Analysis |

Is the Polish Government Holding a Jewish Museum Hostage for Being 'Disobedient'?

'It’s all about loyalty and control': Dariusz Stola, director of the celebrated Polin Museum of the History of Jewish Life, is the latest target of a concerted government campaign to present the 'one truth' about Poland's history

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Polish President Andrzej Duda, right, and Dariusz Stola, the director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, visit the museum in Warsaw, Poland, March 3, 2016.
Polish President Andrzej Duda, right, and Dariusz Stola, the director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, visit the museum in Warsaw, Poland, March 3, 2016.Credit: AP

Professor Dariusz Stola is waiting. He has been on standby since February. Waiting to be reappointed as the director of Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. "Every morning I wake up thinking this might be the day the minister signs the documents for me to go back to work," he tells me, in a Warsaw café.

Stola, a prominent Polish historian, has led the critically-acclaimed museum since 2014, the year its core exhibition opened. The institute’s impressive cuboid structure of copper and glass was built in the middle of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto.

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Stola’s original term, which ended last spring, had been so successful that the independent committee charged with finding the next director for Polin chose him to stay on for another five years. But the man responsible for what should have been approving a formality, Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Glinski, says he isn’t going to give Stola his job back anytime soon.

"I’m still thinking about it," Glinski said during a recent interview at his palatial Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

A visitor walks through a gallery depicting a typical 1919-1939 street scene at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. The museum narrates 1,000 years of Jewish life in PolaCredit: AP

He became visibly angered when asked why he continues to withhold his signature. "That museum should not be a stage for political actions against the current democratically-elected government of Poland," he says, claiming that Stola has "organized many events" smearing Glinski’s ruling Law and Justice party, known by its acronym, PiS.

Stola denies this. "I challenge him to present one hard fact. We did not organize a single political event," he says. "Of course, there have been occasions where people in the audience have made statements critical of the government, as every citizen - including myself - had the right to do."

The real issue Glinski has with him, Stola believes, is not about the museum’s events or exhibitions. "It’s all about loyalty and control. The government doesn’t like any institute that deals with history to be autonomous and independent. To be honest, I’m surprised it took them so long to come after me."

Dariusz Stola is not the first museum director to get caught up in the current Polish government’s "politics of history" or "politics of memory."

Since the nationalist-conservative PiS party gained power in 2015, it has made it an utmost priority "to promote the Polish point of view on history that for so long was banned or neglected," says Glinski. This narrative focuses on Polish heroism and victimhood and drowns out stories of Poles as perpetrators, accessories and bystanders.

Anyone in Poland’s cultural elite with a more pluralistic perspective, particularly on 20th century history, has to fear for his or her position. Polls show PiS winning another clear victory in the parliamentary elections on October 13.

A reconstruction of a wooden 17th century synagogue at POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in WarsawCredit: Czarek Sokolowski,AP

Glinski’s ministry is establishing or taking over no less than 30 historical institutions, from a new museum dedicated to Pope John Paul II, to revamped memorials and exhibitions at the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, as well as the still-in-development museum of the Warsaw Ghetto. And it is trying to replace directors at existing museums whom it feels are in any way connected to previous governments.

The National Museum in Warsaw last year saw its director leave involuntarily after her budget was cut. Her replacement’s first deed was to remove feminist avant-garde art from the gallery’s permanent exhibition. In another, widely reported case in 2017, the government took over the World War II Museum in Gdansk and removed its management by merging its spectacular collection with another museum that at the time had neither a building nor a phone number.

"There are a lot of false impressions and opinions on Polish history. That’s why we have a lot to do [...] to tell the one truth," explains Minister Glinski.

The limbo of Dariusz Stola is extraordinary in two significant ways. In fighting its domestic Kulturkampf by trampling on Poland’s raw nerve of Jewish history, the Polish government is once again alienating itself from the rest of the world.

Rather than getting the international recognition it says it wants for the two million ethnic Poles who were killed alongside the three million Jewish Poles during WWII, PiS only creates more distance between the Polish narrative and that of historians and audiences around the globe.

POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, seen from the monument to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto UprisingCredit: AP

This discrepancy was previously amplified when it drafted its infamous Holocaust law. The law was watered down under U.S. pressure last year, but was originally designed to make attributing Nazi atrocities to Poles a criminal offense.

A more practical problem for the Polish government does not own or operate Polin the way it does other museums.

The city of Warsaw, led by Poland’s main opposition party Civic Platform (PO), and a philanthropic association called the Jewish Historical Institute are equal partners in a private-public triumvirate that funds the independent museum. When Polin was founded, however, the three parties agreed the museum’s director would need approval from the culture minister.

Thus, the only thing Culture Minister Piotr Glinski can do is stall Stola’s reappointment, hoping he will eventually give up. "You could say he has already succeeded: I have been removed from the museum," says Stola.

The question is: at what cost. Private donors from Israel and the U.S., anxious about what might become of Polin, are already postponing endowments.

"The museum is being held hostage," says Stola. "I fear it will gradually erode. Donors may think twice before committing anything, partners will hesitate before starting a cooperation, employees might take another job. This is not about me; I just happen to be in the middle of it. This is about the independence of the institution."

Emilie van Outeren is a Warsaw-based correspondent, born in Amsterdam and educated in New York. She writes mainly for NRC, the Netherlands’ paper of record, and has appeared as an analyst on BBC World. Twitter: @ecvano

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