Polish government accepts new Jewish museum chief, ending yearlong standoff
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Polish government accepts new Jewish museum chief, ending yearlong standoff

Authorities agree to former deputy director of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in a compromise, after refusing to re-appoint director for alleged political bias

People visit the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland, Feb. 12, 2020. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)
People visit the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland, Feb. 12, 2020. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW (AP) — Poland’s government on Friday accepted a compromise candidate as the new director of Warsaw’s landmark Jewish museum, ending a long impasse that had raised concerns over the popular institution’s future.

The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews has been without a permanent director for nearly a year. Showcasing the 1,000-year Jewish presence in Polish lands, it is one of Poland’s most-visited museums and among the world’s leading Jewish museums.

The Culture Ministry said in a statement that it agreed to approve a three-year term for Zygmunt Stepinski, formerly the deputy director and since last February, the acting director.

The decision ends a standoff with the two other co-founders of the museum, the city of Warsaw and a private Jewish historical association, who had both fought to keep its previous director, Dariusz Stola. The government, however, opposed Stola because they believed he had been too openly critical of its policies.

The city of Warsaw, led by a liberal mayor, and the Jewish association proposed Stepinski as a compromise after realizing the government would not back down.

Stepinski “has many years of experience in the field of management, including in the field of cultural institutions, he enjoys the trust of the team and the museum’s donors and Jewish communities in Poland and abroad,” said Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski and Piotr Wislicki, the head of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute, which represents private donors.

Stola guided the museum from the opening of its permanent exhibition in 2014 until February 2019, a time in which it won multiple international awards. He was highly valued by private museum donors.

Though Stola won a competition last May for a second term, Culture Minister Piotr Glinski refused to re-appoint him. That left the museum under the management of Stepinski since then but his interim tenure by law must expire on Feb. 22, adding urgency to finding a resolution.

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, right, and Dariusz Stola, then director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, visit the museum in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday March 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

With that deadline approaching, Stola agreed earlier this week to step aside. He said he was acting to prevent any damage to the institution, though he insisted it was his legal right to be director and said the government had “false pretexts” against him.

The museum’s creation was long hailed as a sign of how Poland, after throwing off communism, sought to embrace its former multicultural past and celebrate its centuries-old Jewish civilization.

The recent conflict over its leadership reflected 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 had been whether the museum would be able to independently decide on its programming under a conservative and nationalist government that has been placing loyalists at the helm of museums and other cultural institutes.

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