`Shoah' stirs painful memories for Poles

THE devastating film ``Shoah'' is confronting Poles with the charge of anti-Semitism as seldom before in this generation. The government, news media, and probably the majority of Poles reject the movie's implicit accusation that many Poles condoned the Nazi annihilation of Jews in the extermination camps -- all situated on Polish territory. But not all Poles condemn the film.

``Shoah,'' by French Jewish director Claude Lanzmann, consists of present-day interviews with survivors, witnesses, and a few perpetrators of the mass murder of Jews in World War II. In long segments shot in Poland, one or two peasants living near Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other death camps burst into tears at their memories. But many more express undis- guised hostility toward Jews.

In Warsaw a sampling of elite Polish reaction to ``Shoah'' (``Holocaust'' in Hebrew) a few weeks after a 11/2-hour excerpt of it appeared on TV runs like this:

``It's lies.'' It's unfair because ``it shows only one area of Poland, a backward area without intellectual leadership. . . . You can't blame the Poles for what Germans did in the death camps. . . . In their long history Poles never persecuted the Jews the way Russians and Germans did. . . . I hate the French. Better to have a true enemy [the Germans] than a false friend'' (like the French film di rector).

``It's one-sided. It doesn't say that Poles did save Jews, especially children, some of them in monasteries. Remember, it took six or seven Poles to save one Jew. And Poland was the only country where there was a death penalty [imposed by the Germans] for helping Jews. . . . We acknowledge the victimization of the Jews. They don't acknowledge our victimization.''

``It was boring.''

``The Russians dumped their Jews here. They played one against the other. They took property away from Poles after the uprising of 1863 and gave it to Jews. There were rich Jews in Lodz and other places.''

``I don't think [Shoah] blamed all Polish people. It's a work of art. He [the director] can chose what he wants. But it did leave some things out.''

``There's been a lot written about it here, including one [Roman] Catholic newspaper which had a good sober article about the church then. It was a medieval church. It believed the Jews were guilty of the crucifixion.''

``You should read a letter in Przeglad Tygodniowy by Prof. [of history] Jendruszczak. He insisted that they print one paragraph they had cut out of an article of his they published. It talked about Jews in the east in 1939 who collaborated'' and weren't loyal to Poland. ``The letter didn't say so, but that was the Soviet-occupied part of Poland'' after the Stalin-Hitler pact repartitioned Poland. ``[The film] shows primitive people. The Polish sequence is an indictment of the whole Polish people, and that is not right. It [the anti-Polish slant of the film] is not accidental. There are anti-Semites everywhere, but the director wanted to single out Poland.''

The people commenting included writers, journalists, politicians, and professors present at two receptions in the runup to the December 13 anniversary of the outlawing of Solidarity and imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981. All had seen the excerpt of Shoah on TV. The last speaker -- Szymon Szurmiej, a member of parliament and artistic director of the Jewish State Theater in Poland -- had also seen the full 91/2-hour version, which is now playing in a Warsaw cinema. Mr. Szurmiej's entire family a nd some 200 other relatives died in the Holocaust. He himself escaped to the East and fought with the Soviet-backed partisans there.

All of the Poles who were asked reflected the history of a Polish-Jewish relationship that is as anguished as German-Jewish or German-Polish relations. Unlike the German aggressors and losers of World War II, the Poles as victims of that war have never had to confront the harrowing question of complicity and guilt for the Holocaust. One German resident in Warsaw strongly contested the disavowals of anti-Semitism by Poles; he expressed amazement at the everyday anti-Semitism he encounters in such things as automatically blaming a supposed Jewish landlord when break-ins occur.

Some 3 million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. An additional 3 million European Jews were killed in the extermination camps and Nazi SS massacres, and an additional 3 million non-Jewish Poles were killed in the German occupation. An unimaginable 11 million out of the total 18 million Nazi victims of all nationalities died in the occupied Polish lands, according to historian Norman Davies. The Jews suffered the most of any race under the Nazis, the Poles the most of any nation. Before the war

there were 3.35 million Jews in Poland. After the war only 369,000 still survived, most of these in the Polish areas subsequently incorporated into the Soviet Union. ``Today, after further emigration, Poland has only a few thousand Jews left.''

And why has the Polish government reversed its initial insistence that the French government remove Shoah from French television, and even authorized its release to Polish TV and cinemas? ``Because they know people won't like it,'' suggests one writer -- and the film might therefore win sympathy for the government against Western critics of Poland.

In a thoughtful review of Shoah in the current New York Review of Books, British journalist Timothy Garton Ash praises the film as a stunning and haunting accomplishment. He then offers severe judgments that clearly trouble him, however, as an admirer of Solidarity and the Poles on the one hand and of Shoah on the other.

His first observation is that the Roman Catholic Church in Poland never has squarely dealt with the Holocaust or taught its peasant parishioners that superstitious anti-Semitism and the entire persecution of Jews was and is wrong. He sees a glimmer of hope in the government's new encouragement of Polish-Jewish studies (even if for ulterior motives), in the moral support of the pope for a real examination of the war period, and in liberal Catholic editor Jerzy Turowicz's new admission that there was wide spread anti-Semitism in Poland between the wars, that this was partly rooted in religion, and that there is still a ``reckoning of conscience'' to be made.

A second reflection Ash's is that the intense nationalism of these two cruelly victimized peoples, the Poles and the Jews, all too often excludes compassion for the other.

A third point made by Ash is that if Lanzmann is searching for truth, as he stresses, then he should acknowledge that some Poles did in fact brave the German terror to help Jews, and paid with their own lives.

A fourth, more abstract, conclusion is that while artistry is indispensable for understanding, so is history, with its clash of interpretations and challenge of factual material to establish truth.

As for historians, some dispute both the Poles' bland denial of anti-Semitism and the attribution of especially virulent anti-Semitism to the Poles by the large Polish Jewish diaspora in the US and Israel. Norman Davies, in ``God's Playground,'' an account of Poland over the past two centuries, notes that four-fifths of world Jewry found refuge in Poland in the 19th century. Poland was the first nation to grant the Jews full citizenship. Nor were there the government-instigated pogroms and persecutions in Poland that there were in Russia. (Here Davies contests the standard Jewish understanding of Polish history.)

As romantic nationalism swept Europe in the 19th century the patriotism and sense of martyred messianism of both Poles and Jews were initially viewed as mutually reinforcing. When the Rising of 1863 was suppressed, however, the two became hostile, blaming each other for the failure. Assimilation lost its attraction.

The material lot of Jews declined. The Jews split into factions. Many were radicalized, some becoming Zionists (like future Israeli premiers David Ben Gurion and Menachim Begin), others becoming socialists or communists (like Rosa Luxemburg and eventual Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov). Antipathy grew between Poles and Jews (as it did between Poles and Ukrainians, Germans, and other minorities).

In the early postwar period secular Jews were prominent in the Stalinist government in Poland, and traditional Polish hatred of the Russian overlord reinforced anti-Semitism at that point. Much later, Jewish intellectuals figured in liberalization movements in 1968 and to some extent as Solidarity advisers in 1980-81. At different times, then, anti-Semitism became a handy tool for mobilizing popular resentment against opposing political factions. The durable anti-Semitism that has been displayed, espec ially in the hardliners' suppression of would-be liberalizers in 1968, has been all the more striking since there are so few Jews left in Poland today to serve as scapegoats.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.