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Poland’s Jewish Renaissance Moves Forward With Popular New Museum

Philanthropist Tad Taube (Photo by Koret Foundation)

Philanthropist Tad Taube (Photo by Koret Foundation)

June 28 will mark the start of the 23rd annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland, whose closing event is a concert that routinely draws 20,000-25,000 people and exemplifies the re-emerging broad appeal of Jewish culture in a country that was home to three million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

“Probably less than ten percent of the people at that concert are Jewish,” said San Francisco-based and Poland-born philanthropist said Tad Taube.

But now the Jewish Culture Festival is not alone as a symbol of Poland’s Jewish renaissance. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews – for which two foundations Taube heads, the Koret Foundation and Taube Philanthropies, have made commitments of $16 million in total – opened to visitors this April in Warsaw and according to Taube is beginning to deliver the message that “one thousand years of Jewish history serve as the underpinnings of our own Judeo-Christian Western culture.”

Much like the Jewish Culture Festival, Taube expects the museum to appeal to audiences well beyond the Jewish community. After it opened in April, the museum saw 15,000 visitors in its first three days and 45,000 in its first month.

“I think our studies right now show that we’re going to have in excess of a million people a year visiting the museum, and probably no more than two hundred thousand would be Jewish,” Taube said. “So it’s going to be a major global attraction. And the [attendance] model that we have is something that exists already, which is the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.”

Taube recalled a conversation he had with a Polish consular official who noted, “In 1939, the population of Poland was thirty-five million, and roughly ten percent of that population was Jewish, but the contribution to Polish culture was probably more like seventy-five percent. So when the Nazis murdered the Jews, it was as if Polish culture had been amputated.”

The consulate official’s point is why Taube believes Polish culture at large – not just Polish-Jewish culture – is being revived through the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Taube said the “unfortunate aspect of modern thinking about the Holocaust” is that it “tends to obscure a great culture that existed for a millennium in Poland, and which had an enormous influence on Western culture.”

He noted that “[The Jewish community] brought to Poland a great deal of art, music, theater, literature, philosophy, law, charity, family values, community values – all of the things that are embraced today as part of Judeo-Christian Western culture, and it brought those [elements] to Poland and to Jews as well as mostly non-Jews, because the Jewish population in Poland was always the minority, although a very large minority.”

The most recent chapter of pre-Holocaust Polish Jewish history involved the late Poland-born Pope John Paul II, whose hometown of Wadowice was more than 40-percent Jewish before the Nazis annexed the town in 1939. John Paul II left Wadowice in 1938 to study at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, but would frequently return later in life, including three times as the pope.

Among the current efforts to rediscover Poland’s rich history is the School for Dialogue Among Nations, a yearlong learning program through which students in Polish high schools learn about the Jewish history of their local regions. Last winter, JNS.org reported on how these efforts are being implemented in the pope’s hometown.

“Poland has been for many, many years a predominantly Catholic country, and the Polish Pope John Paul II and the Polish people were essentially unified in terms of their thinking about religious issues,” Taube said.

“And what Pope John Paul II did in terms of his impact on the Jewish people, is he took it upon himself to go to Poland, condemn anti-Semitism, commemorate the Holocaust, and establish diplomatic relationships with Israel. On another trip to Poland in 1979, he knelt and prayed at Auschwitz…”

John Paul II’s most important contribution to Jewish-Christian relations was “that he delivered the message in Poland that the Jewish people were not responsible for the death of Jesus, and also delivered the message that anti-Semitism was a sin against God and the Church,” Taube added.

Taube said his motivation for contributing to Poland’s Jewish renaissance doesn’t have a lot to do with his Polish birth, even though he lost a large segment of his family in the Holocaust.

“I became involved in Jewish community life to a fairly significant extent starting about forty years ago,” Taube recalled. “And I became concerned that what I saw was rather defensive in nature. I thought some of the Jewish organizations and in fact their Jewish leadership were, I would say, eager to manifest their Jewishness but at the same time in a very narrow context. You might have a philanthropist who gave a significant gift to a Jewish organization, but maybe ninety-five percent of that individual’s gifts would go to non-Jewish organizations. And I started wondering, ‘Why?’ ”

The answer, according to Taube, involves the Holocaust, which “obscured Jewish thinking in the sense that it dominated our perception about ourselves, and what was lost in the process was the contribution that the Jewish people made to Western culture, a very important contribution.”

Following the devastation of the Holocaust, Poland is now a “very young country,” Taube said, stressing the importance of events such as the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow engaging a young demographic.

“Those aren’t 85 year olds dancing in the streets [at the Jewish Culture Festival]. [Young Poles] celebrate our Jewish events with us with great excitement and enthusiasm, and Poland emerged today as a pretty open society, free of a lot of the issues that it had to face before the war. As a matter of fact, most of the people who were facing those issues are dead.”

As the Jewish renaissance in Poland moves forward with efforts such as the culture festival and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Taube feels tolerance from non-Jews is crucial.

“Having a tolerant Christian population that understands Jewish issues and understands Jewish history and culture, and acknowledges that we’ve played a very fundamental role in helping to shape their value systems – I think all of those things bode well for moving toward a [Polish] society where there is less hatred,” he said.

“We need to teach people how to love one another and to stop looking for excuses to hate.”


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