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Poland’s Jewish Museum director is stepping aside — why now?

“It’s been almost a year since I left the museum, actually,” said Professor Dariusz Stola. “I waited quite patiently, I must say.”

Stola was formerly the director of POLIN, Poland’s Jewish museum in Warsaw, until February 2019, when his five-year contract ended. For a year, he took no other job, hoping that he would be restored to his position. On February 11, he took himself out of the running.

“I really spent some time considering this decision,” Stola said. “Yes, in a way I’m acknowledging my defeat. I was defeated in a way that was unlawful and rather cynical.”

Stola says that his lawyers have told him that Poland’s Cultural Minister Piotr Gliński acted unlawfully when he refused to reappoint Stola even after he won 11 out of 15 votes from a nomination committee in May of last year, as part of an open competition for the museum director position. For Stola’s supporters, the fact that he had to reapply for his own post at all was a matter of politics.

“All the success of the last five years is his doing. All the awards, all of the visitor numbers — all of it is his doing,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the chief curator of POLIN’s core exhibition, professor emeritus of Jewish studies at New York University and a 2020 recipient of a Dan David prize for her work at the museum. “Had it been the previous government, there’s no question that he would have simply been reappointed for another five years.”

Stola and his many sympathizers believe that Gliński refused to extend his tenure because Stola was a vocal opponent of a 2018 law that made alleging Polish complicity in the Holocaust illegal – the law has since been amended to remove its criminal penalties. At the same time Stola was condemning the law, POLIN ran a popular exhibit on the government-sponsored 1968 anti-Semitic campaign in Poland, which used anonymous, anti-Semitic quotes from contemporary sources online and made an unflattering comparison between the Poland of the past and that of today, something the current regime resented. Gliński claimed that Stola was “politicizing” the museum. The Ministry of Culture did not respond to a request for comment on the minister’s motivation.

Whatever Gliński’s reasons, in recent weeks, the status of POLIN’s leadership reached a crisis point. Since late February 2019, Stola’s deputy, Zygmunt Stępiński, served as acting director. But museum statutes only allow an acting director to serve for a year, at which point a new director must be appointed.

“I decided to make my statement because in two weeks the museum must have a director or it will actually fall into a state of crisis,” Stola said. “It was not impossible that we would see a completely unqualified person being appointed, which would be a disaster.”

Under the current right-wing Law and Justice government, directors of cultural institutions have been dismissed or resigned under pressure only to be succeeded by individuals more sympathetic to the current regime. In 2017, the ministry pushed out the director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, and in 2018, the outgoing director of the National Museum in Warsaw resigned in protest over lack of support from the ministry; in both instances, Gliński hand-picked replacements friendlier to the ruling party whom many in the field deemed unqualified. Many in the museum world have voiced outrage at these ousters, prompting widely-circulated online petitions.

“These are the most highly qualified museum professionals,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “They were heading up museums that were incredibly successful, had received awards, and they’ve all been removed and replaced by people who are more in line with this government’s idea of not only historical policy, but also the role of museums in implementing it. In many ways, Dariusz Stola was the last man standing.”

But Stola wasn’t alone in the fight. On paper, the Ministry of Culture can’t act unilaterally. POLIN’s two other founding partners, the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute and the city of Warsaw, must approve of museum leadership. Sensing the deadline, those two parties issued a joint statement January 30, calling on Gliński’s to reinstate Stola. The ministry responded by saying the museum was “stable” under Stępiński’s leadership, but a meeting was subsequently arranged to discuss the situation further.

On February 7, Piotr Wiślicki, Marian Turski, Chairman of the Museum Council and Maciej Kozłowski, a member of the association met with Gliński at the Ministry of Culture.

“Of course our idea was the best candidate was Stola,” said Wiślicki, president of the board of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland. “During this meeting the minister of culture told me ‘no, we don’t decide to renominate Mr. Stola.’”

Four days after the meeting, and two weeks before the March 1 deadline Stola bowed out of the process in an online statement to make room for a compromise candidate before time ran out. He feared negotiations could potentially be cut short if the date passed, leading to the appointment of an “activist from the ruling party.”

“Professor Stola’s decision feels like a defeat, a defeat for all of us” Wiślicki wrote through a representative. “We wanted his nomination and we did all we possibly could to ensure that the solution that is best for the Museum prevailed. Professor Stola decided that any further squabble with the Ministry will inflict more damage on the Museum. He is indeed a noble man. He didn’t want to provide any pretext for the worst possible solution for the Museum, so he suggested an altogether different way out of this muddle.”

On February 12, the day after Stola stepped down, the association gathered 22 Jewish organizations and 52 representatives to pick a successor. They backed Stępiński in a unanimous decision, as a means to keep the museum independent. Stola says he agrees with the decision, but expressed continued concern.

“I don’t think that the problems of the minister will end at present,” Stola said. “I would love to believe so, but I know that we must do everything possible to protect this institution.”

Friday afternoon, the ministry of culture announced it was willing to nominate Stępiński as Stola’s successor for a three-year term.

In an email, a representative for the ministry wrote that Gliński would now move the process of selection forward by consulting with trade unions and professional and creative associations, and that the new director of the Polin Museum would be appointed by the end of this month.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Stola said in an email, “but I will feel better when I see the formal appointment of Zygmunt as the director.”

While Stępiński may continue at the museum, Wislicki is aiming to keep Stola involved, and has recommended that he serve as a member of the museum council. Stola said he’d be glad to join, and will be considering other positions as well. “I didn’t make any plans for the future, and now I will start thinking about the future,” he said.

Correction February 14, 2020: A previous version of this article named the Museum of Warsaw as an institution where a director was removed. The correct institution was the National Museum in Warsaw, where the director resigned in protest. Correction February 15, 2020: A previous version of this article stated that the director of the Silesian Museum was removed by the Ministry of Culture. She was in fact removed the Silesian Province Board, the local governmental body that runs the museum with the Ministry of Culture.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].

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