Memorialization of the Holocaust in Poland, once home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities, has been achieved in part through film, a Polish American scholar suggested last week.
Since the end of World War II, an event that resulted in the deaths of three million Polish Jews and an equal number of Polish Catholics, a succession of feature films and hundreds of documentaries have been made about the Holocaust, Marek Haltof said in an illustrated lecture sponsored by the Ekran Polish Film Festival in Toronto.
Saying a desire exists in Poland “to bear witness” to Poland’s rich Jewish past, Haltof predicted that Polish cinema in the future will most likely continue to produce films on the Holocaust as well as Polish-Jewish relations.
Haltof, who teaches film and literature at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, is the author of Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory (Berghahn Books), the first book-length account in English on the subject. He has also written books on the film industry in Poland.
Dozens of movies about the Holocaust have appeared in Poland since it regained its independence in 1945, said Haltof, who holds a PhD from the University of Alberta. Of these, 25 to 30 have dealt explicitly with the topic.
Poland has probably made more films about the Holocaust than any other European country, he noted in a brief interview after his lecture.
Two of the first such films were Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1947) and Aleksander Ford’s Border Street (1949).
The Last Stage was based on Jakubowska’s experiences in the Auschwitz death camp, while Border Street was a portrayal of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Ford, a Jewish Communist who survived the war in the Soviet Union and returned to Poland with the Red Army, headed Film Polski – the National Board of Polish Film – from 1945 to 1947.
Ford’s film, Haltof observed, was an ode to Jewish heroism and in praise of Polish-Jewish unity in the wake of the Holocaust. Yet it was not released until it had been audience-tested.
During the Communist era in Poland, which ended in 1989 with the birth of democracy, Polish films on the Holocaust tended to highlight assimilated rather than traditional Jews, he said.
In general, Polish films reflected the political status quo.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, distinguished directors such as Andrzej Wajda, Ford’s protegé, and Andrzei Munk, who was killed in a car accident, turned their talents to making A Generation and The Passenger.
A Generation, in which the director Roman Polanski appears as an extra, unfolded against the backdrop of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. Its subtext was the indifferent response of Polish Christians to the Holocaust.
The Passenger was broadly about the relationship between an SS guard and an inmate in Auschwitz. Haltof described it as a classic.
From the late 1960s onward, when an state-supported anti-Zionist and antisemitic campaign prompted thousands of Polish Jews to emigrate, precious few films on the Holocaust appeared. “There was silence, organized forgetting,” Haltof said.
Janusz Nasfeter’s The Long Night, which takes place in a small Polish town in 1943, was ready for release in 1967, but was shelved after Poland severed diplomatic ties with Israel and began questioning the loyalty of Jews to the state. The film was not released until 1989.
Jan Rybkowski’s Ascension Day, which revolves around two Jewish protagonists, came out in 1969 but was plagued by censorship problems, Haltof said.
He added that the only film made between 1971 and 1982 that significantly incorporated the Holocaust as a motif was Stanislaw Jedryka’s Salad Days, which documents a friendship between a Polish boy, an ethnic German girl and a Jewish boy.
There has been no shortage of Holocaust-themed films since the fall of Communism, from Wajda’s Korczak to Jan Kelski’s Keep Away from the Window.
But these post-1989 films have failed at the box office due to the influx of Hollywood movies into Poland, said Haltof.