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April 16, 2021 11:56 am
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Appointment of Hardline Nationalist to Auschwitz Museum Council Intensifies Fears Over Polish Government’s Holocaust Commemoration Policies

avatar by Ben Cohen

Jona Laks, survivor of Dr. Josef Mengele’s twins experiments and her granddaughter, Lee Aldar stand next to the gate with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”) as they start their visit at the Auschwitz death camp in Oswiecim, Poland January 26, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Nir Elias.

The appointment of a hardline nationalist politician to the Polish government’s advisory council for the Auschwitz concentration camp triggered the resignations of three experts on the Holocaust from the same body this week, alongside a warning that Poland’s right-wing leaders plan to “Polonize” the museum and memorials at the site where more than one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

The resignations followed the appointment of former Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło, a top member of the ruling Law and Justice Party, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Council — a nine-member body composed of Polish citizens that meets annually to advise the director of the museum. Critics asserted that the presence of Szydło, who is now a member of the European Parliament, was a potentially fatal step towards “politicizing” the museum’s content in tandem with the government’s wider campaign to muzzle historical research into collaboration between the occupying Nazis and Polish citizens in the extermination of the Jews.

Prof. Stanislaw Krajewski, who resigned from the council on Tuesday, explained that during the eight years he had served on the council, a politician had never been appointed as a member.

“The fear is that this would be another move in the direction of making also the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum part of [the government’s] historical policy,” Krajewski, a historian and leading member of the Warsaw Jewish community, told the AP news agency on Friday. “I don’t want to be on the same council with a major politician of the ruling party today.”

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While she was serving as Prime Minister of Poland in 2017, Szydło — who hails from Oswiecim, a city adjacent to the Auschwitz site — initiated the creation of a new museum named “The Museum of the Righteous from Auschwitz.” Its goal, she said at the time, was to provide “testimony about heroes and good and decent people. It is up to us to remind the world about who was the executioner, who was the victim, who was the torturer, and who was the hero.”

However, one year later, once Szydło was out of office, the project was renamed the “Museum of the Memory of the Inhabitants of the Land of Oswiecim” following discreet negotiations between Polish and Israeli representatives.

Two more historians — Marek Lasota, who also belongs to the ruling party, and Krystyna Oleksy, a former deputy director of the Auschwitz Museum — announced on Thursday that they were following Krajewski’s example and resigning from the council.

Separately, in an extensive interview with the Polish newspaper Wyborcza, a former Polish ambassador to Israel predicted that the controversy sparked by Szydło’s appointment would only intensify.

“I don’t know what qualifications Beata Szydło has. I know that she has long wanted to replace Piotr Cywiński as director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Her mission on the council will probably be to ‘Polonize’ Auschwitz,” Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska told the paper on Friday.

As well as serving as ambassador in Israel between 2006-2012, Magdziak-Miszewska is a former consul-general in New York. Highly regarded among American Jewish leaders, she also advised previous governments on Polish-Jewish relations.

“Szydło will deal primarily with the Polish part of the camp’s history,” she said. “At the council, she may take on board accusations […] that the memory of Poles in general is insufficiently emphasized in the museum, and that Polish threads are neglected in the history of the camp.”

Such claims were “groundless,” Magdziak-Miszewska continued.

“From the period 1945-89, when the history of ninety percent of the camp’s Jewish victims was completely erased and forgotten, everything should have been done to restore that memory,” she stated. “It was an extermination camp for Jews.”

Acknowledging this fact was not in conflict with recognizing that Auschwitz was also a camp where Polish citizens were murdered, she said. “The anniversaries of the first transport to Auschwitz — that is, the transport of Polish prisoners — are also commemorated solemnly,” Magdziak-Miszewska pointed out.

Condemnation of Szydło’s appointment was voiced as well by the Israel Poland Friendship Society.

“We, the children of the Holocaust victims and representatives of the Israel-Poland Friendship Society, which works to eliminate prejudice between the Polish and Israeli nations, are surprised and alarmed by the personnel changes in the Auschwitz Museum Council,” the group said in a statement. “We do not understand the intention of the changes. In our opinion, the changes are aimed at using the Auschwitz Museum as an arena for personal and political interests, which should not take place under any circumstances.”

The conflict over Szydło’s appointment coincides with a related dispute over the Polish government’s attitude towards the International Auschwitz Council — a distinct body that is composed of Jewish, Polish and international experts. While the last Council’s term formally ended in May 2018, the Polish government is yet to appoint a new one, stoking concern that it views a body containing foreign experts as an obstacle to its historical revisionist policies.

A spokesperson for the Polish Prime Minister’s office told Wyborcza that a new council would be appointed, but notably did not provide a date for doing so.

“The International Auschwitz Council is a consultative and advisory body to the Prime Minister, and it is up to the Prime Minister to decide at what pace, in what composition, and at what point it will be established,” said Jarosław Wenderlich. “The establishment of such a Council requires a great deal of detailed, discreet action on the part of the Polish government, all the more so if the Council consists of both a domestic, Polish component and a foreign component. There are certain circumstances that allow us to hope that this Council will be established in the near future.”

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