A new high tech edge to Poland's Jewish heritage

The Holocaust nearly obliterated a millennium of Jewish life in Poland but a new website aims to bring it back in cyberspace by piecing together scraps of memories on life before the Nazis.
The "Virtual Shtetl" web portal was launched this month by the creators of a much-awaited Museum of the History of Polish Jews, to get a head start online before the museum is scheduled to open its doors in 2011.
In both Polish and English, the site is built on Web 2.0 technology allowing users from around the globe to contribute information and eye-witness testimony.
"This portal has the potential to become the greatest source of information about Jewish life in Poland prior to the war," website creator and coordinator Albert Stankowski said at the Warsaw launch.
"For many people across the globe this will be an encounter with something they thought was forever lost," he said.
The site has already collected information on 800 of the more than 2,000 Polish villages and towns -- known by their Yiddish name "shtetls" -- prior to the Holocaust.
"It will also be a platform for young people (from Israel and Poland) to get to know each other," Stankowski added, saying "in one project young Poles are cleaning up Jewish cemeteries in Poland and young Israelis are translating the tombstones" via the net.
As the vast majority of Jewish archives in Poland were destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, the names and birth dates inscribed on surviving Jewish graves are an invaluable source of historical information.
The portal's creators are also urging young Poles to use digital video technology to interview the dwindling number of older Poles who still remember pre-war Jewish life and to post the testimony on the site.
"We have a Facebook page that will introduce the portal to a younger crowd," said Paula Slawinski, 23, an American student from Oberlin College in the US state of Ohio who is working on the site's English language version as a volunteer intern.
"Genealogical societies are interested in finding a space to publish their findings, there are similar shtetl links sites ... but this one is much more complex and its going to grow," she said.
According to various sources, the Jews in Poland today number only 3,500 to 15,000 out of an overwhelming Roman Catholic population of 38 million. But experts say it is all but impossible to know how many Poles have some Jewish ancestry.
Prior to World War II, Poland was home to Europe's largest Jewish population -- some 3.5 million -- whose history in the area went back nearly 1,000 years.
Polish authorities maintain that some six million Polish citizens perished during World War II, half of them Jewish. Some six million European Jews lost their lives under the Nazi genocide.
The new website will act as the virtual arm of the future Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which has been in the plannings stages for more than a decade.
Designed by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamaeki and Ilmari Lahdelma, the museum's facade will have a symbolical rupture, and open onto undulating walls in an allusion to the Biblical parting of the Red Sea through which Moses led the Jews from Egypt to Israel.
It is to be built in an area of Warsaw that was at the heart of the city's Jewish community prior to the war, but was turned into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis.
To access the English version of the website click: The Project - Virtual Shtetl (external - login to view)

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