Past Meets Present: Interview With Polish Historian Prof. Dariusz Stola

Dariusz Stola
Prof. Dariusz Stola (West Virginia University)

For decades, Professor Dariusz Stola, noted Polish historian and expert on his country’s complicated and often fractious relationship with its Jewish community, has made bi-annual visits to the United States to lecture on his most recent topics of research. His addresses were typically attended by students and fellow scholars, and researchers with interest in his areas of expertise, namely, migration patterns, the Holocaust, post-War Poland, and Polish-Jewish relations.

Yet, since the beginning of this year, Prof. Stola’s work has attracted far broader attention, especially in his capacity as Director of Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. This January, the Polish government passed a controversial law threatening criminal prosecution for what the bill’s sponsors defined as misrepresentation of their country’s role in the Holocaust. In the wake of the legislation’s being signed into law, the museum issued a strong public statement expressing sympathy for the government’s frustrations over the use of “historically inaccurate” terms such as “Polish concentration camps,” one of the bill’s main objectives. But the same press release focused most of its attention on what it warned could be the law’s “negative influence on historical research,” and the perception that the measure is an attempt “to stifle the debate on crimes committed by Poles.”

The statement was jointly signed by Prof. Stola and Piotr Wiślicki, the president of the Jewish association, which co-founded the museum. Following a prolonged international outcry, violation of the law was de-criminalized, but it remains on the books, and the debate it has engendered continues.

Further stoking the fire at the time was the opening of Polin’s long-planned exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of what is commonly known as the “March events” of 1968, a series of student-led anti-government protests in Poland and the anti-Semitic purges that occurred in their wake. The exhibit attracted more than 100,000 visitors over the six months that it was open, but also engendered criticism from some nationalist elements who were particularly irked by its closing presentation, which drew parallels between 1968-era rhetoric and anti-Semitic statements culled from media and on-line sources over the past year. The timing of the exhibit, concurrent with the controversy surrounding the Holocaust speech law, was doubtless a source of additional public interest on the subject.

Now, as Prof. Stola gears up to present two lectures on American shores next week, his subject matter concerns the present nearly as much as it does the past. One presentation at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., on October 25, will focus directly on the recent Holocaust legislation and the controversy surrounding it. Another, hosted by YIVO and scheduled to take place on the 23rd at the Center for Jewish History in New York, is dedicated to “The ‘Anti-Zionist’ Campaign in Poland, 1967–1968, and Its Echoes Today.”

In a conversation with Hamodia, Prof. Stola discussed the significance of his upcoming addresses in America as well as his general impressions regarding the controversies they will focus on.

“Despite obvious differences with 1968, when Poland was under communist rule and strictly followed the Soviet anti-Israeli line, we have found surprising similarities between the language of the ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign and contemporary, online hate speech” said Prof. Stola. “Some of the patterns are strikingly similar, not only in the type of statements made, but also in conspiracy theories filling the fake news, and the negative emotions they raise. Notably, while the communist dictatorship, with its full control of the media, was the key factor in the campaign of 1968, today it is the most democratic medium: the internet. Most of the anti-Semitic hate speech and fake news we have seen last spring came in posts on the social networks, like Twitter, or Facebook, or in internet discussion fora.”

Following a series of protests against political censorship in March of 1968, mostly led by students and academics, the communist government began a crackdown against those who were seen as challenging the Soviet-aligned regime. The government’s reaction became intertwined with an internal power struggle for control of Poland’s Communist Party and took place against the backdrop of the Soviet bloc’s severing ties with Israel following the Six-Day War. What ensued was labeled as an “anti-Zionist” campaign that branded many Jews or persons of Jewish origin as Zionist sympathizers, resulting in their removal from jobs in government and other positions in public life, the arts, and academia.

In the wake of the “March Events” some 15,000 Jews left Poland, having been stripped of their citizenship and property.

The 50-year commemoration of the protests and their aftermath were marked by the government, which praised the protesters. President Andrzej Duda referred to the purges as a “shameful act” and said the departure of Jews was a “loss” for Poland. The president has visited Polin in the past and publically encouraged the nation’s youth to do the same.

At the same time, some elected officials from the ruling Law and Justice Party were critical of the museum’s exhibit about March of 1968. Prof. Stola called their reaction “surprising,” given the government’s staunchly anti-communist stance and its efforts to disown actions of the country’s socialist past.

“What happened in ’68 was typical of the kind of Soviet-style hate campaign that this time targeted Jews instead of U.S. imperialism or Polish anticommunists; it was quite unusual that now politicians on the right decided to criticize our exhibition on it,” he said. “It seems to reveal a kind of hyper-sensitivity to any mention of Poles being anti-Semitic and to shun any discussion of it, no matter what the context is.”

Some international Jewish groups and media had been quick to label the Polish government’s recent actions as anti-Semitic and an attempt to minimalize the Holocaust. Prof. Stola has been largely dismissive of such explanations for the actions and said that openly anti-Jewish sentiment and rhetoric had come largely from fringe elements in the country, and especially from the dark corners of the internet where ultra-nationalist groups “develop their skills in misinformation.” The Holocaust law, criticism of his museum and of the work of some scholars, he said, were rooted in a tendency to paint Polish history in a purely positive light, and were not indicative of a negative attitude toward Jews.

“There is a tendency to emphasize the positive aspects of the story — righteous Poles who saved Jews and a history of peaceful cohabitation, and to downplay pogroms and collaboration of some Poles with the Nazis, which has become the most controversial topic,” he said. “It is a standard approach of governments to want to show their county in the best light, but when that is the only part of the story, it becomes propaganda, which does not help understanding of the past.”

Prof. Stola welcomed the government’s decision this past July to decriminalize the law regarding Holocaust speech and called it “a step in the right direction,” but regretted that the law had not been struck from the books altogether.

He added that it was still up to Poland’s high court to evaluate the constitutionality of the law, and that their decision would likely play a major role in its long-term effect. Prof. Stola said that while rhetoric on the internet and in some media towards scholars discussing collaboration and similar topics had had a chilling effect on research, the government itself had not taken steps to restrict the independence of academics or others in the field. Yet he regretted that the events of the past year had certainly set back Poland’s progress on honestly studying its past.

“The situation is better now than in was last spring, but it’s still worse than it was before any of this happened,” said Prof. Stola. “It’s especially disappointing, as since the fall of Communism, Poland has had a very open and sincere discussion of its past.”

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