Holocaust historians divided over Warsaw ghetto museumHistorians in the News
tags: World War II, Holocaust, Warsaw museum
The museum of the Warsaw ghetto is not due to open for several years, but is already shaping up to be one of the most contentious museums in Europe.
Backed by Poland’s populist government, which has been accused of rewriting history to fit its political agenda, the museum has caused a bitter spat between historians of the Holocaust about how best to tell the tragic story of Warsaw’s Jews.
On one side is the museum’s Israeli chief historian, Daniel Blatman, who teaches Holocaust studies at the University of Jerusalem, and promises that the exhibits will provide an accurate and thought-provoking look at the formation and liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, and of the Holocaust in Poland more generally.
On the other side are numerous Polish and Israeli Holocaust scholars who say Blatman is at best being used by the Polish government, and at worst is a willing participant in historical distortions.
Agnieska Haska, of the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research in Warsaw, said it became clear early on that the museum would offer a distorted view of the Holocaust and gloss over instances of collaboration. She pointed out that when launching the museum idea last year, Poland’s culture minister, Piotr Gliński, declared that it would explore the history of “mutual love” between Poles and Jews. She said she respected Blatman as a historian but believed he was being used by Polish authorities to give an Israeli seal of approval to a distorted narrative of the Holocaust.
“We know from the archives that in the spectrum of behaviour towards the Jews, the righteous were the exception, not something that was common. The history of the Holocaust is not a buffet where you can choose which bits you want,” she said.
In an interview at the museum planning offices in central Warsaw, Blatman insisted that the criticism was unfair. He said he had not met any government officials or been given instructions and did not believe that any area of Holocaust history was taboo, saying that “obviously” the museum would deal with Polish antisemitism and instances of collaboration. “There is nothing which is forbidden,” he said.
The Warsaw ghetto was the largest of all the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe, with around 400,000 Jews crammed into a little over a square mile of land. Most were killed, either through execution, starvation or after deportation to concentration camps. The ghetto was razed in 1943 after a heroic but doomed uprising by its inhabitants. Today, the area of the former ghetto is part of central Warsaw, with only a few plaques and small monuments to remind visitors of its dark past.
The museum will be housed in a former children’s hospital, built by Jewish philanthropists in the 1870s. It treated thousands of children during the ghetto period, many for malnutrition and starvation, and most of its patients were eventually sent to their deaths at Treblinka. The doctors chose euthanasia for some of the children rather than see them deported to the concentration camp.
It was one of very few buildings in Warsaw to survive the war relatively unscathed and, after renovations in the 1950s, it again functioned as a children’s hospital until it was closed in 2014. As it awaits transformation into the museum, the building is now closed to the public, the smell of disinfectant lingering in the empty orange-painted corridors. The plan is for the museum to open in 2023, for the 80th anniversary of the uprising.
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