It is worth recalling what happens in the film Shtetl before introducing the discussion. In the small town of Brańsk, where Jews constituted about half of the population before the war, a young historian named Zbigniew Romaniuk becomes interested in this world of the past, with its customs, culture, and history. He has drawn up a list of the pre‑war Jewish inhabitants of Brańsk and is restoring the matsevot [gravestones] from the Jewish cemetery. He provides assistance and information to Jews like Natan Kaplan, an elderly man living in the United States, who originated from these parts and return to them as to their own past. Marzyński, a Jew who as a child was rescued by nuns, weaves his own history into the film. There are many digressions concerning the attitude of the local inhabitants toward the fate that befell the Jews during the war. Marzyński takes Romaniuk first to the United States, where he meets with people from his native region, and then on to Israel. On both occasions, he films Romaniuk’s encounters with surviving emigrants from Brańsk, or with their children and their families. Romaniuk’s relations with older people are good, but his contact with Israeli youth is surprising; the two sides cannot find a common language. As vice‑chairman of Brańsk’s town council, he makes no mention of the many centuries of Jewish presence in the town during its 500th anniversary celebrations, perhaps because of the aloofness of some of his colleagues and the likely hostility of some of the town’s citizens to his Jewish interests.

Bożena Keff:Marzyński’s Shtetl, which I regard as very interesting—a warm but not uncritical film—was received rather badly on the whole in Poland. It was shown only once, on cable’s Channel +, though it provoked discussion on a scale worthy of a programme shown on public television during peak hours. Disregarding individual voices which gave the film its due, the chorus of critics and commentators adopted an aggressive and moralizing tone. ‘Manipulation’ was the word that cropped up most frequently—referring to the manipulation to which Marzyński had supposedly succumbed in his handling of the image of his hero.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:He was interpreted surprisingly inaccurately, with emphasis mainly on the unrepresentative nature of the characters appearing on the screen and, of course, on the hostile stance of Jews towards Poles.

Bożena Keff:Lanzman’s film Shoah, which presented a very individual panorama of the subject, was critically received even before it had been viewed. The same was true of Marzyński’s film, though not to the same degree, for times have changed, after all. Your film Karuzela, about that carousel turning beside the ghetto walls during the uprising, or other films like Paweł Łożiński’s Miejsce Urodzenia (The Birthplace),[1] which are concerned rather with individual histories describing unique phenomena, did not provoke such great resistance. What am I getting at? I think that every film that takes a broader, panoramic view of the subject, involving many witnesses, recording many incidents, and without that diplomatic solicitude which requires the presentation of more positive than negative positions—mentioning those who rescued Jews a few more times than informers for exampls bound to awaken aggression. For a single incident, albeit most dramatic, remains an individual affair, whereas films of a more epic character like Marzyński’s are rejected because they occasion a sense that a more general phenomenon may be concerned.

It is worth noting here that, on the whole, I see a certain change in Polish awareness of the fate of Jews during the war and in the general Polish view of Jews, and I see a greater openness in what is called the Polish–Jewish dialogue. Many publications have appeared and there are sporadic open discussions, or rather exchanges of opinion, as when Michał Cichy’s article about Jews killed by soldiers of the AK [Home Army] during the Warsaw uprising appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza. This does not amount to much, but there is some kind of basic exchange of experiences. In short, there are changes—evident ones—but they are immeasurably slow. In this sense the reactions to Marzyński’s film are still representative of the state of awareness of Polish–Jewish relations, particularly when it is a question of the worst and final moment—the years of occupation and those directly following them.

These reactions to Marzyński’s film have in them something of a child stamping his feet and blocking his ears, for that tenth story about the extortionist or informer proves one too many for his childish nerves. And a hue and cry is raised: why, this is a judgement on the entire nation! And in this manner, with the use of emotional blackmail, objective discussion is stymied. If individual problems (for example Miejsce urodzenia) prove to be neither individual nor exceptional (Lanzman, Marzyński), then the line of statistical immunity is crossed, and the shadow may fall on anyone. I also think that the figure of the peasant is rather provocative in these films. Visually rather unappealing on the whole, toothless, in filthy clothes . . .

Michał Nekanda Trepka:. . . a urine‑stained fly, bald or dishevelled—and the camera is merciless with regard to such details and somehow emphasizes them.

