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Daily Israel Report

Two Jewish Museums to be Built - in Poland and Alaska

Plans are underway to eternalize the history and contributions of Jewry in both Poland and Alaska.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 6/19/2007, 6:24 PM

Plans are underway to eternalize the history and contributions of Jewry in both Poland and Alaska. Half the world's Jews trace their ancestry to Poland; somewhat fewer hail from Alaska.

In Poland, on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, ground will be broken for The Museum of the History of Polish Jews this coming Tuesday, June 26. It is set to be the only institution to trace 1,000 years of the history of Polish Jews.

Sigmund A. Rolat, Chairman of the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, explained, “Ever since the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D, and up until 1939, more Jews lived in Poland than anywhere else. When Spain and Portugal expelled their Jews, Jews were safe and granted privileges in Poland. Jews have fought in Poland’s wars, enhanced Poland’s commercial and cultural successes, helped build the State of Israel, and won Nobel prizes. My children and grandchildren and young people everywhere must know this.”

The organizers say 50% of the world’s Jews can trace their ancestry to Poland. In 1939, the Jews in Poland numbered 3.3 million; when Polish Jewry essentially came to an end during the Holocaust, it happened with a crash: half of the Nazis' Jewish victims were from Poland, and by the end of 1947, the number of Polish Jews was 100,000.

The museum, scheduled to open in 2009, will feature eight central galleries dedicated to telling the story of Jews in Poland from the Middle Ages to today. The sponsors hope to attract over a half-million visitors each year. Designed by a Finnish architectural team selected in an international competition, the museum will spread out over more than 3.2 acres.

The groundbreaking ceremony will include the participation of President-elect Shimon Peres - though he did not bear this title when he accepted the invitation - as well as Polish President Lech Kaczynski. Nearly a decade in the planning, the museum will incorporate state-of-the-art multimedia installations showcasing the museum’s collection, including an archive that represents over 60,000 objects collected from around the world.

The $65 million museum will be built through a partnership of public and private support. Half the money will come from the Polish Government, the City of Warsaw, and the German government, and the rest from donors representing other public, corporate and private entities in the U.S. and Europe.

First Alaska Jewish Museum
In Alaska, plans are being made for the state's first-of-its-kind Alaska Jewish Historical Museum and Community Center. Chicago philanthropist Rabbi Morris Esformes has pledged to sponsor the project, as well as a separate facility to house the Lubavitch Center of Alaska, including a synagogue, preschool, and day school.

The Alaska Jewish Museum was conceived several years ago by a group of Alaskans led by Rabbi Yosef Greenberg of the Lubavitch Center, for the purpose of providing exposure to local Jewish history, culture and contributions to society.

The local vibrant Jewish community raised some $750,000 on its own, encouraging the State of Alaska to grant $850,000 more. The bulk of the required funds, however, will be provided by Rabbi Esformes, who has recently embarked on a mission to support small Jewish communities around the United States and bolster their Jewish education.

The backbone of the Alaskan Jewish community is the Lubavitch Jewish Center, which grew from a small group of newly-arrived families 16 years ago to a body that provides Jewish services and education to over 250 families today. Alaska is home to more than 6,000 Jews, residing mostly in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau.

Although Alaskan Jews have always been few in numbers, they have been very instrumental and active in the development of the remote state. It was Jewish fur traders in San Francisco who originally came up with the concept of the purchase of Alaska from Russia 140 years ago, and they played a major role in actualizing it. The first mayors of Anchorage and Fairbanks were Jewish, as were many of the gold rush pioneers at the turn of the century.

The Alaska Jewish Museum will include exhibits on the role played by Alaska Airlines in Operation Magic Carpet, which airlifted 40,000 Yemenite Jews to newly-created Israel in 1948. Another exhibit will be dedicated to the refugee ship “Exodus” and its heroic young Alaskan sailor Jack Johnson, who served on the legendary vessel when it smuggled Holocaust survivors to the Holy Land in 1947.

The museum's upcoming annual dinner, to be held in November of 2007, will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Exodus ship's exploits, and will honor the ship’s legendary captain, Mr. Yitzchak “Ike” Aharonovitch, who will be traveling from Israel to Alaska for this event. The following year’s dinner, scheduled for November of 2008, will follow suit in marking 60 years since Alaska Airlines’ critical role in Operation Magic Carpet.