New Polish Museum Selects Brandeis Professor as Chief Historian

The painted cupola and bimah of the Gwozdziec Synagogue, a permanent exhibit at Polin the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw
Photo courtesy of M. Starowieyska, D. Golik and POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
The painted cupola and bimah of the Gwozdziec Synagogue, a permanent exhibit at Polin the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw

By Penny Schwartz

Published September 24, 2014, issue of September 25, 2014.

When the new Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews opens in late October, the ties between Warsaw and Boston will deepen even further.

Last week, Antony Polonsky, an award-winning historian and the Albert Abramson, professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, was appointed chief historian of the museum, a $110 million public-private enterprise located in Poland on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto.

Polonsky, a leading authority on Polish-Jewish history and an important voice on the emergence of Jewish life in today’s Poland, is author of the monumental, three-volume book, “The Jews in Poland and Russia.” He is the founder of the American Association for Polish-Jewish studies in Cambridge.

By many measures, the museum’s opening marks an historic moment, and leaders from around the world are expected to attend the multi-day ceremonies that will accompany the museum’s October 28 official opening.

“It is my hope that this museum will contribute to the preservation and informed appreciation of the history and accomplishments of the Jews of this region, and of their descendants all over the world,” Polonsky said in a statement. “The Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jews and Stalin’s efforts to eradicate their culture ultimately failed. There are still Jews in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and the rich culture the Jews created here remains a source of admiration and inspiration to both Jews and non-Jews in Poland and across the globe.”

Polonsky’s affiliation with the museum, part of its Global Education Outreach Program, is supported by Taube Philanthropies, the Koret Foundation and the William K. Bowes, Jr. Family Foundation, according to the announcement by Taube Philanthropies, one of the key supporters of the museum.

Antony Polonsky
Courtesy of Antony Polonsky
Antony Polonsky

“Dr. Polonsky provides invaluable insight and historical perspective to this unprecedented museum, telling the story of a millennium of Polish Jewish history – part of my own family’s story and that of more than 70 percent of the world’s Jews,” said Tad Taube, chairman of Taube Philanthropies and Honorary Consul for the Republic of Poland in San Francisco. Polonsky’s appointment adds to the already significant, behind-the-scenes connections between the museum and Boston.

A centerpiece of the museum’s permanent exhibit is a nearly full scale replica of the majestic roof and intricately painted cupola of the Gwozdziec Synagogue, one of the most magnificent of Poland’s historic wooden synagogues, built during the 18th century. The massive replica, built entirely by hand, using methods and materials that would have been used at the time, was created by an international team of traditional woodworkers and students, led by Handshouse Studio of Norwell. The founders and principals of the educational nonprofit are Rick and Laura Brown, artists and inspired educators who are on the faculty of Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. Many of the students and alumni who were part of the team that worked on this project over the last ten years are from area colleges, including Mass. Art and Brandeis.

In another Boston connection, Cary and Yari Wolinsky, of Boston-based Trillium Studios, and John Rubin, executive producer, made a film that documents the creation of this extraordinary replica. “Raise the Roof,” will have its world premiere during the museum’s opening ceremonies. The father-son duo filmed on site in Poland over two summers, capturing the once-in-a-lifetime experience as hundreds of students from around the world worked alongside traditional carpenters and painters to complete this replica. Polonsky is one of the scholars interviewed in the film, as is Thomas C. Hubka, author of “Resplendent Synagogue,” a book about the Gwozdziec Synagogue, published in 2004 by Brandeis University Press.

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