“You cannot understand the history of Poland without the Jews. But you also cannot understand the history of the Jews without Poland.”
A conversation with Dariusz Stola, Director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. The interview was conducted by Albert Cavallaro (MA Student in Global Studies/REEES Track) during the “1968 in Poland and Czechoslovakia in Comparison” conference, which took place at UNC-Chapel Hill on August 31-September 1.
How do you reconcile your different responsibilities as a director of a museum and as a noted historian? Are you addressing the same public?
I have spent twenty years teaching and writing books and articles, and the museum is a form of historiography and representing the past, but in a different way – it is much more powerful. Directing a museum has made me realize how much academic historians believe that the best way of representing the past is in a linear narrative, while a two-dimensional and a three-dimensional space is much more complex and opens up new interrelations in exploring the past.
What do you see as POLIN’s main role in today’s Poland?
It’s important to remember, that for some 200 years between the 18th and 19th century, the majority of the world’s Jewish population lived in Poland. One of the things that I have discovered as the museum’s director is that there is a lot of interest in Poland for the history of Polish Jews. People, i.e. non-Jewish Poles, are eager to learn more about it. We have a travelling exhibition that goes to small towns in Poland; places, which had a substantial Jewish minority, or at times majority Jewish population before World War II.
In one such town, about a quarter of its residents came to see the exhibition. What interested them the most was not just general history of the Jews but the history of their town. That is why we always incorporate a short Jewish history of the towns we’re visiting. It’s one thing to leave with a good impression of the exhibit, but you have to wonder what remains a year later. What is the long-term effect? I suppose some of the messages implicit or explicit in the exhibit will remain. For example: you cannot understand history of Poland without the Jews. But you also cannot understand the history of the Jews without Poland.
How would you characterize the relationship between the museum and Poland’s current government?
It is more complicated than with previous administrations. But we must remember that the Ministry of Culture is a founding partner of the museum. The museum is a public-private partnership between the Jewish association, which originally brought the idea of making the museum about the city of Warsaw, the local government, and the national government. Currently, half our revenue comes from public sources, and of that, the ministry and the city contribute about 25 percent each. This spring we had a period of tension with the pro-government media and current government following the legislation that penalized claims that Poland was complicit in Nazi crimes. It was a controversial move both in Poland and internationally, and it coincided with the opening of our exhibition about the 1968 anti-Jewish campaign in Poland that brought some criticism from the government.
Turning to the 1968 exhibition at the museum, former Polish presidential candidate Magdalena Ogórek recognized one of her tweets in the exhibition showing the continuity of anti-Semitic language from 1968 till today. [Responding to a previous attack on a right wing leader by the Polish Senator Marek Borowski, in July 2017 Ogórek accused Borowski’s father of changing his name “from Berman to Borowski”]. What is the place of the exhibition in contemporary Polish society and in the public discourse?
It takes two years to prepare a public exhibition. We made that decision two years ago. It was obvious for us because 1968 was an important event in Poland, similarly to the events in Czechoslovakia — not so bloody, but traumatic, and especially important for the Polish Jews. We had a student rebellion, similar to those in US and Western Europe, but the communist government responded with police brutality and arrests plus a propaganda campaign claiming that the students had been manipulated by a Zionist conspiracy. That was nonsense, of course. The government ran the standard communist-type hate campaign, but this time they made alleged Zionists their target. That was unusual for Poland, because in contrast to the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia, communist Poland had no anti-Semitic campaigns up until then. So, for us it was an obvious occasion to bring the past back and to talk about anti-Semitic language hidden in anti-Zionism which made it somehow acceptable for Marxists to use hate speech.
The tweet you mentioned is strikingly similar to the language of 1968, when servile journalist were happy when outing “hidden Jews”. It shows a continuity; it also shows that Polish racists and anti-Semites are lazy and they don’t invent many new things. But what was really fascinating is how language survives or re-emerges online, because this is an online phenomenon. We don’t have physical anti-Semitic incidents in Poland, very few of them. Poland is a safe country for the Jews compared to France or Germany where there is real physical violence. But online, it is quite nasty. In February, after the legislation I have mentioned, the frequency of anti-Semitic hate speech and conspiracy theories, both old and new, skyrocketed almost overnight.
Even though we displayed the tweet anonymously, the author of the tweet has decided to sue me. I’m glad that several of the best lawyers in Warsaw have come forward to represent me pro bono, because it is an important case of the freedom of speech. But I have an even greater pleasure: the criticism, especially from the media on the right, unintentionally contributed to the incredible success of this exhibition, which has attracted over 100,000 visitors. That makes it the most popular temporary exhibition in the history of Poland! It was not our intention to make it a political controversy, and I think the harsh criticism of the exhibition was completely unjustified, so I am glad it was so counterproductive.
On the subject of anti-Semitism, or Jewish history in Poland in general, where do you think the push and desire for the controversial Holocaust bill came from?
This is a complex issue. In English “Polish death camps” can just refer to location, that they were located in Poland, but in Polish it sounds as if they were built or managed by the Poles, which is nonsense, of course. In addition to the three million Polish Jews who perished in the Holocaust, you have three million non-Jewish Poles who lost their lives in the war. Poland was unique in that it never collaborated with the Nazis. The Polish government in exile fought Nazi Germany from day one of the war to its end, and there was no organized collaboration in occupied Poland either. As you can imagine, this labeling is thus very disturbing, especially to families that were affected by the war, and almost every family was affected by the German occupation. As a consequence, it is easy to politically capitalize on reactions to the statements on “Polish camps” and say “I am going to defend the honor of the Polish martyrs against this slander.” This also fits well with a general increase of xenophobia, as we see in Poland today, the foundation of which is that the world is hostile to us, that outsiders think badly of you and want to harm you.
Is there a generational difference in this fear of being judged?
In all the research on ethnic prejudice there are generational differences. The new form of anti-Jewish prejudice in Poland rests on the claim that Jews deliberately put the blame for the Holocaust on us and that they want us to feel guilty to leverage political and financial profits. This type of prejudice was again popular in the February controversy following the Holocaust bill.
And how do you see the role of the museum in combatting this type of prejudice?
Our primary objective is not to fight against fake news. Some of these conspiracy theories are so nonsensical it is difficult to even remotely engage them. We just show a very reliable, top-quality academic history and we believe this is the right way – not in engaging in discussion with anti-Semites, but by telling the truth. And we believe in the power of truth. Truth is not noisy, it is modest, but it works all the time, day and night.
*This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.