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In the Polish Aftermath

In a public debate over a controversial new Holocaust film, Poland faces up to a complicated past

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Maciej Stuhr in Aftermath (Apple Film)
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But the movie is genre-bending in other ways. Pokłosie is, for example, also devoid of the genre’s favorite stock character: the righteous Gentile savior. Jozef Kalina comes closest to this role as we watch him stubbornly memorializing the dead in one of his fields. But Jozef is on a fool’s errand, despite his good intentions. The dead cannot be saved, and Jozef, living on their land, is guilty by association, plagued by an irresolvable mourning that leads to his destruction. And Jozef isn’t responsible for discovering the truth about the Jews’ murderers, either. That quest is reserved for his brother Franciszek, who is a reluctant detective. When Franciszek first arrives in the village, he doesn’t seem bothered by the anti-Semitic graffiti that greets him. Instead, he’s annoyed that he had to return to the Old Country. In America, where he now lives, there are no bad memories, though there are plenty of “Jews running the country,” Franciszek tells Jozef, as they fix a combine together.

Played by the acclaimed Polish film and stage actor Ireneusz Czop, Franciszek captures the off-the-cuff, lightly anti-Semitic talk that pops up in Polish public discourse. Yet, at the same time, Franciszek hunts down court records, digs up bones, wanders the ruins of the old Gestapo headquarters, and asks hard questions of a dying old lady, the last of the generation who lived through the war.

Anonymous Polish villagers wreak havoc on the Kalina brothers as they conduct their search, but they are never shown in the act. Only the evidence of their work is left behind—a rock through a window, graffiti on a barn door, flames engulfing a field. When we do see the villagers, they appear as innocent bystanders, shifting blame to others: delusional in their self-perception of absolute goodness. In Pokłosie, there is no uniformed boogieman to scapegoat, no righteous character to identify with, no absolute victims for whom we can have empathy. By the end of the film, everyone is implicated in the violence of the past. The safe old categories no longer hold.

***

Through last winter, Pasikowski’s film provoked an outpouring of public criticism, launching a second round of the Neighbor’s debate that began in 2001. Soon after the film’s release, Polish patriots and ethno-nationalists accused the film of being part of a Jewish conspiracy to tarnish Poland’s reputation. Obsessed with the film’s tangential relationship to Neighbors, they began invoking Gross’ name and attacked Pokłosie for misrepresenting Poland’s history. “The reaction was not a shock,” Dariusz Jabłoński, one of the film’s producers, said at the Nozyk Synagogue panel. “We knew we were dealing with a subject that was still very much a taboo.”

Still, it was surprising, even to Gross, that the one who received the most ire was Maciej Stuhr, the actor who played Jozef. Soon after he began receiving death threats, Wprost, a national magazine, featured him on its cover, provocatively scrawled in anti-Semitic graffiti meant to echo both the film and the very real harassment to which Stuhr was being subjected. Inside, Magdalena Rigamonti’s article, “Stuhr, You Jew,” chronicled the anti-Semitic backlash against Stuhr—who doesn’t identify as Jewish, though the right-wing press continues to insist he is of Jewish origin. Rigamonti didn’t necessarily approve of the vitriol being hurled at Stuhr, but wrote that she believed Stuhr had brought it upon himself. “He has become a symbol of simplicity and manipulating history for commercial gain,” she wrote.

Others have rallied behind the film. Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s most widely read newspapers, embraced the work as “outstanding,” while Dwutygodnik, an online arts and culture weekly, ran several simultaneous reviews that all agreed Pokłosie was an important film for all the reasons that made it so hard to watch. For Tokarska-Bakir, the public debate has been emblematic of how far, or not, Poland has come since Neighbors. “The situation is much better and much worse,” she said. “There are so many more people who are inhabiting this space of anti-anti-Semitics. And, at the same time, there is much more acceptance of anti-Semitism in the mainstream culture. Positions have been reinforced.”

