Article Place & Self

Jewish motifs in Polish cinema before Ida

Ida, an intimate film by Pawel Pawlikowski about a Catholic nun who discovers her Jewish roots and struggles with an identity crisis, is the greatest success of Polish cinema in recent times. Awarded with an Oscar, this black-and-white movie amazes with its hypnotic visual beauty. Touching on the complicated issue of Polish-Jewish relations, Ida has stirred up many controversies in its homeland. However, in the history of Polish cinematography there are more movies that have provoked public debate about Polish-Jewish relations. Jewish motifs have been explored by Polish filmmakers, including eminent representatives of the so-called Polish Film School, since the first years after World War II.

Politically sensitive subjects
Jewish themes have been present in Andrzej Wajda’s films since the beginning of his career. One of the greatest directors of contemporary cinema and a co-founder of the Polish Film School depicts the complexity of Polish-Jewish relations in many of his movies, including the film adaptations of literature before the Holocaust (1975’s The Promised Land and 1999’s Pan Tadeusz, based on the national epic of Poland) and also in works that explore dramatic times of World War II (1955’s A Generation and 1990’s Korczak).“Jewish characters and motifs are present in my films, because they are present in Polish life. You cannot be a Polish film director and completely ignore these issues. Jewish culture is an integral component of Polish culture and history,” says Academy Award-wining film director Andrzej Wajda.

Although Jewish issues were repressed or dissembled by the authorities during the communist era in Poland, there were periods of time when filmmakers enjoyed a slightly larger degree of freedom, allowing them to make movies which were bold in handling politically sensitive topics.

Most Polish movies dealing with Jewish issues refer to the time of the Holocaust.
However, among works which deal with the pre-war Jewish shtetl life are The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973) by Wojciech Jerzy Has filled with mind-blowing surreal visuals, and Austeria by Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1982).

Atlantis at the edge of doom
Rich with symbols and metaphysics, Austeria, a film by Jerzy Kawalerowicz from 1982, is a nostalgic account of the vanished world of Polish Jews moments before its destruction.
This film’s plot is set in 1914 in the titular inn on the road to a multicultural town in the Polish part of the Galicia region near the Austro-Hungarian border. The main protagonist of this movie is the innkeeper Tag, an old Jew. When World War I breaks out, Tag’s inn becomes a place of shelter for those citizens from neighbouring towns and villages fleeing the flood of violence. Gathered in one room, people with different views, professions, social status and approaches to Jewish tradition and religion spend the night together discussing, arguing, praying, singing and dancing. They try to cherish life despite the increasing fear that the night might be their last. There are blurry signals that something terrible, not yet defined is happening outside…

Against the background of a vibrant Jewish community, there emerges the strong personality of Tag, who unites the Jewish community and expresses care and responsibility for each refugee in his inn. He is deeply devoted to cultivating the Jewish religion and tradition and simultaneously is very open to people of other nationalities. In a conversation with his friend, a Catholic priest, he dispels doubts related to his national and religious identity: “What did you expect, Father? You know I’m a Jew and I will remain one.”
Through many retrospections, Austeria provides an evocative portrait of the diversified Polish Jewish community living in a Galician shtetl. This image of Atlantis, how the director described the perished world of Polish Jewry before World War II, is portrayed intensely, but also in a very subtle way. The full movie is replete with Jewish philosophy and culture. This movie of Jerzy Kawalerowicz brings special insight into various Jewish religious customs (the songs and dances of Hassidic Jews, the daily prayers of Tag) and holidays (Yom Kippur, Purim and Rosh Hashanah). In Austeria, Tag appears as a wise man, a person who is full of compassion towards others and simultaneously copes with happening events with calm stoicism. He is aware of the upcoming annihilation.

The final sequence of the movie is footage of a river flowing with the blood of Hassids, who previously took a ritual morning bath, singing and dancing, foreshadowing the destruction of the Jewish nation thirty years later…

Rich history of Jewish life in Poland
There is a long and rich history of Jewish life in Poland. “Before the Holocaust, the Polish lands were the ‘Jewish heartland’ of Europe: more than three million Jews lived in pre-World War II Poland, more than in any other country. Many towns in Poland had a majority-Jewish population, and Jews made up a large percentage of the population in big cities. There is a history of anti-Semitism in Poland, but also one of dynamic Jewish life and creativity,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston SC and the Coordinator of the web site Jewish Heritage Europe.
During World War II, the vibrant and multicultural landscape of prewar Polish culture was completely destroyed.

