The Warsaw Ghetto Museum, which the Polish government decided to establish eight months ago, is now at the center of a debate.
This debate has political elements, but it’s mainly a clash between two views of what should be stressed when researching and remembering the Holocaust, and above all of what educational messages should be sent – what Israelis like to call “the lessons of the Holocaust.”
Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet, in his article about the Warsaw museum, mainly discussed the political perspective, giving considerable space to the criticisms by Prof. Hava Dreifuss, a Yad Vashem historian. Dreifuss assailed the Warsaw museum and those who decided, despite all the problems, to take on a project whose importance is hard to overstate. This criticism deserves a response.
First, the political context. There’s no more appropriate response to Dreifuss’ criticism than the old saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
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Dreifuss works for an institution that in recent years has functioned as a hard-working laundromat, striving to bleach out the sins of every anti-Semitic, fascist, racist or simply murderously thuggish leader or politician like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.
My heart breaks when I see my colleagues, honest and faithful researchers of the Holocaust, giving tours of this historic museum, apparently under compulsion, to the evildoers the Israeli government sends to Yad Vashem to receive absolution in the name of Holocaust victims in exchange for adding a pro-Israel vote at international institutions. For some reason, Dreifuss has no criticism about this.
But for the Polish government (every Polish government, both the current one headed by the nationalist Law and Justice party and the previous one headed by a liberal centrist coalition), which is spending tens of millions of zlotys every year to preserve historical Jewish sites, Jewish graveyards and countless memorials, she has scathing criticism.
Fear and demoralization
A week and a half ago, Matti Friedman published an opinion piece in The New York Times about what’s happening at Yad Vashem, and it made for difficult reading. When you read his conclusions, your hair stands on end. He doesn’t quote a single Yad Vashem employee by name, because no one wanted to be identified. After all, they have to earn a living.
Friedman described a mood of frustration, fear and demoralization among the employees because the current extremist, nationalist government has turned Yad Vashem into a political tool reminiscent of history museums in totalitarian countries.
But the most astonishing thing Friedman reported is that the institution’s chairman, Avner Shalev – who turned the museum into an international remembrance empire, and who for years has viciously fought every attempt to present a different conceptual or research approach than that of Yad Vashem – is reluctant to retire, despite having reached the age of 80.
The reason for his reluctance is that many people at the institute fear that when he leaves, his place will be taken by someone nominated by the relevant minister, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who will turn Yad Vashem into a remembrance institute in the spirit of Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party. It would be interesting to know what Dreifuss thinks about that.
Yad Vashem is now paying the price of the many years in which it nurtured a one-dimensional, simplistic message that there’s only one way to explain the Holocaust. Today, the institution is apparently willing to place its reputation for Holocaust research, which it has built over many years, at the service of a government that has recruited it to accuse anyone who criticizes Israel of anti-Semitism. So it’s no wonder that its researchers have become partisan explainers of the Holocaust.
It’s one thing when, at dubious conferences with political leaders whose governments include former neo-Nazis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to pass resolutions calling criticism of Israel the new anti-Semitism. It’s another when a research and remembrance institute doesn’t stand courageously against all such attempts.
Thus Yad Vashem would do better not to look for evidence that other governments are attempting to distort history and dictate nationalist content – not to mention engaging in Holocaust denial, as Dreifuss charges.
The Polish angle
Does any of the above justify the current Polish government’s position on the Holocaust? Obviously not. The Polish government has a problematic agenda in explaining the past, which we aren’t obligated to accept and in fact should even criticize.
But Poland’s government hasn’t interfered with the work of the museum’s employees, who have now started working, and certainly not with the development of the museum’s narrative. Had Dreifuss and her colleagues gotten involved in this effort, as they were invited to do, they would have been welcomed. Had Yad Vashem offered its help and support instead of giving the project the cold shoulder, nobody would have been happier than we at the museum.
And now we come to the historical issue. To take part in the effort to establish the Warsaw Ghetto Museum, one has to agree that the Holocaust can be presented and explained from perspectives other than an ethnocentric Jewish, Zionist and nationalist one.
One has to accept that the Holocaust can be studied in a way that sees Jewish history during this period as an integral part of Poland’s history under the Nazi occupation. One has to agree that the horrific Jewish tragedy that occurred during World War II can and should be understood in part by simultaneously examining – while noting both the differences and the common elements – what befell Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and others who were murdered alongside Jews in the vast genocidal expanse that occupied Poland became.
To set up a museum with a humanist, universal and inclusive message about the Holocaust, one has to accept an approach that sees the Warsaw Ghetto – a horrific terror zone that caused the deaths and physical and spiritual collapse of hundreds of thousands of Jews – as one element of a much bigger terror zone in which hundreds of thousands of other people suffered and fought for their existence: the Poles who lived on the other side of the wall.
The obvious differences between the fates of these two peoples don’t absolve the research historian, or a museum depicting the history of this period, from presenting this complex message and demanding that visitors to the museum grapple with its lessons.
Therefore, the new Warsaw Ghetto Museum won’t be Yad Vashem. It will be a Holocaust museum in the heart of the Polish capital that remembers the fate of the 450,000 Jews, Warsaw residents and refugees brought to the ghetto.
After all, the vast majority of them were Jewish citizens of Poland. That’s how they lived, that’s how they suffered, and that’s how they should be remembered after being murdered by the Nazis.
Prof. Daniel Blatman is a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the chief historian for the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.