Still, much like the film, the one voice that seems strikingly absent from the discussion is that of the Jewish community. Poles are forced to work through the tragic past alone. Even if Jewish audiences from abroad were engaged in the debate, Pasikowski suggests that they could never offer the Poles any real comfort or redemption. In the final scene of the film, a Jewish youth group, like those that frequently come to Poland to tour Holocaust sites, prays at Jozef Kalina’s virtual cemetery. As they shuckle, they stand entirely apart from the film’s action, unaware and untouched by what has just transpired in this little town. They look like alien invaders. Their return does not offer comfort or redemption but only dramatizes the distance between the Jews of the past, the Jews of the present, and the Poles, who exist outside the frame, no better off than before the truth was revealed.

***

To read more Tablet in Warsaw coverage, click here.

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beniyyar says:

Sure the Poles were victims of the Nazi war machine and were killed off in vast numbers but the Poles were also deeply complicit in the Nazi genocide of the Jewish People, an historical fact which the Poles can hardly deny. Poland had a long history of hostility and antagonism towards Jews, and did as much as possible both during WWII and after to particpate in and profit from the destruction of Polish Jewry.

20 years ago visiting Poland what struck me were the Catholic cemetaries dotting the countryside. They had survived the turmoil between the wars, Nazi and Communist rule, and continued to be maintained and respectfully cared for in contrast to the Jewish Cemetaries I visited in Lask (my mother’s village) and Lodz (where my father was from). I remember thinking at the time why was it that the Poles’ concept of patriotism seemed to exclude the obligation of stewardship for the sacred places their murdered Jewish countrymen were no longer able to care for?

Armando says:

Denise Grollmus, Thanks for informing us about the film in your excellent article. I would jlike to point out one thing. Your wrote : “Many Poles point to the fact that, unlike most
European nations, Poland never officially collaborated with the Nazis,
never ran their camps or established Polish SS groups. As a result of
this resistance, more than 20 percent of the country’s population was
destroyed,”

The Poles were never given the chance to collaborate along the Vichy model in France. There were Polish candidates for Pétain-like roles in the occupation, but the Germans did not have the same plans for the Poles as they did for the French. Poland was to reduced to a nation of helots serving the Herrenvolk. Ukrainians were chosen as camp guards because, among other reasons, the large Ukrainian minority in Poland had grievances against the nationalistic governments of that country. It is not as if Poles had been given the opportunity to collaborate and had massively refused.. “As a result of this resistance, more than 20 percent of the country’s population was destroyed,” This sentence gives the reader the impression that the 20% loss in population was due to Poland’s refusal to collaborate ! The huge losses in the non-Jewish Polish population were due to military action, deliberate liquidation of part of the Polish intelliegentsia.

oh do elaborate on this ‘historical fact’ of [all by implication] ‘Poles’ doing ‘as much as possible’ ‘to particpate in and profit from the destruction of Polish Jewry’! at least let us see you try.

beniyyar says:

Ever heard of Katowice, where after the war the Poles murdered over thirty Jews who managed to get back to reclaim their homes and property. The Poles who had stolen it never thought they would see the real Jewish owners again, so they killed them. Get a life you filth Polack!

calm down dear, I trust you’re referring to Kielce pogrom, which on its own is more than enough to back up your above hysteria.

This new film “Poklosie” covers ground documented from 1992-1996 by Marian Marzynski’s 3 hour film “Shtetl.” Marzynski’s film is well worth seeing and available online at PBS Frontline and download sources.The filmmaker accompanies Nathan Kaplan, a 70 year-old Jewish man from Chicago, to Bransk, a shtetl in Eastern Poland. Kaplan has been corresponding with young Polish historian Zbyszek Romaniuk. The film accompanies them as they reconstruct the community’s past and meet and confront locals– a few good brave, humane and sympathetic souls; others defensive, complacently deluded, hostile, or slanderously anti-Semitic. Kaplan and the historian dig up gravestones used as pavement around the local Catholic church. Marzynski brings Zbyszek Romaniuk back to the USA to meet Holocaust survivors from Bransk and takes him to Israel to visit Yad Va Shem. Tel Aviv high school students returned from a visit to Auschwitz give the Pole a hard time. Back home is Bransk, Zbyszek is called a Jew and subject to anti-Semitic graffiti. As a civil servant (he ends up as vice-mayor), the historian chooses to compromise and bury the past he has dug up. In a speech for the town’s 500th anniversary, making no mention of the Jews who lived in Bransk for 250 years, he says Our town was Polish, is Polish, and will be Polish forever. I look forward to seeing the new movie and am glad that a Pole has made it.