“All that was most colorful, promising and truly creative in Polish culture stopped existing. After 1945, Poland ceased to be a multiethnic and multinational state,” says Andrzej Wajda.

During World War II, Poland lost more than six million inhabitants including approximately three million Jews.
In the post-war reality, complex Polish-Jewish relations were a particularly sensitive topic for the communist government for political reasons. However, the presence of Jewish subjects in Polish cinema was noticeable in the first years after the war. The first films that openly touch on Jewish issues were The Last Stage by Wanda Jakubowska (1947) and Border Street (1948) by Aleksander Ford. The latter movie is one of the first feature films in the history of cinema showing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Especially during the Stalinist period, the censorship in relation to film art was particularly strong. Until 1989, there was a lack of movies in Polish cinema that would bring open discussion about Polish- Jewish relations and anti-Semitism issues in Polish history.

“After the Kielce pogrom (an outbreak of violence against Jewish community, which took place on July 4, 1946 in Kielce- author’s note), Polish anti-Semitism disappeared from Polish art and Polish movies starting with The Last Stage by Wanda Jakubowska focused on Nazi crimes, only occasionally touching on Polish-Jewish relations,” claims Andrzej Wajda.

The Promised Land
Starting with his first films, Polish film director Andrzej Wajda has expressed concern for showing the truth about the Poles’ attitude to the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations in general.

Jewish characters appear in Wajda’s work as both, in films dedicated to the war reality and works that refer to important events in the history of the Polish nation. In all these movies, Jews are portrayed as members of Polish society. At the same time, Wajda does not avoid relating them to more in-depth discussion on issues such as assimilation, integration and autonomy.

The Promised Land and Pan Tadeusz are works in which the Jewish theme is an integral component, since it concerned people who lived on Polish land and who brought a lot of value to our language, sense of humor and Polish culture. This topic is inextricable,” states Andrzej Wajda.

In the Oscar-nominated Promised Land, Wajda presents the image of the industrializing city of Lodz and simultaneously portrays economic links between Poles, Jews and Germans. In the cultural melting pot that was Lodz at the end of the nineteenth century, Jews emerge as the most representative community of the rapidly developing metropolis. The viewer can most fully comprehend the laws governing a dynamically developing city and its specifics in the construction of Jewish characters and the analysis of their attitudes towards life and behaviours.

A Generation
Interest in the relations between Poles and Jews during the war is for the first time shown in the works of Wajda in his feature debut Generation (1954). The film shows the dramatic story of young people, their dilemmas and choices that must be made in the extreme reality of war. One of the characters is a fugitive from the ghetto. In the movie Generation, the issue of help to the Jews is touched upon. The director thoroughly observes the different attitudes of Poles towards Jews during the war.
In Samson (1961), rich with symbolism and Biblical references, the Polish director raises the issue of the martyrdom of Jews during the war. In Samson, reality of life in the Warsaw Ghetto is shown. In this film, the director touches on the topic of Poles hiding Jews. Presenting the situation of the main character Jacob Gold, who after escaping from the ghetto hid on the Aryan side with the help of various people (including a Jewish woman successfully pretending to be an Aryan) opens a space for discussion concerning the complex issues related to Jewish identity.

“The greatest Pole in the world … and the greatest Jew”
All movies by Andrzej Wajda concerning Jewish themes have evoked a lively discussion among both Polish and Western film critics, although most controversy was generated by the film Korczak, which premiere at Cannes ended with a standing ovation.
The screenplay by Agnieszka Holland was based on the diary of Janusz Korczak (b. Henryk Goldszmit), the legendary Polish-Jewish educator, paediatrician and founder of the Dom Sierot (a Warsaw orphanage for Jewish children). Wajda’s film begins before World War II and the start it succinctly illustrates the complexity of Polish-Jewish relations. These scenes indicate signs of Polish anti-Semitism in the 1930s (the expulsion of Dr. Korczak from a radio station, which emits a program to which both Polish and Jewish children contributed). There is also the subplot of the infatuation between a Polish girl, Ewa, and a Jewish boy, Jozek, presented in such a way that the viewer predicts from the first scene that the relationship is doomed to failure.

