A leaked email exchange between PM Morawiecki, his chief of staff, and a right-wing pundit shows how in a Poland controlled by nationalists, scholars whose scientific research goes against the official party line are automatically condemned as "enemies of the state".
Ten artykuł czytasz w ramach bezpłatnego limitu

Follow the big issues that shape Polish politics and society by signing up to our weekly newsletter " News from Poland: Democracy at Stake ". It allows you to stay up to speed on developments concerning the ongoing assault on democratic institutions, rule of law, and human rights in Poland.

A fresh batch of emails leaked from the account of Minister Dworczyk (Prime Minister Morawiecki’s Chief of Staff) has been made public in recent days. The authors of the emails are: the right-wing columnist Bronisław Wildstein, PM Morawiecki, and his two advisors. The emails, written in 2018, deal with interpretations of Holocaust history, historians and institutions involved in Holocaust research and education, and Polish-Israeli relations. In all cases, they refer to so-called "dignity" issues, in which a twisted notion of Polish raison d'etat is mixed together with militant nationalism entirely resistant to rational arguments. The leaked correspondence allows us to take a behind-the-scenes look at the clumsy attempts at shaping Poland’s "politics of memory".

On January 26, 2018 (on the eve of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day) the Polish Parliament (the Sejm) passed the so-called "amendment to the Law on the Institute of National Remembrance"- a legal and public relations disaster that immediately became known abroad as the "Polish Holocaust Law".  The most conspicuous article in the new law provided for a punishment of up to three years in prison for people who (quoting the Polish legislators): "publicly and against the facts attribute to the Polish Nation or the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich". In reality, however, the idea was to muzzle and gag researchers, educators, and all those whose views on the history of the Holocaust differed fundamentally from the interpretation espoused by the ruling party. It is worth mentioning that only 5 MPs voted against this shameful law. The remaining 409 voted in favor or abstained.

Poland's Holocaust Law triggered outrage around the world. This international reaction was obvious and understandable – at least for everybody outside of Poland. I cannot but mention here that already in 2016, I published an article in the Israeli Journal of Foreign Affairs ["The Holocaust and Poland's 'History Policy'"] signaling upcoming changes in Polish law and the associated threats to freedom of scientific research. My warning wasn’t the only one.

On February 16, 2018, at a conference in Munich, a few weeks after the infamous bill was passed, when it seemed that destroying Poland's international reputation any further was hardly possible, PM Morawiecki declared that "there were Polish perpetrators [of the Holocaust], just as there were Jewish perpetrators, Russian perpetrators, or Ukrainian perpetrators - not just German perpetrators". Equating of Jews with Holocaust perpetrators from other nations has been reported by the media all around the world. On the same day, Prime Minister Morawiecki, as if to remove any doubt about his own intentions, laid flowers on the graves of the soldiers of the Holy Cross Mountain (Świętokrzyska) Brigade, the only underground unit of the Polish National Armed Forces which retreated west with the Nazis in the winter of 1944/45, ahead of the advancing Red Army. The Polish Prime Minister could have visited the nearby Dachau concentration camp to pay tribute to the people murdered by the Nazis - but he didn’t; he preferred to pay tribute to the people supported by the Nazis.  If someone had the urge to initiate a competition entitled: "how to ruin Poland's image in the eyes of the world as quickly and permanently as possible", they couldn't have come up with anything better.

17.02.2018, premier Mateusz Morawiecki złożył wieniec i zapalił znicz na grobach żołnierzy Brygady Świętokrzyskiej Narodowych Sił Zbrojnych.
17.02.2018, premier Mateusz Morawiecki złożył wieniec i zapalił znicz na grobach żołnierzy Brygady Świętokrzyskiej Narodowych Sił Zbrojnych.  Waldemar Kompała/KPRM

The following months were a time of feverish search by the Polish authorities for a way out of the quagmire into which they had led themselves, and the entire country. The leaked emails are from this hectic period. The emails (as has been amply demonstrated in the past) are credible and should in the future become one of the pieces of evidence in investigations against the people who, after 2015, proceeded to destroy Polish democracy. The analysis of this correspondence allows us to trace actions aimed at cementing a nationalist vision of the past based on falsifying the history of one of the greatest tragedies in human history - the destruction of European Jewry.                                 

