WARSAW, Poland — As his train rolled across Germany in 1939, passing through small towns where swastikas fluttered from flagpoles, Tad Taube cowered in fear each time Nazi police entered his compartment and barked orders for his documents – papers that plainly identified him as an 8-year-old Jewish boy from Poland.
But the full terror of the war was still a few months off, and Taube got safely through Germany to France, and then by ship to the United States, making a narrow escape from the Holocaust and a passage into a bright American future of Hollywood, football, entrepreneurial success and philanthropy.
Now the 82-year-old Taube, who lives in California, is back in Poland, the land of his birth, to celebrate the partial opening of a new Polish Jewish history museum for which he has spent years raising funds.
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened its doors to the public for the first time Saturday, a milestone that comes with Taube’s help. He runs two philanthropies which together have committed about $16 million for the museum, the largest private donation to the project.
Though the museum, which celebrates the 1,000-year Jewish presence in Poland, does not yet have its permanent exhibition ready, officials were determined to at least have a small opening to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, which was marked Friday in a state ceremony.
From now until sometime next year, when the core exhibition should be finished, the museum will host temporary exhibitions, films, lectures and other cultural events. This weekend, the museum is holding an open house, giving the public the first chance to explore a striking architectural creation that has been talked about for years. It is boxlike and glass on the outside, but inside the visitor enters a soaring foyer that looks like a deep curved canyon. With sand-colored walls, it symbolizes the parting of the Red Sea. A striking reconstruction of a painted wooden synagogue is already in place, though it wasn’t on view Saturday.
Taube expressed satisfaction at seeing the museum reach this stage after nearly 20 years of planning, explaining that it is part of his longer-term mission to ensure that Polish Jewish history is not forgotten.
“I am in awe,” Taube told The Associated Press in an interview from the museum. “As I go through and walk around all the nooks and crannies of this place and its unbelievable open spaces, these huge expanses of glass and these walls that are like a sculpture, and then seeing the wooden synagogue, it is a very remarkable experience.”
Regular visitors were also enchanted, with thousands showing up Saturday to tour it. One, Jagoda Stypulkowska, a 78-year-old Pole who lived just outside the Warsaw ghetto during World War II and whose earliest memories include seeing Jewish children sneak out to find food, welcomed the arrival of the museum. While she finds the architecture is “modern and beautiful,” she mainly welcomes the role it will play in educating Poles about Jewish history.
“This was really needed and I am hugely impressed,” she said.
Over the decades, Taube has grown concerned that the Holocaust, as important as it was, was crowding out knowledge of the previous centuries of Jewish learning and culture. That Jewish world was for many centuries centered in the Polish lands, where it grew to be the world’s largest Jewish community for a time, numbering 3.3 million on the eve of the Holocaust.
“I became very concerned that the Holocaust became more or less the beginning and end of Jewish history,” he said. “I felt that being victims was too much a part of Jewish life.”
So he began trying to promote historical remembrance of Jewish life in Poland, a cradle of “culture, history, language, art, theater and music fundamental to Western culture.”
Among his broader philanthropic mission, Taube made the Warsaw museum a priority. He is president of the Koret Foundation and chairman of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, California-based groups which contributed heavily toward developing the $40 million permanent exhibition.
There are other major donors and fundraisers, including a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, Sigmund Rolat. A Polish tycoon, Jan Kulczyk, who isn’t Jewish, gave 20 million Polish zlotys (about $6 million).
The museum is a public-private partnership, something new in Eastern Europe. The land the museum sits on, in the heart of the former Warsaw ghetto, was given by the city of Warsaw, with the building’s construction primarily paid for by the national government. The private funds are earmarked for the development of the core exhibition.
Taube’s engagement in Poland, which goes back to the fall of communism 23 years ago, is also shaped by happy memories of his early years in his native land. He remembers experiencing very little discrimination and in fact his family flourished thanks to the business acumen of his father, an exporter of ham and bacon.
His father’s business activities and a big dose of wisdom saved the immediate family from death in the Holocaust, sparing it the fate that befell other relatives.
Young Taube’s parents were on a business trip in New York in 1939 when they became alarmed by the news coming out of Europe. By then Germany had taken the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and annexed Austria. Reports in the U.S. made the situation seem much more dramatic than how it appeared from Poland, Taube said. So his parents arranged for a family friend to make the journey out with him.
Taube doesn’t remember the exact date, but it was certainly only a few months before Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, setting off the war.
The family settled in Los Angeles, where Taube’s father went into the fur business and young Taube had a brief Hollywood career playing Polish and German children. He went on to graduate from Stanford, serve in the Air Force, and to rise in business in the semi-conductor industry and real estate. For a time in the 1980s he was also involved in professional football as a co-founder of the United States Football League and president of a San Francisco Bay area football franchise, the Oakland Invaders.
Today, he is primarily focused on his philanthropic work, which has brought him to Poland occasionally as the museum has come to life. He is savoring the role it will play in keeping alive the memory of Polish Jewish life.
“I felt that story had to be told, and it wasn’t being told,” he said. “This museum tells that story.”
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