The main plot of the film takes place in the Warsaw Ghetto, where Janusz Korczak and two hundred orphans who were under his care end up. Showing the fate of Korczak in the brutal reality of the Warsaw Ghetto, Wajda focuses on his heroism and sacrifice in the struggle for the rights of children. One of the senior pupils of the doctor calls him “the greatest Pole in the world … and the greatest Jew”. In film, there are featured shocking images of the Warsaw Ghetto. The paradocumentary style of this movie is emphasized by black-and-white cinematography and the incorporation of the Polish and German documentary footage into the movie. Poles appear mostly in supporting roles. The director shows their different attitudes toward Jews: from passive sympathy and active assistance (paid for with death) to the tacit acceptance of their fate.
The last sequence of the film, filmed in slow motion, accompanied by sublime music by Wojciech Kilar, illustrates the deportation of Korczak and his children to Treblinka.

In his film, Wajda does not show the tragic ending. Instead, he presents a symbolic vision of salvation: a train car with Janusz Korczak and the children from the orphanage travelling to Treblinka detaches from the rest of train and in the result the children are rescued and run to a meadow shrouded in fog.
This last scene sparked controversy. Some reviewers have pointed out the inadequacy of this metaphor. Others saw in it the glorification of Christian heaven. The most extreme voices argued that the director committed historical blasphemy.
Andrzej Wajda returned to the subject of the Holocaust in the movie Holy Week (1995).

A new chapter in Polish-Jewish relations
After 1989, there was an increasing number of movies discussing subjects related to Polish-Jewish relations and the Polish experience of Holocaust. Polish filmmakers have started to explore subjects that were considered taboo under the former political regime.
Along with the political transformation, Poland began to rediscover its centuries-old Jewish tradition. Polish-Jewish relations have become the subject of public debate.
There is a wide range of film genres in which Polish filmmakers proceed presenting Polish-Jewish relations during and after the war, including psychological dramas, thrillers, melodramas and poetic films. Alongside low budget movies appear international co-productions (2001’s Edges of the Lord, 2002’s The Pianist and 2011’s In Darkness).
Edges of the Lord, a psychological drama by Yurek Bogayevicz, depicts the times of the Holocaust observed from the perspective of children living in the Polish countryside. The main protagonist is a 12-year-old Jewish boy, Romek, who is sent away by his parents from the Krakow Ghetto to live with a peasant family. In order to survive, Romek adapts a new identity, pretending to be the farmer’s nephew. Romek’s desire to preserve his true Jewish identity and family history is confronted with the necessity of integration with the Catholics of the rural community in order to not be found out. Viewers follow Romek’s preparation for the First Communion. The issues related to adopting a new identity at the times of the Holocaust have become area of insight exploration by the director of the movie.
In In Darkness (2011), a film by Agnieszka Holland, viewers follow the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer worker who taking huge risk hid terrified Jewish refugees for 14 months in the secret underground tunnels of Lvov, a Nazi-occupied city in Poland. In Darkness is a story of the volatility of the human spirit told in thrilling way and also tribute to ordinary people who took huge risks trying to save the lives of their Jewish neighbours in times of war. In occupied Poland, helping Jews was punishable by death. Historian Teresa Prekerowa estimated that between 160,000 and 360,000 Poles assisted in hiding Jews.

Reckoning with the past also involves the discovery of the dark pages in Polish-Jewish history.
Some movies present a range of attitudes of Poles toward Jews during the World War II and the Nazi occupation, from the full dedication of those aiding Jews to indifference laced with fear to extortionists who blackmailed and denounced Jews.
In 2012, the film Aftermath, which examined the issue of anti-Semitism and violence against the Jews in the Polish countryside during war, premiered. The movie by Wladyslaw Pasikowski caused a number of controversies. Aftermath and later Ida have provoked public debate about Polish civilians’ violence against Jews during the war. “The liquidation of ghettos in towns in the General Government (about 400 ghettos were established in occupied Poland- author’s note) supported Polish anti-Semitism by the fact that mostly poor Polish families moved into the abandoned apartments. Questions appeared about what would happen after the war, and would the apartments return the former owners or their heirs. The topic was completely eliminated from Polish film and only now it is returning thanks to film directors who felt it is their duty to go further in this direction. I see the spirit of the Polish Film School in this, as well as the need to come to terms with history,” says Andrzej Wajda.

Still frame from “Ida” (2013) Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski. Distribution in the United Kingdom: Artificial Eye and Curzon Film World.

How this article was made

  • 1380 points
  • 29 backers
  • 11 drafts
Creative Commons License

Also in this issue