As Rosh Hashanah drew to a close on September 17, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall made his way to the United Nations headquarters in New York. In his address to the intergovernmental organization, the U.S.’s top diplomat indicated, for the first time, his country’s intended support for the partition of Palestine. The plan would be recommended by the General Assembly two months later, but the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea was not the only focus of Jewish attention during that holiday season.
That same week, across 84 communities in Poland, Jews returned to rebuild synagogues destroyed during the Nazi occupation. They celebrated Rosh Hashanah just as they had for centuries before. Aided by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and 18 tons of supplies as well as 5,000 prayer shawls, Poland’s returnees set out to reclaim the country’s Jewish story.
I have always had a great affinity for those Jews who came back to Poland so shortly after the end of Nazi occupation. The Jewish revival that these survivors initiated was never about forgetting the massive human rights atrocities of the Holocaust, but rather a commitment to bridging the gap created by those atrocities and building off of preceding generations’ societal contributions across all fields.
The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews has been integral in ensuring that Poland’s millennium-long Jewish history prevails. This outstanding educational and cultural institution has been the seminal project of Taube Philanthropies’ Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland and integral to Koret Foundation’s Jewish Peoplehood initiatives. As we mark the culmination of its first year on Europe’s landscape, I reflect on the momentous day in October of 2014 when we celebrated the Museum’s grand opening. Then Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin came together in the company of a global audience to honor the new institution. The POLIN Museum was celebrated with fanfare reminiscent of the coronation of an English monarch.
Thousands of visitors have flooded through its doors since, gaining an unprecedented sense of the deep, rich history the Jewish people have contributed to Poland and to Judeo/Christian Western culture. The museum is the world’s first to showcase 1,000 years of Jewish history and culture — and our partnership through the Global Education Outreach Program (GEOP) is committed to sharing POLIN’s educational message and unique resources through a variety of worldwide academic partnerships and cross-cultural exchanges.
It has taken many years for Poland to reach the level of Jewish revival there today; but I believe it may have begun with those pioneers observing Rosh Hashanah throughout communities in Lower Silesia nearly 70 years ago. How fitting then, that the revival of this illustrious Diaspora community began on Rosh Hashanah, at the dawn of a new year?
In Judaism, there are several “new year’s” celebrated throughout the Hebrew calendar. Among them are the first of the month of Elul, considered the new year for tithing animals, and the 15th of Shevat, the new year for trees. Most recognizable is Rosh Hashanah, ritualized on the first of Tishrei. This new year stands in contrast to others, which tend to reflect agricultural themes, making it especially meaningful for Diaspora populations.
Rosh Hashanah is both a celebration and commemoration of the past year and the year to come. As we look back on the first year of Poland’s groundbreaking new museum, and prepare for how it will continue to educate both the Polish community and the millions of visitors it will draw from around the world for generations to come, I cherish the sweet moment of this Jewish New Year. The continued success of this landmark institution – and all that it signifies for education of history, culture, and the celebration of Jewish life could not be more meaningful for me personally; my Polish roots have certainly contributed to driving my mission to ensure an ongoing and ever-vibrant Jewish renaissance in Poland.