There’s a saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Apparently, so is history.
In the case of Poland’s new Museum of the Second World War, the beholder is the nationalist government. Run by the populist Law and Justice Party, it has declared the museum an expensive mess that waters down Polish history and should be closed — or at a minimum, revamped. The museum opened March 23 in the northern port city of Gdansk, where World War II began when Germany invaded the city in 1939.
“This is the museum of a war, but this is not a military museum,” explains museum director and historian Pawel Machcewicz. “This is the museum which tells the story of a war in terms of politics, ideology and civil population.”
The museum’s goal, Machcewicz says, is to show the lives and fates of civilians and soldiers, not just in Poland but in other European countries as well. “We cannot explain Polish history without paying attention to other nations,” the director said. “We are not an isolated island.”
But the government isn’t happy. Polish Culture Minister Piotr Glinski has led the charge to merge the museum with a newer one that hasn’t even been built yet, something his opponents say is a way for the government to take over the Gdansk museum and change the exhibits. Machcewicz says every invitation he’s extended to Glinski to visit the museum has been declined.
Glinski’s ministry has also slashed a subsidy Machcewicz requested by nearly half, to $2.9 million, which he says is nowhere near enough to operate. “I think there was a gigantic misunderstanding,” he says. Glinksi “doesn’t know this exhibition. If he would come here … he would change his mind.”
Machcewicz acknowledges that may be wishful thinking, given the animosity between the current government and Donald Tusk, a political rival who commissioned the $115 million rust-colored museum. Tusk, a historian and Gdansk native, is Poland’s former prime minister and current head of the European Union. Last month, Poland’s foreign minister tried to challenge Tusk’s election to a second term as European Council president, a top EU position.
Glinski accuses Machcewicz — who was hired by Tusk — of distorting Polish history and not focusing enough in the exhibits on Poland’s military campaigns against the Nazis and Soviet forces.
The culture ministry declined repeated NPR requests for an interview.
Lukasz Hamadyk, a Gdansk city councilman with the Law and Justice Party, hasn’t been to the museum yet — he plans to go sometime before Easter — but he believes Glinski’s objections are justified.
From what he’s heard, he says, “The museum is [a] typical touristic place where visitors don’t know at all where and when everything started.”
Hamadyk adds that visitors need a clear explanation about the German and Russian aggression and Polish heroism and resistance.
“They don’t know who is behind the war and that the Polish people suffered,” the councilman says.
Many of the museum’s 2,000 objects on exhibit are very personal and include letters, photographs and memorabilia donated by private individuals.
Olga Krzyzanowska, 87, a retired doctor and former member of the Polish parliament connected to the Solidarity movement, donated a ring that was made for her father, a captured Polish general, by fellow prisoners during World War II. She says she’s also planning to give the museum letters her father wrote to her on cigarette paper when he was imprisoned during Poland’s communist era.
“I’m really worried,” she says, that the government will close the museum. “This museum should connect us regardless of political affiliation, as this is our war, our loss, our heroism. And here on opening day, there is no one here from the Ministry of Culture.”
Krzyzanowska calls the government’s absence “negligent.”
“This sets a bad example for our youngsters,” she says. “I’ve never seen a Polish government acting the way this one does now.”
More sensitive topics like the Holocaust and pogroms are tackled in a dimly lit corridor at the far end of the museum’s entrance, behind giant wooden letters that spell the word “terror” in English.
On display is a German-built wooden rail car that may have been used to transport Jews and prisoners to concentration camps, along with keys belonging to Jewish residents from the Polish village of Jedwabne, who were herded by their neighbors into a barn and burned to death in 1941.
The exhibit also includes remnants of a statue of Lenin that villagers forced the victims to topple before killing them.
Poland’s government has distanced itself from Polish responsibility for Jewish deaths during the war. Last summer, Education Minister Anna Zalewska drew protests from the Anti-Defamation League after she said in an interview that Polish citizens were not responsible for the pogroms in Jedwabne and another Polish town.
Historian Piotr Majewski, the museum’s deputy director, says the Jedwabne exhibit is provocative and may well elicit complaints from officials, but is still necessary.
“It shows facts which took place, and for me, it’s an example [of] how should we present our past so that there is no sense to avoid difficult themes,” he said. “It’s better to explain openly to explain [what] led to tragedies like in Jedwabne.”
The Polish government is nevertheless determined to take over the museum and to change its content. The culture minister has gone to court seeking the merger with an as-yet nonexistent, smaller museum focusing on Poland’s defense against invasion in World War II. This would force Machcewicz and his staff out. The Supreme Administrative Court of Poland is scheduled to rule on the merger April 5.
Even if the judges uphold an earlier ruling in favor of the museum staying independent, Machcewicz says its days are likely numbered.
“We are in financial dire straits,” he said. “We are opening the museum … but we can’t be sure that after a few months it won’t be necessary to close down for a lack of funds.”
Seventy employees are barely enough to run the facility for visitors, let alone research, he said. His only hope is that enough paying visitors will come to make up the deficit.