The Peretzniks, Slawomir Grunberg’s lovingly crafted documentary about a Jewish day school in Lodz, Poland, speaks volumes about enduring friendships and the ambivalent relationship between Jews and Christians in 20th-century Poland.(video)
Graduates get together at a reunion in Israel
The Peretz school in this central Polish city was probably the finest institution of its kind in Poland after the horrors of World War II.
Attended by the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors, the school gave its students a sense of community and security.
The Peretzniks, which was co- produced by the Shalom Foundation and is scheduled to be screened in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa next week, skilfully evokes a time and a place, weaving nostalgia and disappointment into its narrative.
The screenings are sponsored by Polish Embassy in Canada, Canadian Jewish Congress, the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation, the Polish Film Institute and the Non-Fiction Foundation.
The school was established in 1945 by Jews who believed that Jewish life could be resurrected in Poland.
In the aftermath of the war, Jewish survivors flocked to Lodz, which had been one-third Jewish and a key industrial centre in Poland. Lodz had not been destroyed by the Nazis, and in many cases, the Jews moved into apartments that had been vacated by the former ethnic German owners.
The Peretzniks opens with a scene in which a Polish teacher reads off the names of the school’s graduates, most of whom live outside Poland today, mainly in Israel and North America. The teacher, a Catholic, taught Polish literature, and was well liked by her students.
The strongest impression the film leaves is that the students felt very Polish and part of an extended family. “It was my entire life,” exclaims one man.
In quieter tones, another man says, “It provided meaning for my life,”
When they meet at a reunion in Ashkelon, they exult in an explosion of joy, hugging and kissing and trading stories about their youth.
But as Grunberg – a graduate of the Polish Film School in Lodz who left Poland in 1981 and immigrated to the United States – digs deeper, he discovers a number of facts.
The students appear to have come from working-class backgrounds. Jews from the intelligentsia sent their children to Polish schools.
None of the students had grandparents, since they had been killed during the Holocaust. The school bound the kids together like a close-knit family, but although they were exposed to Jewish culture, some were uncomfortable with being Jewish.
Given the continued prevalence of anti-Semitism in postwar Communist Poland, the school was something of a haven. A procession of students, including Daniel Libeskind, the architect, recall the strained atmosphere and the taunts they had to endure in the city.
Ultimately, the school was unable to shelter them or their families from the bitter reality of anti-Semitism.
During and after the Six Day War in Israel, Poland, in concert with the Communist Bloc, roundly excoriated Israel as an aggressor state. Ultimately, the students
were directly affected by the anti-Jewish campaign launched by the Polish Communist leadership under the thin guise of anti-Zionism.
In a stark archival clip, Wladyslaw Gomulka, then secretary general of the Communist party, delivers a fiery speech in which he denounces “Jewish nationalists” and “Zionists.” With approving shouts from the audience, he urges them to leave Poland, saying that exit visas are readily available. These are by far the most chilling and troubling scenes in The Peretzniks.
Gomulka’s anti-Semitic diatribe touched off a wave of Jewish emigration and spelled finis to the Peretz school. With a much smaller Jewish student body, the school had no alternative but to close, ending an era.
The students, now parents and grandparents, agree that their departure from the country they loved was difficult and painful. “We were uprooted,” says a woman plaintively.
Despite their trials and tribulations, they have mostly fond memories of Poland and the school that played such a pivotal role in their formative years.
The Peretzniks will be screened in Toronto on Thursday, June 10, at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall. In Montreal, it will be screened on Tuesday, June 8, at 7:30 p.m. at Adams Auditorium . The Ottawa screening is on Wednesday, June 9, at 7:30 p.m. at the Alumni Auditorium, University of Ottawa.