Impasse with Poland’s populist leaders clouds future of landmark Jewish museum

A long stalemate over the future independence of Warsaw’s landmark Jewish history museum is building toward a crucial turning point after the former director — who won a competition for a second term but whom Poland’s government refuses to reinstate — offered to renounce the job.

Dariusz Stola announced that he was willing to give up his legal right to be director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews if an agreement can be found “for the institution’s further functioning” because of the damage already done to the acclaimed institution and “the threats that it continues to face.”

An emergency meeting of museum donors and other stakeholders was to take place to decide the next step.

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. Already some donors have suspended donations, and the lack of a permanent director has impeded long-term planning.

The museum — which tells the 1,000-year history of Jewish life in Polish lands — was seen as a symbol of how young democratic Poland sought to celebrate its multicultural past and revive the Jewish civilization that was nearly destroyed by Nazi Germany. Under creation for two decades, the museum 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, however, is whether the institution will be able to direct its own independent course under a nationalist government in Warsaw that has been placing loyalists who share its conservative and patriotic vision at the helm of museums and other cultural institutes.

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