bykov says:

An excellent article. Thanks!

bykov says:

I visited my dad’s home town in what is now Belarus, but was then Poland, and is about 30 km from the Polish border, and most of the graves there were dug up, as one local told me, to “look for the gold and silver” the Jews had buried in them. On that same site, the old folks who were too sick or frail for transport to Treblinka were shot dead. So much for proper care of the cemetery ….

beniyyar, you need overcome the racist impulses here to castigate a
whole nation here based on the actions of the few. The whole point of
the debate provoked by Gross’ book and the film in this article is the
mixed reality of the Polish experience during the Holocaust, which had
been swept under the carpet during the years of communism. Note, that
this debate is happening in Poland and, as Jan Gross said, the new
research comes from Poles themselves re-examining the facts from a fresh
perspective. It is blatantly untrue to say that all the Poles were
either only helping Jews or aiding the Germans or looking to profit from
the holocaust. The whole point is that there is not a single narrative.
Also, calling someone a ‘filth [sic] Polack’ (in anger I presume?)
really brings you down to the level of those people who committed the
acts you describe. What would you make of someone hurling such abuse at you?

arabesque says:

People in the US are terribly ignorant about the situation in Poland
during the war, hurling accusations about Polish complicity in the
Holocaust. I’m amazed that so many Jews were saved (check the Yad Vashem records) given the fact that
helping a Jewish person meant death not only for the person who extended
help but for their whole family. I was always wonder how many of us
today would be willing to take such a risk if we knew that our spouses
and children would suffer imminent death. What’s also almost never
mentioned is the Jewish collaboration with the Nazis (the Jewish police,
for example). Again, the picture is more complicated than it may seem at first glance. It would be easy to condemn them, but none of us can tell how far we’d go if there was even a small chance of saving the lives of our loved ones. It’s a great pity that The Tablet never quotes what Mark Edelman, one of the leaders of the ghetto uprising, has to say on the subject. His politically incorrect views might destroy the simplified black-and -white vision that so many choose to cling to. Two great books that might clarify things are Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and the just published Agata Tuszynska’s Vera Gran: The Accused.

What is Poland with regards to Jews you can read in M. Begins’s book who lived there before the war. He also describes the anti-Semitism in Polish army that was under command of Polish government in exile. For Jews it is forever the largest graveyard in the world. Jews should never go there even for a visit.
On a different subject. Germans didn’t want Polish collaboration. The rejected it time and again.

” I’m amazed that so many Jews were saved “. FYI about only 0.3%. Is it many? Compare it to Denmark. Yes, there were few human Poles and Ukrainians. No secret.

Umish Katani says:

I don’t think he needs to get over anything, you need to stop defending your benevolent murderous poles who were overjoyed to be Jew free. Until they were next. Never forgive and never forget.

Howard Celnik says:

Is it possible to see this film in the U.S., or to get a Region 1 DVD?

Pole says:

This is so typical. We Poles make a brutally honest movie about our history and your pathetic reaction is a mixture of ignorance, hate, insults and nationalistic prejudices against us.

What does it teach us ?

An honest dialogue with Jews seems to make no sense at all. !

We should better keep quiet like all the other nations, who slaughtered hundereds of thousands of Jews, but do not make any films and books about it.

Lithuanians together with the Germans killed 70.000 Jews in a couple of weeks in the Ponary massacre. Vichy France, Holland, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Italy, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Austria sent millions of Jews to the German death camps, where Germans and Ukrainians murdered them. USA and UK gave crap about the Holocaust.

But who do Jews 1st and foremost associate with anti smeitism instead ?….us Poles.

disgusting

Pole says:

Thats not true. Germans accepted and loved any kind of collaboration.

But the Polish underground state

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_government-in-exile

killed any Pole who tried to collaborate.

9 Poles and 1 Ukrainian sentenced to death.
http://fbcdn-sphotos-h-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-prn1/q71/s720x720/994283_580080612042680_717494035_n.jpg

If the Poles wanted, they could have ignored collaboration against Jews. But they did not ignore it. Poles killed other Poles to protect Jews ! Do you get it ? And if you do, show me an other nation which killed its citizens in order to protect Jews.

