A stalemate over the future of Warsaw’s landmark Jewish history museum moved closer to a resolution on Wednesday after the former director – who won a competition for a second term but whom Poland’s populist government refused to reinstate – offered to stand aside.
The government had made clear that it would never allow Dariusz Stola, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews from 2014-2019, to resume his leadership at the acclaimed institution.
That prompted museum board members, donors and other partners to agree informally on Wednesday to support Stola’s former deputy and now acting director, Zygmunt Stepinski, as his replacement. They felt the choice would be acceptable to the government and still allow the institution to maintain its independence.
That step came after Stola announced Tuesday that he was giving up on being director of the museum to prevent any further damage.
The impasse over the leadership of the museum has dragged on for nearly a year, creating anxieties about the future of one of the world’s most prominent Jewish museums.
The museum — which tells the 1,000-year history of Jewish life in Polish lands — was seen as a symbol of how a newly democratic Poland sought from the 1990s to revive the Jewish civilization that was nearly destroyed by Nazi Germany. Under creation for two decades, it opened in 2013 and its permanent exhibition in 2014.
Today its troubles are a sign of how much has changed under a populist government willing to flout democratic norms — in this case its obligation to abide by the results of the competition that Stola won — and snub international partners.
The greatest concern has been whether the museum would be able to independently decide on its programming under a conservative and nationalist government that has been placing loyalists at the helm of museums and other cultural institutes.
The decision by the museum’s supporters to support Stola’s former deputy signaled a strategic shift from trying to save Stola’s job to preserving the independence of the institution.
Poland’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich, who was present at Wednesday’s meeting and had supported Stola, said: “We lost. …. But sometimes you lose in order to build further.”
Emile Schrijver, chairman of the board of the Association of European Jewish Museums, called the situation “a clear case of political intervention in a museum that was very successful.”
“Any museum should be an independent organization,” Schrijver, who is also general director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter and Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, told The Associated Press. “The fact that a democratic process is being frustrated by political opportunism is a disgrace.”
In a country where most museums are fully state-controlled, POLIN is a unique private-public partnership with three co-founders who all still have a say in the museum’s management: the Culture Ministry, the city of Warsaw and a private Jewish historical association that represents private donors, among them many Americans.
Stola is a distinguished historian who has managed the museum from 2014 until last year, a time when it won multiple awards and drew hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world each year. He enjoys the support of the city, which is led by a liberal opponent of the national government, and the many donors who consider him a world-class scholar and manager.
His five-year term expired in February 2019. Although the government opposed him, it agreed with the other two partners to hold a competition. Stola won that in May, but Culture Minister Piotr Glinski refuses to allow him back.
Since last February, Stepinski, h as served as acting director, and donors say he has done so ably. But according to museum statutes, an acting director can only serve one year, and his term is approaching its end later this month, creating the urgency in this week’s push for a resolution.
Stola ran afoul of the Polish authorities for having criticized some of its policies. That includes laws that have given the government near complete control over the judicial system — changes that have alarmed the European Union — and a Holocaust speech law in 2018 that was widely viewed as an attempt at historical whitewashing and sparked a major diplomatic spat with Israel and the U.S.
The situation has dismayed many of the museum’s benefactors, including Tad Taube, who was born in Krakow in 1931 and managed to escape the Holocaust by fleeing Poland months before the German invasion of Poland in 1939. A successful real estate investor in the San Francisco area, Taube has invested millions of dollars in POLIN and raised millions more from other American donors.
Taube has invested his energy and money in POLIN and other Jewish revival projects in Poland over concern that the Holocaust was crowding out general awareness of the previous centuries of Jewish learning and culture in Poland — which was the home of Europe’s largest Jewish community and numbered 3.3 million before the Holocaust.
He called Stola, who is Catholic, “the most outstanding scholar and director we could ever get for that museum.”
“He has been responsible for all the positive things: the awards, the incredible attendance, he’s a star, and it’s kind of mind numbing to think we would get rid of the star that made it all happen,” Taube said.