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Museum pays tribute to 1943 ghetto uprising

But facing past still stirs deep pain in Poland

A scene from the Warsaw Ghetton on April 19, 1943.

Associated Press/File

A scene from the Warsaw Ghetton on April 19, 1943.

WARSAW — Almost nothing remains of the old Warsaw Ghetto: a few buildings here and there, a synagogue, some fragments of a brick wall. The rest was blown up by the Germans in their onslaught against the Jews who took up arms against them.

Now this Holocaust-era prison of misery and death is undergoing a dramatic transformation in time for the April 19 anniversary of the start of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, a revolt that ended in death for most of the fighters yet gave the world an enduring symbol of resistance against the odds.

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The change in this district of the capital and its place in Polish consciousness is embodied in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews that has risen up in a vast square in the heart of the vanished ghetto, ringed by Holocaust memorials and shabby communist-era apartment buildings.

It celebrates the Jewish life that flourished in Poland for centuries before the Holocaust, and dares to confront Poles with a truth many would once have strongly denied: that this country has had its own dark chapters of anti-Semitism.

Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

A new museum honors the Jewish uprising that began on April 19, 1943.

Funded largely by Polish taxpayers, the museum’s existence is a powerful sign of how far Poland has come in embracing tolerance and its own multicultural past since toppling communism 23 years ago — a new openness bolstered by a blossoming economy.

At the same time, the exhibits will emphasize that Polish acts of persecution never approached the scale of Adolf Hitler’s genocide and that the Holocaust was Germany’s crime, not a product of any local Polish-Jewish tensions.

Still, many nationalistic Poles prefer an image of their country as a model of heroic resistance to centuries of past oppression, both by Germans and Russians.

Among painful episodes that the museum will address in the permanent exhibition opening next year are pogroms in the late 19th century, boycotts of Jewish businesses in the 1920s and 1930s, and calls to deport Poland’s 3.3 million Jews, the largest per capita Jewish population in any European country.

Its materials promise to tell the story of the Jedwabne massacre in World War II, when about 40 Poles hunted down the town’s Jews, shut them in a barn, and set it alight, killing more than 300 people. Also to be included is an account of the massacre in the city of Kielce, when 42 Jewish Holocaust survivors were slaughtered a year after the war ended, and the expulsion in 1968 of thousands of people of Jewish ancestry.

Another debate is over the idea of raising a memorial to Polish ‘‘Righteous Gentiles’’ — those who saved Jews during the war — next to the new museum. Poles protected Jews at a huge risk to their own lives and their families, and more than 6,000 are officially honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial — by far the largest number in any country occupied by the Nazis.

But critics say that while the Righteous Gentiles deserve a monument, putting it by the museum would be an expression of Polish nationalism that would lead some to falsely believe that most Poles acted as rescuers during World War II.

“It makes me shiver to stand on this blood-soaked land,’’ said Ori Horenstein, 55, a lawyer from Tel Aviv. ‘‘But it makes me proud to see that there were a few who decided to go down as brave heroes.’’

Those fighters will be honored during next Friday’s ceremonies, to be led by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.

The big celebrity, however, will be Simha Rotem, one of the very few remaining survivors of the uprising. Most were killed in the fighting, though a few dozen managed to escape through sewage canals.

The uprising broke out April 19, 1943, when about 750 young Jewish fighters armed with just pistols and other light arms attacked a German force more than three times its size.

In their last testaments they said they knew they were doomed but wanted to die at a time and place of their own choosing. In the end, the fighters held out nearly a month, longer than some German-invaded countries did.

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