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Poland: Compensate Private Assets of Holocaust Victims

by Gad Nahshon

The Prime Minister of Poland, H.E. Leszek Miller, was recently a guest of the Conference of Presidents in New York City. He was introduced to the many distinguished guests by Malcolm Hoenlein, Mort Zuckerman, and by Ron Lauder, who developed special relations with the various Polish governments.

The Prime Minister developed his speech (in Polish) into two parts. First, he spoke about the terrible past of the Holocaust in Poland and even mentioned Poland's anti-Semitic attack on Israel and the Jews in 1968. He offered an apology to the Jews. He also mentioned the fact that Poland was also a victim of Nazism and that many Polish people deserve compensation from the government. Second, Miller said that Poland compensated the Jews in Poland by helping them in the community field (buildings, synagogues). Miller revealed a little surprise: He said that Poland might also compensate those Jews who lost private property and personal assets as well.

In the past, various Polish leaders objected to this idea. One of them said that it might transfer half of Poland to Holocaust survivors or their heirs. Miller also said that his government will support the idea of commemoration of the history of the Jews in Poland. The Polish Jews, a small community of 5,000 people, is planning the establishment of the first Museum of the history of Polish Jews in Warsaw. There is an international team which is working to accomplish this unique project.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews will create a visual narrative of the millennial Jewish civilization that flourished in the lands of Poland, the civilization known as Eastern Ashkenaz. Using contemporary multimedia technology, the Museum will portray Jewish life in the teeming Jewish neighborhoods of Warsaw and Lodz, but also in small towns and in the countryside. Visitors will not view artifacts in display cases, but will be transported into a virtual world of marketplaces and studyhouses, theaters and rallies.

Such a museum will be of use for Poles, for whom Jewish culture is rarely more than myth. It will serve Jews throughout the world who increasingly come to Poland to reconnect to the history of their family and their people. It will also attract those of other cultures, who in visiting Poland seek the traces of a vanished multiethnic world.

The project is the work of an international group of experts in the fields of museum construction and Polish Jewish history. The head of the project, until his death in January 2000, was Jeshajahu Weinberg, creator and past director of the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The project's chief historian is Professor Israel Gutman of the Hebrew University and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The director of the project is Jerzy Halbersztadt, who works under the auspices of the Jewish Historical Institute Association in Poland and the International Board of the Museum.

The cost of this project is $50 million.

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