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Versions of the past

Ulrich Krökel / hwJanuary 7, 2013

The film "Poklosie" delves into the dark history of Polish complicity during the Holocaust. Director Wladyslaw Pasikowski's work has sparked fresh debate in Poland by posing the question: How anti-Semitic were the Poles?

Polish actor Maciej Stuhr looks into a camera on set of the movie "Poklosie" (Aftermath) near Warsaw
Image: Reuters

Poland's Jewish community was almost entirely decimated during the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered 90 percent of the three million Jews there.

Later, the communist regime fostered a climate of anti-Semitism in the country, forcing many more Jews to leave. A kind of phantom pain was all that remained, the sort experienced by people who've lost a limb.

The loss is, to this day, almost unbearable.

Fierce debates between Jewish and Catholic Poles continue to shake the country on a regular basis. The question is always the same: Did the majority of Christian Poles approve of, or even assist, the mass murder of Jews?

The country's self-image as the most significant victim of the Nazi terror and the Second World War is at stake.

Polish actor Ireneusz Czop (L) and film director Wladyslaw Paikowski discuss a scene on set of the movie "Poklosie" (Aftermath)
Director Wladyslaw Pasikowski discusses a scene with actors on the set of "Poklosie"Image: Reuters

Sparking debate

It's a debate that has been reignited in recent weeks with the release of the film "Poklosie" ("Aftermath") by director Wladyslaw Pasikowski.

The thriller tells the story of a Catholic farmer, Jozef Kalina (Maciej Stuhr), who discovers the traces of a massacre of Jews during the Holocaust in his village. His research reveals that it was local Polish villagers who, without the help of the Nazis, had murdered their Jewish neighbors.

But the local families of the perpetrators don't want to know about their guilt. They terrorize Kalina and lynch him.

Such discussions have long circled among the country's intellectual elite, occupying a large section of the Polish media.

Conservative publicist Piotr Semka criticized the way in which the film merged Polish guilt with the much greater guilt of the Nazis. "We are becoming the co-perpetrators of the Holocaust," he said.

However, defenders of the film voiced their support in the left-leaning newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. "It's not about guilt, but about sorrow," commentator Agnieszka Graff wrote. "It's about us recognizing what the loss of our Jewish neighbors means."

The town of Jedwabne, north-eastern Poland
The town of Jedwabne, north-eastern Poland, where the massacre took placeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Pogroms in Poland

Such arguments are not new. Pasikowski's film centers on the Jedwabne massacre of July 1941, which has been an open wound for Polish society for decades. Polish villagers in the north-eastern town of Jedwabne murdered several hundred of their Jewish neighbors with the complicity of Nazi soldiers.

Pogroms against Jews continued in Poland both during and after the war, as in Kielce, where around 40 Jews were murdered in 1946.

Polish-Jewish historian Jan Tomasz Gross, now based in the United States, detailed these events in his books "Neighbors" (2001), "Fear" (2006) and "Golden Harvest" (2011) in an at times provocative manner.

Gross's central thesis is that a deeply-rooted anti-Semitism existed in Poland during the 20th century which aided the Nazis in carrying out atrocities. "Basically, the Germans did the dirty work anti-Semites in Poland and across Europe," Gross said in an interview with DW.

Divided land

The question remains whether Gross, Pasikowski and others sharing their pointed, at times extreme arguments, are a benefit to the situation at all.

An inscription reading "They were Flammable" and a Nazi swastika are seen in Jedwabne, Poland
Anti-Semitic graffiti was scrawled on Jedwabne massacre memorial site in 2011Image: dapd

What is clear is that debates regarding the relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles take place in a domain in which a "language of hate" reins.

Members of both the liberal left and the nationalist conservatives in Poland use this phrase in equal measure in order to denigrate the polemics of their political opponents.

The reciprocal critique hasn't helped one bit. Rather, at the beginning of 2013, Polish society appears deeply divided.