Jews celebrate their place in Poland’s history

There were ministers and presidents, and an audience full of people from around the world. But at the official opening of the beautiful Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw last week, there was one speech that stood out from all of the others. In the cold autumn sunlight, Marian Turski got up in front of the crowd and began with the following words:

“During the war years, Jewish partisans sang a song which later became the anthem of their resistance movement. It finished with the words ‘Mir zenen do’ — ‘We are here!’ ” After the construction of this museum, today I too, a member of the Jewish community in Poland, want to repeat after them: “ ‘Mir zenen do’ — ‘We are here!’ ” After he spoke, Turski, 88, took the arm of a 13-year-old Polish Jewish girl and the two of them — representatives of an old and new generation of Polish Jews — symbolically opened the museum doors.

“We are here!” I sat and listened, and reflected on the oddness of it. Turski is a small, bespectacled man, not someone who looks like a fighter. And yet there he was, a survivor of Auschwitz who decided to stay in Poland during half a century of communist rule. In free Poland, as the leader of the Jewish Historical Institute, he played a large role in what could have been a disastrously controversial project — the museum’s planners had to balance the differing wishes of foreign donors, several mayors of Warsaw and a succession of Polish governments — but is now acknowledged as a triumph. The new museum is not a Holocaust memorial, but rather an exhibit describing the 1,000-year history of the Jews in Poland: the Polish kings who invited them in the Middle Ages; the role they played in the development of the country and building its cities; the Jewish politicians and poets who spoke and wrote in Polish for centuries. It celebrates the lives of Polish Jews, not their deaths at the hands of Nazi Germany. And all to prove that “we are here.”

In this part of the world, that kind of sentiment is well understood. After all, the Polish national anthem itself begins with the words “Poland has not yet perished, so long as we are alive.” The lyrics date from an era when the nation did not figure on maps of Europe: In the 19th century the country was carved up by the empires of Russia, Prussia and Austria. Following World War I, Poland was reestablished — only to be wiped off the maps again by invasions by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. Each time, Poland was reconstructed by people who kept insisting, against all of the odds, that “we are here.”

Indeed, the Ukrainian national anthem begins with almost exactly the same phrase: “Ukraine has not yet perished, nor her glory, nor her freedom.” These lyrics, based on a poem written in the second half of the 19th century, also date from an era when Ukraine did not figure on any maps of Europe. But it was sung anyway, during the very brief moment when Ukraine also enjoyed independence after World War I, and then again in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. And of course it was sung many times by the vast crowds of protesters that filled Kiev’s Maidan square this year. On Jan. 1, 2014, some 100,000 people sang it at the stroke of midnight. They too were insisting, “We are here!”

For those who live in larger nations, I’m not sure that this emotion is even comprehensible. Certainly the insistent declaration “we are here” isn’t part of any big nation’s national anthem. Americans sing about “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The British sing “God save the Queen.” The French sing, “The day of glory has arrived.” None of them sing in order to prove that they haven’t been wiped out.

But those who live in geographically insecure nations can perhaps empathize with one another somewhat better. If nothing else, Warsaw’s new museum shows that the history of Poland is almost impossible to understand without the Jews who played such an important role in it; that the history of the Jews is almost impossible to understand without Poland, where so many of them lived, and flourished, for so many centuries; and that, despite what happened in the 20th century, we are all still here to remember it. I hope the museum, and the people who will visit it, can help that empathy grow.

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