BERLIN — She didn’t even get to say goodbye to her colleagues.
Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska was given 24 hours to clear out her office, until the end of the month to vacate her flat, and is forbidden to talk to the press about any of it.
The elegant redhead, who is credited for her knowledge of architecture and theater, was abruptly fired from her job as director of the Polish cultural institute in Berlin last week. Did her programs have “too much Jewish content,” as Israel’s Haaretz headlined bluntly? The Forward in the United States made that a question: “Was Polish Culture Institute Director Fired for Too Much ‘Jewish-Themed Content’?”
As various theories circulate in Berlin about why, one thing is clear—that this is the latest attempt of Poland’s radical nationalist government to revamp its image abroad, not least by playing down any Polish role in the Holocaust. A law proposed last summer, for instance, would make it a crime to use the phrase “Polish death camps” for, say, Auschwitz, which was a Nazi death camp in occupied Poland.
“Everything points to the fact that the dismissal [of the Polish Institute Director] was politically motivated,” Berlinische Galerie director Thomas Köhler tells The Daily Beast. “Her contract would have ended next year. This was clearly intended as a punishment—It’s really bad form.”
Together with other leading culture fanatics in the capital, Köhler signed a protest letter that expressed “dismay“ and “irritation“ at the sudden dismissal. Cilly Kugelmann, who directs the Jewish Museum in Berlin, initiated the letter.
Last year, the Polish Institute screened “Ida,” an Oscar-winning Polish film about a Catholic woman who discovers she is the Jewish child of Holocaust victims. But while showing the film may have gone down well in Berlin, it could have been another strike against Wielga-Skolimowska for Warsaw.
Since Poland’s Law and Justice Party won elections in 2015, the Warsaw government has been going to great pains to “recalibrate many of the ways in which Poles think, talk and learn about their own history.” And to some, it looks like Law and Justice wants to whitewash a lot of the country’s history, even the Shoah, by appealing to nationalist pride.
The way in which “Ida” was broadcast on public television in Poland this year has provided one ground for such suspicion. The film that had won best film prize at the Polish Film Academy in 2013 was this time accompanied by a 12-minute clip in which three critics tore into it, warning about supposed historical inaccuracies.
In October, Wielga-Skolimowska received a damning internal evaluation by the newly appointed Polish ambassador to Berlin, Andrzej Przylebski. Among other things, he warned her, “not to overdo the emphasis—particularly in Germany, which should not receive the role of mediator—on the importance of Polish-Jewish dialogue as the main example of intercultural dialogue which takes place in Poland.“
So this week, the left-leaning Berlin paper TAZ chose the provocative title “Warsaw Purges in Berlin” to report on Wielga-Skolimowska’s dismissal. Two other papers followed suit and claimed that Wielga-Skolimowska was fired for over emphasizing Jewish topics. The theme, as noted, was picked up by the Israeli press. And the Polish embassy was not happy. Both the Berliner Zeitung and the Tageszeitung received a letter demanding a correction.
Law and Justice is not generally considered an anti-Semitic party, not least because it is very pro-Israel. And according to political scientist Janusz Bugajski, despite Poland’s shady new attitude to historical accuracy, there is also “sensitivity that Germany is still evading a full accounting of World War II war crimes and that Poles as a nation are depicted as anti-Semites.”
In his evaluation, Ambassador Przylebski also accused Wielga-Skolimowska of having done a bad job inviting guests and choosing topics. “The blind imitation of nihilistic and hedonistic trends does not lead to anything good in terms of civilization.” he wrote, rather mysteriously and apocalyptically. “Poland must resist this.”
Wielga-Skolimowska is the 14th out of 24 Polish Institute directors around the world to be fired this year, and the reasons vary. Vienna was forced to stop working with an Austrian journalist and writer after he criticised “Law and Justice” in his articles. But the director in Madrid already had to go for not focusing enough on Chopin.
“The Polish government is really celebrating national pride now,” Köhler muses, “and you can understand that: the country has a nasty history. But I expect that now they’ll be doing a very conservative backwards program, with uncritical writers, artists, and Chopin evenings. I don’t know if I’ll still feel like going.”
Bugajski, the political scientist, notes that Ambassador Przylebski, at the very least, seems to be “repeating the kind of language that communists used against ‘decadent Western bourgeois art.’ He adds, “It just shows you that politicians should not try to be culture critics.”
This advice was not heeded in November, when Przylebski valiantly tried and failed to organize the German premiere of the regime’s first blatant propaganda film, “Smolensk,” which claims that a 2010 plane crash that killed 95 passengers, including then-president Leck Kaczynskim, was really an act of Russian terrorism. Every cinema in Berlin refused to show the film, clumsily citing “safety concerns.”