Michal says:

Danmark is not a good example 100% of the population was saved but they consisted in only several houndred souls. The saving action was pretty simple a German officer called his classmate from Danish administration and told that the next day they will start deporting Jews. The Danish administration without any risk for themselves packed Jews on one boat and transported 15 km away to a neutral Sweden.

Such an action involves minimal resources, is carried out overnight within one city of a developped countlry with an efficient administraiton, concerns minimal group of people, there is no risk, no heroism, no resistance involved. I do not understand how this is comparable to a situation of a 3 milion Jewish population in rural underdevelopped Poland, where there is nowhere to escape, and saving Jews is a multi year effort is punishable by death for entire family of the host.

Shotwell Media says:

AFTERMATH opens in NYC theaters on November 1st and in Los Angeles on November 8. The film will screen in many other cities.
http://www.menemshafilms.com/aftermath

Theopliske says:

This is pretty much the Polish version of the German film, Das Schrechlische Maedchen (The Nasty Girl). A really good movie and actually based off of real events.

Jack Kuper says:

It’s about time and should prove therapeutic for the nation.
Having said that, I still don’t
advocate for Jews to reestablish a life there. All this recent museum building and Jew embracing cannot erase our own deep seated anti-Polish poison.
75 years later,”Jews to Palestine”
still echoes in my head, as a 7 year old, I was pursued by a stone throwing boy my own age, in my hometown of Pulawy

This was all wit and righteous.In all this piece of writing you refer Nazi ,never German.What is the problem,I would love to know.Is history writing taking the bend?For Germans Poles were any better than Jews and our fate would be similar. Let me recount a story of a briclayer from Opole Lubelskie city,50 kilom.west of Lublin.It is September morning 1939.On market place no peasants as usual trading with Jews.Jews in their small shops with living quarters on first floor.Incidentally,all existing today so one can easily imagine noise of children,busy life,Jews doing their crafts.Other cities are similar,all at a distance of a horse driven carriage for one day. As Polish troops are already shattered,the first detachment of Germans arrives at the city on motobikes.It is the first time anybody can see Germans.What happens is that Jews are the first trying to make contact with Germans.I guess,it was easier as Yiddish is Germanic language.They did not know ,they missed their jugdment,and when German soldier shot the first Jew they jerked to see what the hell is coming.But can you imagine what anger built in Polish habitants seeing Jews going in cahoots with Germans. I saw Mrs Gross on Polish tv a few years ego giving interview and promoting his writing.I can remember my mind was occupied by his ounturage.The man speaks fluent Polish,do not need interpreter sitting beside him and half his age.After all,plane tickets , hotels,restaurants,journes are not so cheap for a scholar. Similary Pasikowski,not known name,and only popped up by film,his only chance of being closer to reward by doing something controversial,fantasy as if real,and that pays off.

(continuation}It were mentioned Jewish cementaries.In places i know ,Opole lubelskie ,Belzyce kirkutes are well mentained. Do not rate me as Jew hater.In fact I admire many writers of Jewish origin and being graduate of physics faculty Einstein was always second after God. Poland is now mundane ,normal country, with enormous progress.It is becoming good place to live in.If there is any anti-Zionisem,thats periphery and looked on with contempt. So it is wise thinkig of future and not building any walls of hatred.They plan to build mosque in Warsaw,future is for Jews,Muslims,Ukrainians and other ethnic from east. In my opinion young Jews and Poles should not be brought up in hatred,so I can not agree with Mrs Gershon Shwartz,Arad Israel,appealing in Newsweek 10years ago against participation in Kletzmer music festival in Krakow others then Jews.(I am in posession of that piece.} My hope is that in future Jews and Poles will be on similar stage as Jews and Germans. To the end I would to answer Mrs Jack Kuper above about that stone throwing in Pulawy.Hard to find words of condemnation,I will read that to others.Belive me,that happened to me,too,many years ago,I am not a Jew,and this would form a broader story.

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In the Polish Aftermath

In a public debate over a controversial new Holocaust film, Poland faces up to a complicated past

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