"Our people" inside Jewish history institutions

The first email from Bronisław Wildstein to Mateusz Morawiecki is dated March 5, 2018. Both men are on a first-name basis ("Bronek" and "Mateusz") which gives the exchange a more informal, even friendly, dimension. The message from "Bronek" reads: "The basic problem we have in our relations with the Jews is that our enemies have monopolized all contact with them. When I write this, I mean not only the [political enemies of the] party you represent, but to some extent the enemies of entire Polish nation. The Center for Holocaust Research presents an almost obsessive hatred of Poles. Jan Grabowski, suggesting right and left that Poles denounced or killed some 200,000 Jews, says that the issue of Poles helping Jews can be addressed only after our own [Polish] crimes have been investigated, and that Israel should suspend diplomatic relations with Poland as long as the IPN law is in effect. Barbara Engelking is no different, as are all the other members of this team. And these are the people, who have taken over relations with Yad Vashem. The Jewish Historical Institute, and the "Polin" museum are not much better .... It might be necessary to analyze their status and the possibility of gradually introducing our people into their midst".

Muzeum Polin w Warszawie
Muzeum Polin w Warszawie  Fot. Dawid Żuchowicz / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

What’s noteworthy here is the primitive language of exclusion and aggression used by the author of this email. The juxtaposition of "our enemies" with the will of the entire Polish nation brings to mind the rhetoric of the worst times. Equally instructive is the strategy suggested in the letter for the planned introduction of "our people" into institutions active in the field of Jewish memory of the Holocaust. The takeover of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews turned out to be more difficult than Wildstein had anticipated, since the state had only a 1/3 stake in the venture. The remaining "shareholders" (i.e., the city of Warsaw and the Jewish Historical Institute Association) refused to support government appointees. Things went more easily with the Jewish Historical Institute - where the filling of the director's position depends entirely on the Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński. Today, the Jewish Historical Institute, under the leadership of Ms. Monika Krawczyk, a person who is unqualified to head an academic institution, but ruthlessly loyal to the ruling nationalists, has become another cog in the machine that drives Polish memory politics. Quite recently, the process of "introducing our people" into the institutions of Jewish Holocaust remembrance has gained momentum. 

Malowanie napisu na gmachu Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego przy ul. Tłomackie
Malowanie napisu na gmachu Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego przy ul. Tłomackie  ADAM STĘPIEŃ

Among the members of the newly constituted Council of the "Polin" Museum, we find "our people" that is, nominees of the Minister of Culture. There is "Bronek" Wildstein himself, there is Artur Hofman, head of the Socio-Cultural Society of Jews (TSKŻ), a faithful ally of the current government, whom "Bronek" in his letter to Prime Minister Morawiecki described as a person "representing rational opportunism", there is the vice-head of the IPN Mateusz Szpytma, there is Albert Stankowski (director of the not-yet-opened Warsaw Ghetto Museum, anointed by Minister Gliński at the time of its conception as a "museum of Polish-Jewish love"), and there is Deputy Minister of Culture Jarosław Sellin, the man directly responsible for the state's frontal attack on independent Holocaust scholars. 

Almost simultaneously, the Auschwitz Council was constituted. There, we also find "our people". Here, too, is Mateusz Szpytma, there is Dr. Grzegorz Berendt, the IPN employee responsible for the authorities' "capture" of the World War II Museum in Gdańsk, and there are Artur Hofman and Albert Stankowski, both mentioned before. Thus, the plan outlined by Wildstein in 2018 is taking concrete shape, and the institutions set up to protect Jewish memory are becoming hostage to the memory politics pursued by the Polish state. While the candidates put forward by the authorities can be assessed critically or very critically, the presence of Mateusz Szpytma, the man in charge of "Jewish Affairs" at the IPN, a person who bears direct responsibility by virtue of his position for last year's appointment of a former neo-fascist to a leading position at the IPN, is a slap in the face of all independent and highly respectable people sitting on both Councils. 

