Poland Searches Its Own Soul

Tamas Kovacs/European Pressphoto Agency
An Israeli man at a former concentration camp in Poland.

By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN (external - login to view)
Published: April 8, 2009
WARSAW — In “Defiance,” (external - login to view) a clunky but well-meaning action film set during World War II and starring Daniel Craig, the Bielski brothers save hundreds of fellow Polish Jews by battling Nazis in the Belarussian forest. Directed by Edward Zwick (external - login to view) and based on a true story, the movie, released around New Year’s, tried among other things to counter Hollywood’s usual tales of Jewish helplessness during the Shoah.

Movie Review | 'Defiance': A Society in the Forest, Banding Together to Escape Persecution (external - login to view) (December 31, 200

Film: Shadows of Valiant Ancestors (external - login to view) (December 28, 200

Trailer: 'Defiance'
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Tamas Kovacs/European Pressphoto Agency
A rendering of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is scheduled to be built next to the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial.

Whether it did, or instead implied that Jews who didn’t fight bore a measure of responsibility for their own fate, became a matter of some passing debate in America.
But the film provoked a different sort of fuss shortly before it arrived here some weeks later. Movie critics in Poland wondered whether Hollywood would ever get around to showing Polish partisans as heroes, as opposed to anti-Semites. A book rushed out by a couple of journalists for Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper, raised doubts about the financial motives of the roughneck real-life Bielski brothers and was pulled from bookstores soon after publication because of accusations of inaccuracy and plagiarism.
Then the movie opened, and the whole issue fizzled. The film quietly disappeared from theaters. Poland, it turned out, had already moved on.
As Europe diversifies, nearly every nation and culture on the continent seems to battle for victimhood status. Poles have especially good reason to see themselves as long oppressed, having been fought over and occupied for much of the last century by vicious regimes. Shifting political power struggles during and after the war, among other complications of Polish Jewish history, led some Polish Jews at certain points to side with Soviets against Nazis and Polish partisans. The whole moral morass, essential to Polish identity, tends to be lost on outsiders, many of whom unthinkingly regard the country, throughout most of the last century at least, as just a Jewish killing field.
Jerzy Halbersztadt is director of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which will soon begin construction of a new $60 million home next to the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, paid for by the nation and the city.
Polish anti-Semitism persists, Mr. Halbersztadt said. “But Poles are more strongly pro-American, and a side effect is that Poland also has the strongest pro-Israel policy, to which there is no opposition anywhere on the local political spectrum,” he added. “Anti-Semitism is no longer an issue particular to us in daily life.”
Michal Bilewicz, a young Jewish psychologist who specializes in Polish-Jewish relations, echoed that thought. He sat one recent morning in his office at the University of Warsaw, in a building that used to be Gestapo headquarters, beside the former ghetto.
Not that there isn’t anti-Semitism in Poland, “but there is no place for it in public today,” Mr. Bilewicz said. “The last time a national survey was done here, in 2002, although the number of anti-Semites rose slightly — and these were almost all older people — more important the number of anti-anti-Semites went way up.”
He pointed to books like “Fear” (external - login to view) and “Neighbors” (external - login to view) by the historian Jan T. Gross, documenting pogroms at Jedwabne and other atrocities by Poles against Jews during and after the war, which provoked much public soul-searching and made denial of Polish complicity no longer possible.
Culture, despite the virtual absence of Jews here, has meanwhile helped shift attitudes in this country, not entirely but significantly. Walk into a Polish bookstore these days, and you’ll find shelves heaving with volumes about Jewish history and culture. There is a Jewish book fair here in Warsaw, a Jewish cultural festival in Krakow, not to mention Mr. Halbersztadt’s museum, planned to open in 2012.
Films like Roman Polanski (external - login to view)’s “Pianist,” released in 2002, about a Jewish survivor, allowed that a modicum of Polish decency outlasted the war. And in 2007, “Katyn,” (external - login to view) directed by Andrzej Wajda (external - login to view), dramatized the murder of some 15,000 Polish officers by the Soviet forces, a massacre Poles were forbidden to discuss under the Soviets. It also was part of the cultural process of publicly untangling the complexity of modern Polish history. Mr. Wajda has said he made the film now to reach a generation of Polish “moviegoers for whom it matters that we are a society,” as he put it, ”and not just an accidental crowd.” That is to say, to reach a generation anxious to unpack the past.

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Last edited by shadowshiv; Apr 9th, 2009 at 06:25 PM..