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Walls of the World: The rising tide of East vs. West, Church vs. State in Poland (4)

A visitor looks at an exhibit highlighting a Polish family that helped save Jews during World War II, at the Museum of the Second World War, in Gdansk, northern Poland, on July 24, 2018. The photo has been blown up to make the exhibit stand out more than it did originally. (Mainichi/Koji Miki)

GDANSK, Poland -- "This is a museum almost entirely created by the Germans. The Polish identity has been erased," remarked Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc; PiS) party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski of the "Museum of the Second World War," which opened in April 2017 here in the northern part of the country.

The museum is one of the largest of its kind in Eastern Europe, and it took the Polish government nine years and some 4.5 billion zloty (roughly 132 billion yen) to build it. Once it had opened, it was denounced by the rightwing party leader as having few exhibits about Poland itself.


The exhibition, containing documents, still images and video, provides space to explain what was going on around the world in the lead-up to World War II, such as the rise of fascism. It also touches on the division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, and the places that became the main locations of the Holocaust, along with other exhibits about Poland's situation in the global context over the period.

The museum concept was suggested by 52-year-old historian Pawel Machcewicz, and his conviction that objective comparison is needed to understand the past is evident throughout the displays.

Poland joined the European Union in 2004. However, according to Machcewicz, Western European countries at the time had little knowledge of Poland -- including the damage the nation suffered during the war. Donald Tusk, Polish prime minister from 2007 to 2014 and now the EU President, backed Machcewicz' vision for a place where not just EU citizens but people from all over the world could learn about Polish history.

However, when PiS took power in 2015 with the support of priests and others from the Catholic Church, the museum underwent some drastic changes. In October 2017, PiS dismissed Machcewicz as museum head, and changed the exhibits to push a nationalist view of history. The museum now features heroic portrayals of particular individuals or groups -- such as Polish families that worked during the war to save Jews and priests of the Catholic Church that makes up PiS' support base -- that stand out compared to the other content.

What attracted the most debate, however, was an animation geared toward young people made at the direction of PiS. Originally, the exhibition animation introduced the flow of world events after the war, and connected it to the current Syrian civil war, conveying that there were still tragic wars occurring. The new, PiS-backed video emphasizes how the Polish people fought back against German and Soviet rule to claim their freedom. The content was changed to encourage young people to rise and fight for their country in the event of a military conflict.

"I think patriotism is something good in Poland," said PiS-selected museum director Karol Nawrocki, 35, of the switch from a pacifist message to one boosting a sense of crisis concerning national security. "I would like to tell our visitors (about) Polish history."

However, Machcewicz dismissed the claim. "PiS uses (the) museum for telling their nationalistic propaganda," he said. "They are only interested in their Polish history."

(Japanese original by Koji Miki, Vienna Bureau)

This is Part 4 in a series.

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