'Too Much Jewish Content' Gets Head of Berlin's Polish Institute Fired

Sources say dismissal was due to liberal views of center's director, who arranged screenings of Holocaust film and other activities that upset Warsaw's right-wing government.

Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska, dismissed director of the Polish Institute in Berlin, during a visit to Israel in 2008.
David Bachar

The Polish government is continuing to fire directors of the branches of its Polish Institutes – Foreign Ministry-supported cultural centers around the world – as part of a new “cultural policy.” The new right-wing government in Warsaw sees these individuals as being too liberal and promoting too much content that does not show Poland in a positive light.

Over the past year the government has fired a number of directors of Polish Institutes, of which there are 25 in the world including one in Tel Aviv. Some have left of their own accord, but those heading the Madrid and Stockholm branches were recently dismissed, and last week it was the turn of the director of the Berlin-based Polish Institute, considered to be the most important of the international branches.

The German media reported that the director, Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska, was fired because she promoted “too much Jewish-themed content.”

Others sources told Haaretz that she was dismissed for more general reasons: because she has liberal views and does not support the rightist Law and Justice Party that now heads the government in Warsaw.

The Polish Institute network operates under the auspices of the country's Foreign Ministry, and its role is to disseminate Polish culture, art and language. Since taking over last year, the government has sought in a variety of ways to restore what is referred to as the country’s "national honor," and to improve Poland’s image around the world, including in the realms of arts and culture.

Wielga-Skolimowska has directed Berlin's branch since 2013, and was supposed to remain in her position until the summer of 2017. She was fired last Tuesday, effective immediately.

 A scene from the Oscar-winning Holocaust film "Ida" (2013), by Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski.
Courtesy Lev Films

A few months ago she received a negative evaluation of her work as part of an annual review conducted by the Polish Foreign Ministry. The explanations for the ratings are confidential, but the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung reported that the new Polish ambassador to Germany, Andrzej Przyebski, “complained that too often she promoted Polish-Jewish matters.”

One such effort apparently involved the scheduling of screenings of the film “Ida” by the Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski, which won an Academy Award in 2015 for best foreign language film – the first Polish movie ever to do so. The movie, released in 2013, tells the story of a Polish Catholic nun who discovers that she is Jewish and that her family was murdered during the Holocaust by their Polish neighbors.

The Polish Institute in Berlin, and branches elsewhere too, organized the screenings in opposition to the position of the new Polish government, which views “Ida” as being “anti-Polish” because of the negative manner in which it presents the Polish people.

In response, the Warsaw government recently tried to organize showings in Berlin and elsewhere of a different Polish film, “Smolensk,” which is considered to be more “patriotic” – although it was a box-office failure in Poland.

This 2016 film depicts what is considered to be the greatest tragedy Poland has known since World War II: the crash in Smolensk, Russia of the Polish Air Force plane in which President Lech Kaczynski and other senior Polish leaders were killed, in 2010. The government in Warsaw believes that Russia was responsible for the crash, which it sees as a political assassination.

The Polish Foreign Ministry asked the institute in Berlin to organize a showing of “Smolensk” at a German movie theater. Wielga-Skolimowska’s deputy director, considered to be more conservative than her, tried to arrange it but was forced to back down after she could not find a venue that would agree to allow a screening – at a time when “Ida” was being shown all over the world, and in Germany, too, to great acclaim.

Not enough Chopin

The influence of the new government in Warsaw on the operations of other Polish Institutes around the world is evident. The director of the Polish Institute in Madrid was fired too within the last year. In August, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that the reason was that did not promote enough events featuring the music of Frederic Chopin, considered to be Poland’s national composer.

Institute directors in Paris and Rome reportedly resigned on their own initiative; the branch in Vienna refused to cooperate further with a local journalist, Martin Pollack, because he published articles critical of the Warsaw government and the Law and Justice Party.

In addition, since the government came to power, there have been a number of reports to the effect that Polish Institutes around the world have been ordered to blacklist certain Polish intellectuals and artists, and to exclude them from the institutes’ activities, because they have criticized the government or published statements that Warsaw did not approve of.

One example that stands out is that of author Olga Tokarczuk, who has won many international prizes for her work, but was recently denounced by right-wingers in her homeland as being “anti-Polish” because of the way she depicts the less pleasant chapters of Polish history.