"We drank a sea of beer, but it was worth it"

Writing to PM Morawiecki, "Bronek" is also concerned with the scarcity of pro-government forces on the memorial and political battlefield for a proper historical Holocaust-related narrative. Putting his son's initiative in the spotlight ("my son, Dawid Wildstein, has been promoting the idea of a 'Warsaw of two uprisings' [Jewish Uprising of April 1943 and the Polish Uprising of August 1944] for several years now..."), "Bronek" advises the Prime Minister to "promote Polish martyrdom using Jewish martyrdom, because it is possible". While it is not entirely clear how successful was "Bronek's suggestion to promote Polish martyrdom using Jewish martyrdom", the strategy of "mixing-in" Polish suffering together with the Jewish catastrophe has become one of the highlights of the memory politics of the Polish state. Examples abound: in the official narrative, the Treblinka II extermination camp is mixed up with the Treblinka I labor camp, the same is true of the Auschwitz II extermination camp and the Auschwitz I concentration camp, the name Treblinka has been "appropriated" for the purposes of Polish martyrology as a result of the scandalous actions of the Pilecki Institute, and the Auschwitz Museum tries, in social media, to "restore" for the Polish cause the gas chambers at Birkenau.

Dawid Wildstein odznaczony przez prezydenta Dudę
Dawid Wildstein odznaczony przez prezydenta Dudę  ADAM STĘPIEŃ

Mateusz Morawiecki responded to "Bronek" the same day. The Prime Minister agreed that "we have very few allies, and it is necessary to find them and to help them organize". There are few issues as important to me as this one", he added. Finally, the Polish PM wrote "Bronek" Wildstein: "The media issue you mention is important. Not only in Israel, but all over the world. We must map out journalists sympathetic to Poland. This is a job to be done 'right now' by the Foreign Ministry and PFN [Polish National Foundation – a publicly funded foundation created by the nationalist authorities to support their pet causes]". 

The Prime Minister's advisor, a certain Andrzej Pawluszek, spoke out on the "media issue" and on the issue of "mapping out favorable journalists".   In a message dated March 6, 2018, Pawluszek reported to PM Morawiecki on his efforts in Tel Aviv: "Dr. Joanna Hofman (former Ambassador to Helsinki), is a very sensible person, not only is she one of us, but she really gets what we want".  In another email, dated March 22, Pawluszek has again mentioned this Polish diplomat: "Joanna Hofman from the Polish Institute in TLV [Tel Aviv], is a super gal!".  The purpose of Pawluszek's efforts in Israel was, on the one hand, to find journalists sympathetic to the official Polish narrative ("I made great contact with a journalist from the Jerusalem Post (Gol Kalev), we drank a sea of beer, but it was well worth it") as well as to mobilize additional funds from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs budget to pay someone to "correct Hebrew Wikipedia entries and position Israeli pages on google".  I will just add that state-sponsored interference with material published on Wikipedia is a separate issue, worthy of another article.

"Grabowski and Engelking are simply enemies of Poland"

In another letter from Wildstein to Morawiecki (dated June 28, 2018), "Bronek" referred to a planned "joint Polish-Israeli Holocaust research project". "Ideally, it would be done by Yad Vashem together with the IPN" – Wildstein writes - "This should be forced on the Israeli authorities, since now all contacts with Israeli historians are monopolized by the Holocaust Research Center, whose main figures- Grabowski and Engelking- are simply enemies of Poland.  Next up would be the only slightly better Polin or the Jewish Historical Institute. If such a project were to be done, the results of research signed by the Israeli side would be beyond question. One would also discuss the darker sides [of the Polish past], but, done in a serious way, and put into proper context, they would look radically different from [Jan Tomasz] Gross's or Grabowski's 'revelations'".

Prezydent Andrzej Duda z osobami odznaczonymi Orderem Orła Białego. Od lewej: Bronisław Wildstein, Zofia Romaszewska, Wanda Półtawska, Irena Kirszensztajn-Szewińska, prof. Michał Kleiber i Michał Lorenc
Prezydent Andrzej Duda z osobami odznaczonymi Orderem Orła Białego. Od lewej: Bronisław Wildstein, Zofia Romaszewska, Wanda Półtawska, Irena Kirszensztajn-Szewińska, prof. Michał Kleiber i Michał Lorenc  Fot. Sławomir Kamiński / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

These few sentences are worth "unpacking". I am already leaving aside the issue of "enemies of Poland" that Wildstein raised in his previous emails.  Far more significant is the attempt to "force" the Israeli authorities to coerce Yad Vashem to cooperate with the IPN in order to gain Israeli approval for Polish nationalists' attempts to falsify Holocaust history. The idea itself demonstrates the author’s deep ignorance of the importance of Holocaust narrative in Israel. Furthermore, Wildstein seems to be ignorant of the total lack of IPN’s international credibility. From a number of conversations I have recently had with Israeli historians, it is clear that even if the Polish authorities were to propose a cooperation with the IPN, it would not have been taken seriously by anyone in Israel.

