Image: Foundation for Jewish museum
Czarek Sokolowski  /  AP
Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Meir Lau fixes a stone during foundation stone laying ceremony for the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday.
updated 6/26/2007 10:01:40 PM ET 2007-06-27T02:01:40

The chief rabbi of Tel Aviv challenged Iran's Holocaust-denying president Tuesday to visit a museum being built in Warsaw that will celebrate Poland's thriving Jewish community before it was obliterated by the Nazis.

The $65 million museum is to rise in a central Warsaw square by late 2009, next to a stark monument to the Jews who resisted the Nazis during the 1943 ghetto uprising and down the street from the rail siding where many Jews were deported to death camps.

Rabbi Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor born in Poland, invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "to come here to see the millions of Polish Jews and to know also how they perished from this world so he will understand the Holocaust is a real thing, is not a legend."

Ahmadinejad has drawn widespread condemnation for calling the Holocaust a "myth." He also hosting a conference in Iran that drew researchers who argued that either the Holocaust did not happen or was vastly exaggerated.

"You cannot deny history, you cannot deny facts, and the facts and the history of Polish Jews will be shown, expressed and represented here in this museum," Lau said at the groundbreaking ceremony.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski told the crowd, which sought shelter from a steady rain and stiff wind under a white tent, that the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is "a great chance to ... break the lack of knowledge about one another" and forge "deeper reconciliation" between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles as they remember their common history.

"In this city, in this place, which was once home to a large Jewish community, the largest Jewish city in Europe, this museum will fulfill its role — (to show) that for 900 years our histories were entwined," Kaczynski said. "There were various periods, better times and worse times, but there's no doubt that the history of Polish Jews is a part of the history of my country ... and demands remembrance."

'Their story will be told'
Kaczynski and other officials, including Lau, Israeli Ambassador David Peleg and Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz signed the groundbreaking act.

The leaders then used a trowel and mortar to bury ceremonial documents in the red-brick foundations of an 18th century building that was used by the Judenrat, or head of the Jewish administration in the ghetto during World War II.

The museum — an austere glass and limestone structure designed by the Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamaki and Ilmari Lahdelma — will chronicle the fate of Jews in their Eastern European homeland with interactive and multimedia displays and video, not just traditional artifacts and exhibits.

Plans include reconstructing the painted ceiling of an 18th century wooden synagogue almost to its original size.

Eight galleries will narrate a story starting in the 10th century when Ibrahim ibn Jakub, a Jewish merchant from Arab Spain, first arrived in the Polish kingdom.

"Their story will be told for future generations, not only how millions of Jews perished in the Holocaust, but the story of (who) were those Jews, what did they accomplish, what did they create, who were these personalities," Lau said. "These Jews had a glorious past."

Long overdue?
To many, such a center is long overdue in a country that had Europe's largest Jewish community until World War II, numbering about 3.3 million, or 10 percent of the total population. The society produced a vibrant Yiddish-speaking culture and a string of great scientists, writers and thinkers, including Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Poland is also where Nazi Germany built Auschwitz, Treblinka and the other extermination camps where 6 million Jews — half of them Polish — were killed.

Yet Jewish history and suffering were taboo themes for decades under communist rule. Communist authorities forced thousands of Polish Jews out of the country in a 1968 anti-Semitic campaign.

Only about 30,000 Jews live in Poland today and the country, which shed communist rule in 1989, has been wrestling with a reputation for anti-Semitism that it says is unfair. Officials frequently cite the large number of Poles honored by Yad Vashem as "righteous among nations," for those who helped save Jews from the Holocaust.

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