complex: one a tale of relatively serene Jewish existence in Christendom, punctuated by periods of cultural incandescence; the other, a saga of inexplicably brutal and rapid Jewish death carried out on Polish soil, with no small amount of complicity on the part of Poles themselves.

Tablet Magazine's senior writer Allison Hoffman discusses her research for a feature on the Museum with Georgetown University's Alexa Ryan West (the article will soon appear on Tablet's website). Their conversation ranges across a variety of complex and emotionally fraught subjects. These include the curators' dilemma of how to properly balance the representation of a prolonged era of peaceful Jewish existence in Poland with six years of horrifically efficient genocide.

Their discussion also touches on the prickly question of Polish motivations for erecting this monument, built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Hoffman sees a mixture of motives, both pragmatic (e.g., Poland's need to reintegrate into the comity of Western nations after the darkness of communist rule) and benign (e.g., earnest contrition and a desire to build partnerships with Jews). Our guest reflects on opinions from both Jews and Poles about the deeper significance of the Museum, concluding that, ultimately, what will stand is an enduring and intellectually serious testament to the Jews of Poland.

Our host, Alexa Ryan West contributed to the writing of this article.

Jewish Museum in Warsaw