"Bronek’s" letter ends on a dramatic note: "If we sleep through this opportunity then we will constantly be confronted with more "revelations" produced by representatives of the pedagogy of shame, who want to compromise our history and, consequently, our identity". It is really difficult to even try to understand what the author wanted to convey.  "A compromised history" because of the critical studies of independent scholars? "A compromised national identity" as a result of scientific research focusing on the most difficult aspects of national history? Searching for meaning in Wildstein's prose seems to be an impossible task. It would be half bad if these were merely the rantings of a right-wing pundit. Unfortunately, we are dealing with someone whose unsophisticated arguments seem to have a direct impact on the Prime Minister of a major European country.

Morawiecki responded to "Bronek" two days later.  The email reads: "I absolutely agree with you that this is a key project and we have to pursue it. The IPN or the M[agdalena] Gawin Research Center [Pilecki Institute] are the best candidates for this project, they should start working on it as soon as possible". Finally, Morawiecki asked Wildstein to develop the project together with Michał Dworczyk and Marek Magierowski [Polish ambassador to Israel]", so that "I could discuss it with Prime Minister Netanyahu".

Controlling the historical narrative by use of force

What conclusions can be drawn from this exchange between Morawiecki and Wildstein?  First, "dignity" issues, the struggle to maintain national myths, seem to be issues of fundamental importance to the ruling nationalists. Second, in order to defend these myths, the Prime Minister and his entourage are ready to mobilize the state apparatus, state finances and exert diplomatic pressure abroad to achieve their goals. Third, seen from the perspective of militant nationalists, the world of scientific research appears to be an extension of the political struggle, and studies which stray from the official "party line" automatically condemn their authors to the ranks of "enemies of the state". Fourth, on the "front of Jewish memory", seen as a priority direction for the state, the authorities are ready to use any force to control institutions that can influence the Holocaust-related historical narrative.

Not so long ago, reports concerning the meetings between Ms. Przyłębska, head of the Constitutional Tribunal, and Minister Dworczyk have been circulating in the press. In the course of their meetings, it was alleged that Dworczyk and Przyłębska discussed and determined the way in which one should proceed with various cases brought before the Constitutional Tribunal. These "discussions" were in clear violation of the Constitution and a variety of articles of the Criminal Code. Constitutional law experts and lawyers condemned in the strongest possible terms the destruction of democracy and the subordination of judicial power to the ruling party that was taking place before our eyes. I would like to hope that the disclosed emails of Wildstein, Dworczyk and Morawiecki will have a similar meaning for humanists, that they will alert historians, researchers, educators and teachers of Holocaust history of the impending dangers.  The attempts to shape historical consciousness by using the state apparatus bring to mind practices known from the worst periods in Polish history.

Professor Jan Grabowski teaches history at the University of Ottawa. He is the co-author of  "Night Without End (...)", a two-volume publication tracing the fates of Jews who went into hiding in the Nazi-occupied Poland.


Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing Russian invasion in Ukraine. Our journalists are on the front lines in 32 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

We decided to make our service available to everyone free of charge in order to provide access to high quality journalism for expats and English speakers interested in Polish affairs.

The access to information should be equal for all.

Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation
Czytaj ten tekst i setki innych dzięki prenumeracie
Wybierz prenumeratę, by czytać to, co Cię ciekawi 
Wyborcza.pl to zawsze sprawdzone informacje, szczere wywiady, zaskakujące reportaże i porady ekspertów w sprawach, którymi żyjemy na co dzień. Do tego magazyny o książkach, historii i teksty z mediów europejskich.
    Zaloguj się
    Chcesz dołączyć do dyskusji? Zostań naszym prenumeratorem
    Thank you for this article prof. Grabowski. It is a shame that Poland has become a banana republic.....
    już oceniałe(a)ś
    Why this text is only in English? In order ordinary Pole wouldn't read because the theme is so sensible for rights and lefts? So you simply scare that even the most left-wings auditory wouldn't accept the idea of resigning from the habit to consider themselves as saints and the habit when Poles don't remember that they collectively also did many ugly things as other nations.
    już oceniałe(a)ś