Jewish history museum rises from old Warsaw Ghetto

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It will be the most important Jewish history museum in Europe, and it will be located in the most sensitive spot: The museum for the history of Polish Jewry will be built where the Warsaw Ghetto used to stand.

Three weeks ago, the project director, Jerzy Halbersztadt, sent the master plan for the museum to a group of historians. The recipients undertook, in writing, not to share it with anyone.

On Thursday, they all gathered at Tel Aviv University: Halbersztadt and his aides from Warsaw, the museum's two historical consultants from the United States, the designers from London and the historians from Israel. Copies of the classified master plan were placed on the table and discussed in depth.

"Whatever they wind up doing, they will always be criticized for not sufficiently emphasizing Polish anti-Semitism," one participant said. Indeed, the painful issue  -Poles' relations with the Jews who lived in their midst for centuries - constantly
hovered over the discussion.

"They deal with the relations between Poland's Jews and Poles, but only pay it lip service," Dr. Adam Teller of the University of Haifa said during a break. In addressing the visitors, Teller suggested they present the subject openly. "Maybe even present a reconstruction of a particular pogrom," he said, and mentioned the Poznan pogroms of 1693, in which the Jews bravely defended themselves.

Prof. Yoel Raba of Tel Aviv University suggested displaying an anti-Semitic book written by a 17th-century Polish court physician, in which he accused the Jews of studying medicine to learn murder techniques.

Raba's colleague, Prof. Anita Shapira, wondered about the museum's plan to play down anti-Semitism in Poland between the world wars.

The conference also touched on matters of aesthetics. Prof. Avraham Noverstern of Hebrew University said that a reconstruction of Warsaw's famous Nalewki street, through which visitors would enter the museum, strikes him as a "Disney Worldish" approach. The London designer rejected that criticism.

One of the museum galleries will incorporate a large-scale forest display symbolizing the mysterious Middle Ages, the beginning of Jewish settlement in Poland 1,000 years ago, as the museum directors put it.

Prof. David Assaf of Tel Aviv University, who presided over the morning session, criticized the slogan "One thousand years of Polish Jewry," saying that while that it is a nice round number, as far as is known, actual settlement there dates back only 800 years. Assaf also pointed out embarrassing factual errors in the master plan, including the presentation of a picture of the Baal Shem Tov that was identified long ago as being of somebody else.

Prof. Dan Laor suggested accompanying the display with an excerpt from S. Y. Agnon'a story "Kedumot," which depicts the legend of the Jews' encounter with the Polish forest.

The proposal appeared to find favor with the visitors.

Halbersztadt urged the Israelis to "pay attention to the general structure," and explained there would be plenty of time to correct erroneous details. Discussion then turned to some extremely thorny general questions: Is a museum the appropriate tool for presenting a historical narrative? Is it even capable of presenting complex situations
properly, without obscuring the picture?

The consultations will continue on Sunday

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