The passing of the so-called “Holocaust-Law” in February 2018 confronted Poland’s national conservative government with both domestic and international criticism. Concerns were voiced that the law could render Polish participation in the persecution and extermination of Jews during the Second World War a taboo topic. It is often overlooked, though, how vigorously Polish-Jewish history has been studied and debated in Poland. In an interview with the Körber Foundation, Dariusz Stola, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, gave an assessment of recent developments.
Professor Stola, history has, once again, become a political issue in Poland. Has that affected your work?
Until recently, the current government did not in any way take issue with the work of the museum. President Duda has been very supportive: he visited the museum and was kind to compliment us on several occasions. Also, the attitude of the media remained positive, as it had been since the opening of our core exhibition in October 2014. But a marked change has occurred in the past three months. Two developments played a part in that: one was the passing of the amendment to the act on the Institute for National Remembrance (IPN) in January, which the international media has since dubbed the "Holocaust Law".
The other was the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the "March of 1968" – the anti-Semitic campaign, which the communist party unleashed in Poland in reaction to the student rebellion in 1968, and the wave of Jewish emigration that ensued. Our exhibition, lectures and public debates on these events have been subject to unfounded criticism by some media and politicians, expanding into a wave of online attacks. Up until this year, criticism of our museum was essentially confined to far right fringe groups in internet portals. That changed with the passing of the IPN law and the political repercussions it caused, which brought the topic into mainstream media and political debates. This led to the critical attention of major public figures, including our Prime Minister: On the day before the opening of the exhibition, he mentioned that, while he commended the POLIN museum for its work in general, he could not accept the title of the exhibition. An exhibition, I might add, that he – as no one else – had not even seen yet…
The title is »Obcy w domu« – Strangers at home, or estrangement…
The title refers to both the intentions and the effects of the “anti-Zionist” campaign of 1968. The communist government of the time tried to ostracise the Jews – to make other Poles see them as strangers. Also a consequence of the campaign was the alienation of many Polish Jews, who began to see themselves as strangers in their own homeland, ultimately leading half of the then Jewish population to leave the country. Therefore, the title touches upon the sensitive point of Jewish belonging to the Polish nation and the nature of the communist Polish state. The Prime Minister wanted to stress that Polish Jews were not strangers in their homeland, but rather Jewish brethren, and “their home” was dominated by a communist dictatorship that lacked democratic legitimacy. I was glad that our exhibition initiated a public discussion on such important topics even before it opened. It was our intention to encourage reflection and debate on history.
Why did that lead to such sharp criticism?
In the course of the debate, various media accused us of trying to imply that the current government behaves similarly to that of 1968, which is absurd. Rather, we are interested in a timely assessment of past actions and developments and their relevance for today. There is no hidden political agenda. Until now, I am uncertain as to what the motives behind this disinformation, cloaked as criticism, are. But I am, and remain, open to debate.
In which way is the current debate regarding the March of 1968 connected to the debate surrounding the IPN law?
They are mutually connected – and I dare say that positions in both are often rather similar. The debate on the IPN law began earlier, and then strengthened the disputes on March 1968, but they are both part of a long series of Polish debates on Polish reactions to the Holocaust that I have witnessed. These debates began already in 1980s, still under the communist regime, and reached their climax in 2001-2003, in the debate on the killings in Jedwabne. The events of 1968 have also attracted attention a few times, in particular during the anniversaries in 1988, 1998 and 2008, but this year the discussions focussed on the anti-Semitic aspects of 1968 much more than they did during past anniversaries. These aspects became central, which seems to result from the coincidence with the debate on the IPN law.
So public debate in Poland on a shared Jewish-Polish history is more nuanced than the international criticism following the IPN law suggest?
This debate, or rather the whole series of debates that I have mentioned, were a great success of democratic Poland. They were frank and open, emotional and not free from demagoguery, but for and through these debates we have developed a language to talk about the most difficult topics of our history, certain unwritten but widely accepted standards for public debate, and we have made considerable progress in search of the truth on the past. Unfortunately, for some time I have seen a deterioration of these standards, and an erosion of the readiness and ability to talk. In particular, many of the texts that can be found on social networks or websites are aggressive and full of mutual accusations. If we forfeit the ability to speak with one another, that would be an enormous loss.
How has that change in tone influenced recent debates?
The debate on the IPN law has regrettable led a big step in the wrong direction, owing to the rather peculiar dynamic there was to it. The wave of critical reactions to the legislation coming especially from Israel and the US included some excessive, unfounded and unjust statements, accusing all the Poles of antisemitism, implying Poland’s complicity in building or operation of the death camps, etc. To put it simply, they expressed anti-Polish prejudice. Some of the Polish media and politicians were happy to quote them as evidence of Jewish hostility and slander of Poland, exploiting feelings of being unjustly accused to call for the defence of our good name against “Jewish anti-Polishness”. This led to the mobilisation of anti-Jewish prejudice and set the dynamics of a vicious circle in motion, when mutual prejudice and accusations feed each other, and are greatly enhanced by the mechanisms of social media, which favour emotional messages, fake news and controversy.
What could follow from political and legal attempts to set out the limits of how the history of Jews in Poland is researched, taught or even spoken about?
First, I hope that the Constitutional Tribunal will find the amendments to the IPN law legally defective and send it back to the parliament for revision. Should that not occur, I am afraid the amendment will lead to a so-called chilling effect. It is ambiguous in its wording, leaving too much room for public prosecutors to decide on which statements it should be applied to or not. This would most likely make many journalists, teachers, etc., think twice before they publish or say anything that may qualify as a breach of the law. The chilling effect may also affect the academia, even if academic research is specifically exempt from the new ruling, as the vague wording makes too much room for doubts.
However, even in this unfortunate situation, I see two positive developments. The first is a heightened interest of the public, as many people feel the need to inform themselves about the topics of the controversy. Secondly, the sudden increase of anti-Semitic hate speech online made many people realise we have a problem, and wish to react adequately. We have seen this in our museum. For example, the number of volunteers for our Daffodil campaign, which commemorates the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April 1943, was twice as big as last year. Our temporary exhibition on the events of 1968 has attracted three times more visitors than our previous exhibitions.
Which part can the POLIN museum play in ensuring that historical debate in Poland remains lively and informed?
We keep doing what we have been doing so far. Our core exhibition is in fact a powerful, multi-dimensional education tool. More than 1.3 million visitors have seen it so far, and their numbers are growing. It shows the 1000 years of history of Polish Jews, and encourages the visitors reflect upon it. A visit to our museum is not to be the end of a process of learning and reflection, but the beginning or a milestone of it. Through presenting differing perspectives, we invite the visitors to make up their own mind. We hope to show our guests how rich the history of Polish Jews is, and has been, and let them set out on a journey of discovery that continues well beyond the walls of the museum.
Dariusz Stola is a historian and professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He currently holds the position of director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. He teaches modern history and studies 20th-century migrations, the Holocaust, Polish-Jewish relations, and the history of postwar Poland's communist regime. He is a two-time recipient of the Polityka magazine award, and the award of the Edward Raczyński Polish Foundation in London, England.
The interview was carried through after the background talk on
»New anti-Semitism in Europe?«, which took place in Berlin on April 23rd.