In Warsaw, monument to a new start

By Simon Rocker, April 26, 2013
The vast new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw

The vast new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw

The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising last week was more than a commemoration of the best known act of Jewish resistance against the Nazis.

It was also part of the officially sanctioned rapprochement between Jews and Poles that has been gathering pace since the fall of Communism. The night before the national remembrance ceremony at the monument to the Ghetto Fighters on the site of their heroic last stand, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Zubin Mehta, had played a tribute concert at Poland’s palatial National Opera building. When a Polish choir sang the Song of the Ghetto Fighters (Zog mit Keynmol) in Yiddish to the playing of an Israeli orchestra, the symbolism was obvious.

“It’s amazing how music can be so healing on a political, social as well emotional level,” said the chairman of the British Friends of the Israel Philharmonic, Marsha Lee, who came for the occasion from London with her husband, Alan.

“It is one thing not to forget — you shouldn’t forget. But you still need to heal the wounds.”

The following day, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski recalled that the Jewish revolt in April 1943 had been the first urban uprising against the German occupation in Europe.

Replica of 17th-century synagogue fresco, inside the museum (Photo: AP)

Replica of 17th-century synagogue fresco, inside the museum (Photo: AP)

“The uprising was a great challenge thrown down by the Jewish insurgents in the face of persecutors and murderers,” he said, “but it was also an accusation of passivity and ineffectiveness of the whole free world, the world that could not bring itself to help, although it knew.”

Drum-rolls and a volley of rifle fire sounded a military salute to the fighters that perished, after American chazan Joseph Malovany recited the Memorial Prayer in Hebrew in a voice so powerful that it might have pierced the clouds and made the heavens tremble.

Representing Israel, the Education Minister, Rabbi Shai Piron, noted that, after the Babylon of talmudic times, no other place had matched Poland as a centre of Jewish spiritual and intellectual creativity.

Now that achievement will be celebrated in the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which faces the Ghetto Fighter’s memorial on the opposite side of the square.

Although its exhibits are still to be mounted for opening later this year, it already stands as an imposing cultural landmark in the Polish capital.

“It is a serious presentation of 1,000 years of Jewish life,” said accountant Joe Smoczynski, who moved from London to Warsaw in 1990 and is a member of its growing Jewish community. “It’s a positive story to tell.”

One of the last surviving fighters from the uprising, Simcha Rotem, 88, who went to Israel after the war, was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland at the Warsaw ceremony. Here is an edited extract of his address:

“In those days, I felt how very much alone we were and that we could only count on ourselves. As a result of our attempts, I managed to evacuate about 50 people from the ghetto right past a regular German army checkpoint. I was lucky. I also had assistance from Poles who put their lives, and the lives of their families, at risk.

“In this part of Europe, if you helped a Jew, you were condemned to death. And I very often wonder, would I be ready to put my life at risk, and the life of my family, in a similar situation?
“However, there were also people who without any need, without any threat to their lives, just for the pleasure of it, with a single word or pointing a finger, condemned a Jew to death. And I cannot and I don’t want to understand them. Just as I won’t understand the people who, after the war, participated in the pogroms against the Jews who were saved from the Holocaust.

“From all the tragic experiences of the war, and the Holocaust, there is one lesson that I learned, that there is nothing more valuable than human life... To this day the world has not drawn conclusions from this horrible crime.

“The words ‘War Never More’ still don’t mean much. But we have to remember. Perhaps people will hear.

“After us, our children will come here, and our children’s children, and they will keep repeating ‘War Never More’, because human life is holy.”

Last updated: 1:45pm, April 26 2013