SWM 2015: Poland - Remembering Warsaw’s Jewish community through heritage conservation
Embargo: 2 July 2015 00.01 (GMT+1)
Case study by Dobroslawa Wiktor-Mach
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, when Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, more than 380,000 Jews lived in Warsaw. During the war, however, the Nazis annihilated the large majority of the city’s Jewish population and destroyed much of their physical heritage. Under Communist rule, the surviving synagogues and other Jewish buildings deteriorated further due to neglect. Only a few monuments were protected as valuable historic sites.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first efforts to rediscover Warsaw’s forgotten heritage emerged. But it was not until February 1997, when the Law on the Relationship between the State and the Union of Jewish Religious Communities was adopted, that the long process of restituting Jewish communal heritage began. The law also provided for the establishment of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) to reclaim and administer synagogues, cemeteries and other sites, especially outside large cities where there was no longer a Jewish population to take care of them. The same year also witnessed the revival of the Warsaw Jewish Community, the largest of the eight Jewish municipalities operating in major Polish cities and which together form the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland.
So far, the Foundation and the Communities have become the owners of only a small portion of Poland’s Jewish physical heritage. Besides the restoration, reconstruction and protection of existing buildings, there are also efforts to commemorate pre-war Jewish communities with monuments and memorial plaques, often in cooperation with local non-Jewish residents. However, limited funding and insufficient capacity has meant that the Warsaw Jewish Community is only able to deal with one or two projects at any time.
The subject of Jewish physical heritage remains controversial, however. There is no consensus on how the reclaimed buildings should be used since the number of Jews living in Poland is very small, and they cannot afford to maintain all Jewish properties. Should the synagogues be preserved as architectural monuments due to their historical value? Should they be retained for their symbolic value to remind people of Poland’s multicultural past? Should they be sold for commercial use? Or perhaps, should they serve local, mostly non-Jewish communities, who will then take care of them? There is no clear vision about this. In Warsaw, apart from an active mikvah located in the historical Nożyk synagogue, the building of an old mikvah in Praga houses a secondary school and the Polish Jewish Youth Organization. The Nożyk synagogue itself, besides its religious function for the city’s Jewish population, is a venue for cultural events, such as concerts, debates or exhibitions.
Lingering anti-Semitism continues to threaten the survival of Warsaw’s Jewish heritage as well, with occasional acts of vandalism at cemeteries, synagogues or other monuments. In February 2015, for instance, an unknown group of people defaced the fence of the Okopowa Street cemetery, an old but still active cemetery managed by the Jewish Warsaw Community. The gate was spoiled with yellow paint and on the walls vandals painted in red: ‘Jews for slaughter.’ According to FODZ’s annual reports, several such incidents take place in Poland every year, mostly consisting of anti-Semitic slogans or swastikas painted on buildings or other forms of damage inflicted on memorial plaques, graves and fences. Though the incidents are reported to the police, in most cases the perpetrators are never found.
One way to raise social awareness of Poland’s minority heritage is through education, especially in a form which is attractive to younger generations. A lot of hope has been invested in the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which inaugurated its main multimedia exhibition on 28 October 2014 after years of preparation. It is hoped that the museum, with its innovative approach to commemoration, will engage visitors by linking the multi-faceted Jewish life directly to Polish history. Contemporary art, performance and new technologies are employed to enrich the experience and give visitors the opportunity to explore Jewish heritage. Instead of focusing on the Holocaust, the exhibition – developed by an international team of over 120 respected researchers, activists and curators – presents the rich history of Jewish life in Poland, based on the idea of an open-ended past. In doing so, it emphasizes the continuity of Jewish heritage throughout Poland’s history, testifying not only to the immeasurable loss Warsaw has suffered but also the continued enrichment Jewish culture brings to the city today.
This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015. View the full report.
Photo: Inside the Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Credit: Magdalena Roeseler/Creative Commons