The Warsaw Jewish Museum

October 30, 2014 Agencies
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At an emotional ceremony today in Warsaw, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin inaugurated the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, together with President of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski.

President Rivlin answered his Polish counterpart’s invitation to take part in the opening of this unique and important museum, which encompasses for the first time under one roof the history of the Jews of Poland throughout one thousand years of the community’s life in the country.  Additionally, the President laid a wreath in memory of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, on the street at the entrance to the Museum.

President Reuven Rivlin (centre)

President Reuven Rivlin (centre) at the museum

 The President said in his address, “I do not stand here today as an individual, but rather as the representative of an entire nation. A nation whose collective journey delves deep into the foundations of Jewish and human existence and into the depths of evil. As a Jew, even if you were not born in Poland, the very name, Poland, gives rise to a shuddering in your body and a longing in your heart.  This country was breeding ground for the soul of the Jewish nation, and unfortunately, also grounds to the largest Jewish cemetery.

“Only with this kind of courage we can write, and we have already begun to write, a new and promising chapter in the centuries old history shared between us. Only with this kind of courage we can, one day, add a new wing, new wings, to the museum we are inaugurating today. Wings that will describe the common path we take together today.

“We forever remain aware of the danger. The State of Israel will pursue Auschwitz and what it symbolizes: the desecration of human dignity which was born the image of God; anti-Semitism in all its forms and manifestations, and Nazi ideology and racism. Israel continues to fight against all these evils and will not surrender. We build our future eyes wide open and alert. We do not belittle threats. We will not belittle shameful statements calling for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Holocaust continues to serve as a warning sign against non-banal evil.”

“Following the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem by Roman Emperor Titus and the consequential exile of the people of Israel from their land, I was born in one of the cities in the Diaspora. But at any given time, and always, it seems to me that I was born in Jerusalem.” This is how Shmuel Yosef Agnon, one of the greatest writers of the Jewish people, who was born in the town of Buczacz (which belonged throughout most of history within the borders of the Polish Kingdom), began his acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize for literature.

And I, Reuven the son of Yosef-Yoel and Rachel Rivlin, stand before you here today, as the tenth President of Israel, as someone born in Jerusalem, as a great-grandchild and grandchild to Jerusalemites and founders of the city. I cannot declare, “I am a Pole.” However, I cannot deny the special status of Poland and the Polish roots of my Jerusalemite family. These roots are deeply embedded in the complex history of Poland. There is a family legend passed on throughout the generations surrounding the special story of one of the family’s fathers. During one of the Polish noble’s conferences they found it difficult to reach agreement on the identity of the new Poland. As a temporary solution they chose Rabbi Shaul Ktznlboign, my family’s father, to be King of Poland, or “King of Poland for one day”.

My hosts and respected friends. I do not stand here today as an individual, but rather as the representative of an entire nation. A nation whose collective journey delves deep into the foundations of Jewish and human existence and into the depths of evil. The story I told is just one of thousands of stories interwoven like capillaries into the historical consciousness of the Jewish people. As a Jew, even if you were not born in Poland, the very name, Poland, gives rise to a shuddering in your body and a longing in your heart. This country was breeding ground for the soul of the Jewish nation, and unfortunately, also grounds to the largest Jewish cemetery.

Here was the Jewish town (the shtetl) was born, and here it died. It died converged unto itself in ghettos until it was ultimately murdered by the Nazis. Jews fought here, as soldiers carrying weapons in the King’s army, decorated heroes of the Polish Army; and here too they marched to their deaths wearing yellow Stars of David, raising the banner of revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto, including: Mordechai Anielewicz, Chaika Grossman, Pawel Frenkel, Marek Edelman and many others of all denominations have redefined Jewish heroism through their courage and bravery. We can never think of Poland equanimity.

Even if the Jews were disconnected from Poland it is difficult to impossible to disconnect Poland from the Jews. A history so rich, so full and so painful cannot be erased.

The Jewish Museum whose permanent exhibition we inaugurate today, is trying to portray Jewish history in Poland in all its aspects, the wealth and poverty; the adherents and opponents; the educated and commoners; neighborly relations; the joyous history and the tragedies.

This is not a Holocaust museum, but a museum of life. It is a place that commemorates what was, what will never be again, and the hope for a different future. Distinguished friends. Two decades ago, historian Jan Tomasz Gross’ book “Neighbors”, shocked the Polish historical consciousness. The book revealed in the most painful way, the crime of Jedwabne and stirred the Polish public to delve into the depth of its past. In one discussion, Prof. Kieres, head of the “Institute of National Memory,” said that the Jedwabne crime is also a great possibility for Polish society. And I quote: “This is a chance for dialogue with ourselves about our joint biographical segments. It is a chance to clarify to the world that we are brave enough to discuss the issue.” He said. I believe that every day that goes by Polish society becomes more courageous in dealing with itself, dealing with its past, and with its future. Only with this kind of courage we can write, and we have already begun to write, a new and promising chapter in the centuries old history shared between us. Only with this kind of courage we can, one day, add a new wing, new wings, to the museum we are inaugurating today. Wings that will describe the common path we take together today. Dear Friends. Jewish history did not begin in Warsaw and doesn’t end at Auschwitz. Auschwitz is its horrible pit, a horror of humanity, but the Jewish journey does not start there just as it does not end there.

The Jewish journey begins in the Land of Israel, and it is there that we always striving to return to. Against all odds and restrictions. There are those that mistakenly think that the State of Israel is compensation for the Holocaust. There is no greater mistake. The State of Israel is not a compensation for the Holocaust. The State of Israel was established in its own right. Poland can attest to this. It was in Poland where Jabotinsky’s avocation program was developed, and where Betar (the Jewish underground movement) fighters were trained. Poland, like so many other countries around the world, the dream of a Jewish state was kindled, many years before the Holocaust.

We forever remain aware of the danger. The State of Israel will pursue Auschwitz and what it symbolizes: the desecration of human dignity which was born the image of God; anti-Semitism in all its forms and manifestations, and Nazi ideology and racism. Israel continues to fight against all these evils and will not surrender. We build our future eyes wide open and alert. We do not belittle threats. We will not belittle shameful statements calling for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Holocaust continues to serve as a warning sign against non-banal evil. Nevertheless, the horrors of the past and the threats of the present will not dictate our lives nor shape the lives of our children, and won’t dim the hope for a creativity and prosperous future.

Friends. In my country, we have a bright red floor called ‘blood of the Maccabees’. Legend has it that wherever a freedom fighter for Israel fell, a flower grew, red-as his blood. Even in the world of Nazi evil, flowers continued to bloom. Among the ruins, and rubble through the evil of hatred, betrayal and destruction, flowers bloomed. These flowers are the Righteous among the Nations, human freedom fighters who wrote a chapter on human dignity in the shared history of the nations. In Poland, they say, many such flowers bloomed. I cannot conclude without thanking all those who didn’t stand aloof, who saved lives that are worlds unto their own. Thank you for your courage. You have a large warm family in Israel: grandparents, parents, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who owe you their lives. I will conclude with the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!”

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