Perhaps no one is more excited about the opening of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw than Luna Kaufman.
A native of Cracow who survived the Holocaust, the Watchung resident was a guest of the Polish consulate in New York for the Warsaw-based ceremonies on Oct. 27-28.
The $100 million museum, located on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and directly across from the Monument of the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes, uses state-of-the-art technology and multimedia installations to narrate 1,000 years of Polish-Jewish history.
The Polin museum was built as a public-private institution, with the Polish government and the city of Warsaw providing $60 million for construction and more than 500 private and institutional donors, many of them Jewish, contributing $48 million for the core exhibition.
Kaufman is a member emerita of the Sister Rose Thering Fund at Seton Hall University in South Orange and former president of Temple Sholom in Plainfield. She was interned in the Cracow Ghetto with her family before being deported to the Plaszow, Hasag-Skarzysko, and Leipzig concentration camps; her sister and father would ultimately perish at Stutthof and Auschwitz, respectively.
Some 70 years after her liberation, the museum opening was an opportunity for Kaufman to share personal impressions of the ceremonies and her optimism over what the new museum symbolizes.
“The ceremonies for the museum took place facing the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, which was very moving for me because I remember standing in that very same spot 66 years ago at the original unveiling of the Warsaw Ghetto Monument in 1948,” she told NJJN. “At that time, just after the war, Warsaw was in very rough shape, but today it’s a whole bustling city — all of the buildings and infrastructure have been restored and so has the attitude of the people.”
Kaufman learned that the museum’s goal is to tell a far broader history of Polish Jewry than its destruction during the Shoa.
“In my opinion, the greatest value of the museum is the fact that it highlights 1,000 years of the life and contributions of Jews to Poland, which is different than many other museums that focus only on the atrocities that occurred within a short period of time during the Holocaust,” said Kaufman. “The Holocaust is important, but it’s just a fragment of the Jews’ total history in Poland. People always want to know how we died, not how we lived, but this new museum is dedicated to the life of the Jews.”
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin jointly inaugurated the core exhibit at ceremonies that included survivors, funders, and other dignitaries.
“The night before the opening, we enjoyed a concert featuring works by Jewish composers and an exhibit on Jewish sportsmen and artists, which were all so moving and done with great dignity,” said Kaufman. Komorowski and Rivlin “were so eloquent and there was a feeling that they were all in it together. The cooperation and respect between Poland and Israel was also very evident and was so encouraging,” she said, citing the view from her hotel window, where she saw “the Polish and Israeli flags flying from every lamppost as well as posters promoting the museum and opening events on the campus of the University of Warsaw.”
Hundreds of thousands of people — Poles and Jews, locals and foreigners — have visited the museum in the 20 months since the building was opened to the public. Organizers expect a half-million or more each year now that the core exhibit has opened.
“To see people now reconciling and recognizing each other with great respect was tremendous, and while I was there, I spoke fondly of Sister Rose and my longtime work and friendship with her,” said Kaufman, referring to the late Catholic nun and scholar who made Seton Hall a center for Jewish-Christian reconciliation.
“I believe that living with bitterness doesn’t accomplish anything and that people need to be tolerant and open. Jews in Poland lived in fear and hiding for so long, but it’s a different attitude there now,” said Kaufman. “To have this museum open was a momentous occasion, and I was absolutely overjoyed by it and so excited to be a part of it. It’s a new day for Poles and Jews and I’m very proud of my heritage.”
With reporting by JTA