Poland names new head of Jewish museum as tensions rise

File photo. Visitors attend the 'Estranged: March '68 and Its Aftermath' exhibition at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN in Warsaw, Poland, 9 March 2018. [Jakub Kaminski/EPA/EFE]

Poland’s government appointed a new director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews on Thursday (27 February), as the ruling nationalists face accusations of politicising museums to reflect their view of history.

POLIN, which opened its main exhibition in 2014, is one of the largest Jewish museums in the world and has been the subject of a squabble between the government and the museum’s former director, Dariusz Stola, over everything from the use of grant funding, to exhibitions and conferences at the museum.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party says it is reframing Polish history in museums to portray the country’s victimhood and heroism more fairly.

In particular, it seeks to persuade Western audiences that Poles overwhelmingly helped Jews during the Holocaust, despite a growing body of research showing thousands had killed or denounced their Jewish neighbours hiding from the Nazi Germans during World War Two.

Zygmunt Stepinski, previously acting director of the museum and before that its deputy head, will take over as director.

“It’s a bittersweet solution,” said Piotr Wislicki, head of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, which runs the museum with the culture ministry and the city of Warsaw.

Wislicki said some private donors had suspended funding during the row over the continuation of Stola’s directorship.

“We lost Stola, who was the best ambassador of the Polish-Jewish dialogue in the world,” he told Reuters. “However, the museum remains independent.”

The culture ministry was at times unhappy with the way Stola ran the museum.

An exhibition about a 1968 anti-Jewish campaign orchestrated by the ruling communists that pushed Jews out of their jobs and drove many out from Poland, for example, was particularly unpopular with PiS.

Members of PiS said the exhibition made it seem Poles played a bigger role in the expulsion of Jews than they did in reality. It also included anti-Semitic quotes from individuals linked to the ruling party.

Stola joined other former museum directors who have complained of excessive political interference since PiS came to power in 2015.

“A large part of the ruling party’s efforts aim to sweep unpleasant things under the rug, and this is a distortion of history,” Stola told Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny.

Stola was chosen by a selection committee last year for a second term as director, but Culture Minister Piotr Glinski refused to confirm the appointment. Stola left earlier this month.

Critics accuse PiS of not doing enough to quell rising anti-Semitism in Poland, home to one of the world’s biggest Jewish communities before World War Two.

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