Opinion |

Warsaw Ghetto Museum Director: We'll Show Both the Tragic and Inspirational Sides of the Ghetto Experience

Despite various unsubstantiated claims, the Museum is independent, and will not be controlled by the Polish government. We will show complexity: That Poles aided Jews, and the cases of Polish culpability in the death of Jews

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Jewish children in front of Jedydia Merensztejn bakery at Nowolipki 7 street in the Warsaw Ghetto. May 1, 1941
Jewish children in front of Jedydia Merensztejn bakery at Nowolipki 7 street in the Warsaw Ghetto. May 1, 1941Credit: Bundesarchiv

In November of 2017, on the initiative of Professor Pawel Spiewak of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the Polish government agreed to help establish the Warsaw Ghetto Museum, which will be Poland’s first museum dedicated to commemorating the victims of the Holocaust.

The announcement of the creation of the museum was well received and without controversy. But in their opinion piece, "Why is this Israeli Jewish Scholar a Willing Poster Boy for Poland’s Brutal Distortion of the Holocaust" historian Jan Grabowski, Professor Barbara Engelking and Dr. Agnieszka Haska - two members of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, and Professor Jacek Leociak from the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, do not exactly celebrate this future museum.

Instead, it is in their view a "pernicious project which seeks to whitewash history," and its new Chief Historian, Professor Daniel Blatman, is a "fig leaf for their operation."

These are serious allegations. But they are unsubstantiated, and their characterizations are unjust.

Warsaw Ghetto Museum, Warsaw, Poland, December 14, 2018.Credit: Alik Keplicz/AP

Under Professor Blatman’s leadership, renowned Polish scholars Prof. Piotr Weiser, Dr.Hanna Wegrzynek, Dr. August Grabski, Dr. Bartosz Kwieciski, Dr. Magdalena Tarnowska, Dr. Ewa Toniak, aided by several historians of the Holocaust from abroad, have been hard at work crafting an exhibit that will capture the complexities of the Warsaw Ghetto experience, acknowledging cases of Polish aid while refusing to downplay or distort cases of Polish culpability.

This has proceeded without governmental interference or directives.

Incredibly, the very fact of emphasizing the museum's freedom to construct an exhibition based purely on historically accurate research has been used in an attempt to discredit that same institution.

The illogical accusation that Prof. Blatman, an eminent Israeli scholar and expert in Holocaust history, widely known to the public for his firm and uncompromising personal opinions on a variety of issues, would for some unexplained reason compromise his reputation and values can only be described as fantasy. On the contrary, the fact that Prof. Blatman was appointed to the post of chief historian only demonstrates the independence of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.

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Government funding does not amount to government control, as these three members of the Polish Institute of Philosophy and Sociology and the Institute of Literary Research (themselves recipients of this Polish government’s funding) should well know.

The Polish government provides funding for the Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka museums. Additionally, the Polin museum and the Jewish Historical Institute receive government funds, a fact which has caused no controversy or in any way diminished their credibility.

Albert Stankowski, Director of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum, with Dr. Hanna Węgrzynek, Deputy Director (Research and Exhibitions) with Prof. Daniel Blatman, Chief Historian of the Museum.

The proof, ultimately, will be in the product. Our museum will attempt to portray the tragic and inspirational dimensions of the Warsaw Ghetto experience as a crucial part of the larger Jewish story, the larger Polish story, and the story of humanity. Our assertions will be based on historical evidence, informed by historical methodology, and vividly illustrated by film, artwork, poetry, and artifacts.

We invite Professor Grabowski and his colleagues to join us in this monumental endeavor or, if that is not possible, then to engage with our work rigorously and productively. If they feel we have gone off course, we will listen carefully to their criticism.

Ultimately, we are all after the same elusive goals of enhancing public understanding about a complex, tragic, and all too often politicized event.

Chłodna Street (looking west) from the intersection with Żelazna Street. The street was 'Aryan'; the wooden footbridge connected the Small and Big Ghetto. Warsaw, June 1, 1942Credit: Bundesarchiv

Unsubstantiated statements, sensationalized by the media, should not be the criteria for an assessment of any project or institution. Our mission and mandate are clearly presented in the public domain via the website of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum, and the museum is supported by the major Jewish organizations in Poland.

Yad Vashem and Israeli historians associated with Yad Vashem were the first to be invited by the Warsaw Ghetto Museum to participate in the creation of this important project, and to be involved in defining the image and message of the core exhibition and associated projects. This invitation to Yad Vashem and any other such institution still stands, and the policy of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum is to welcome those who could contribute to the development of the institution.

The importance of creating a memorial museum at the location of the actual events, 80 years after the beginning of WWII, and preserving the Behrson and Bauman children’s hospital, one of the few remaining buildings of the Warsaw Ghetto, only grows more emphatic with the unfortunate passing of the last survivors of that era.

Albert Stankowski is the Director of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum

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