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Nationalist Polish Government Wants Changes To World War II Museum


Poland's biggest World War II Museum opened this week, but it may not be around for long if the populist party running the country has its way. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has our story from the Polish city of Gdansk.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: There's a saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Apparently so is history. In this case, the beholder is the nationalist Polish government. It has declared the World War II Museum here in Gdansk an expensive mess. Although, no officials from the ruling Law and Justice Party have been inside. There's another reason for their distain. EU President Donald Tusk, he commissioned the $115 million museum when he was the Polish prime minister with the rival party eight years ago. The Polish culture minister is also at odds with the historian Tusk hired to direct the museum, Pawel Machcewicz. The minister would like a museum with a more nationalist narrative focused on military campaigns - a demand Machcewicz rejects.

PAWEL MACHCEWICZ: This is the museum of a war, but this is not a military museum. This is the museum which tells the story of a war in terms of politics, ideology and civil population.

NELSON: Machcewicz says his exhibits are more personal, showing how World War II affected civilians and soldiers, not only in Poland but in many other countries, too, which Machcewicz says is another sticking point for the culture minister.

MACHCEWICZ: We cannot explain Polish history without paying attention to other nations. We are not an isolated island.

NELSON: Visitors filed past thousands of artifacts, including letters and personal belongings, while nearby movie screens play footage from war. And at the far end of the museum, giant wooden letters spell out the word terror as a warning to visitors.

PIOTR MAJEWSKI: It's entrance to this most difficult, darkest part of our exhibition, which tells the story of the Holocaust but also other kinds of terror.

NELSON: That's historian and museum deputy director Piotr Majewski. He talks about one exhibit describing how Polish villagers from Yavanna herded their Jewish neighbors into a barn and burned them to death. Majewski says such stories are provocative but necessary.

MAJEWSKI: There is no sense to avoid difficult themes. It's better to explain it openly.

NELSON: But the Polish government is determined to take over the museum and to change its content. The Culture Ministry, which is leading that fight, did not respond to repeated NPR requests for interviews.

LUKASZ HAMADYK: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: Gdansk councilman Lukasz Hamadyk, who is with the ruling party, says the museum must be more true to the version of history the culture minister is demanding. A court will rule next month whether the Culture Ministry should control the museum. For now, the ministry has cut the museum's subsidy to about half of what is needed to stay open, says director Machcewicz.

MACHCEWICZ: Even now, we have not enough people to run this museum.

NELSON: His only hope, he says, is that enough paying customers visit to make up the deficit.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Gdansk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.