Bożena Keff:Nevertheless, so long as that peasant is on his own patch, on the roadside, at the market, we’re agreed that he is representative. But the same peasant caught on film, who is then—God forbid—examined by the world, loses his representativeness as if touched by a magic wand. What’s this? Couldn’t the director find somebody looking a little more civilized; why do these people have to represent me? (Yet they are representing only themselves.) And there arises a feeling—not necessarily a conscious one—of aesthetic resentment. I don’t know what happens to logical thought or knowledge here; after all, the Jews did live mainly in small towns, and these peasants are their natural neighbours. What can we do if, even today in Poland, this is the way peasants look, speak, and think? That’s the way it is, not the manipulation of directors. It is the actual reality.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:It would be good, too, if the viewers could look at these peasants simply as people with quite varied opinions. But they are more sensitive to points of honour than are the peasants. How terribly difficult it is to say, for example, that there were instances in which members of AK units (and towards the end of the war the AK was made up of various formations, including nationalistic ones) killed Jews. It is difficult not because it did not happen, unfortunately, but because the AK has been canonized by the nation.

But now another side of the coin: that is, who is filming, who is speaking, and to whom are we Poles listening? In other words, let’s look at the image of the Jew. The Jew fascinated artists, for example, with his exoticism: a different religion, different rituals and holy days, a different rhythm of life. At the same time, for many he was synonymous with evil, and somewhere in the background this echo resounded all the time—that these were the descendants of god killers. More than one priest repeated in church that the Jews had killed Christ. Often Jews were suspected of ritual murder, or of that infamous use of the blood of Christian children in matzot. And there was in addition that Jewish hostility to Christianity, that self‑isolation, that distance—a strict and demanding religion. . . . In the twentieth century, a new, non‑religious variant of this Jewish difference appears: Jews as the Żydokomuna, Jew‑communists, the instigators of the Bolshevik revolution; Jews as the nucleus of the KPP [Communist Party of Poland]. And when the Soviets came in, the Jews were, of course, an extension of the arm of the NKVD, and this schema continues to this day.

 Bożena Keff:All schemata persist in some form to this day. But then, Jews really did constitute a significant proportion of the KPP membership and they really did very often support the Bolshevik revolution. Which does not mean that there were more of them in the KPP than there were Poles or Ukrainians, or that they supported the revolution more than the Russians did. The point is not that they were numerous, but that they were evident, precisely as Jews, whatever their numbers. Just as importantly, though somehow it is rarely mentioned, here and there they were an oppressed minority, deprived of many rights and very often living in wretched poverty; this ideology, which radically emphasized equality, seemed to provide a chance for secularized Jews. Nevertheless, a significant percentage does not mean a majority, and it certainly does not mean all.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:It is also the case that no human evidence is enough when it comes to the way Jews are seen. When we have a scene during Romaniuk’s American visit with Mrs Yaffa Eliach, who recounts how Polish neighbours shot her mother and little brother, many viewers of the film—and I have seen this myself so I speak with some experience—were not so much bothered by the fact that a woman and child were killed after the war by their neighbours, but emphasized the fact that the father had quartered officers of the Soviet ‘Smersh’ operation [Smiert’ shpionam; ‘Death to spies’] and this, it was claimed, was why the house was attacked. Thus the fact that a woman and child perished simply does not constitute a human fact, but is assessed—and somehow justified—in the context of the Cheka, and ultimately of the sympathy of Mrs Eliach’s father (read Jews) for it. As if next door, in another house, the Cheka had not been quartered by Poles whom no one touched, or as though in a neighbouring village other Jews who had dared to survive though there was no Cheka or Smersh there, were not murdered. Discussion along these lines also appeared in the press and the participants did not trouble themselves with the fact that when Jews lost their lives after the war, it was also, for the most part, because they were Jews.

Thus without defending the position of Mrs Eliach’s father, but also understanding it, one has to ask what were the Jews to do immediately after the war. Where were they to seek refuge? With the ‘men of the forest’ who hunted them, with antisemitic priests of whom there was no lack, with neighbours who had already divided Jewish property amongst themselves—where, then? The Soviets were their refuge, the only institutional mainstay, or so it seemed. After all, when the war was over, the Jews, who had survived hell, were murdered upon returning to homes that had already changed hands, along the road, in trains, in various circumstances. There are no documents recording these murders, there were no investigations, and no trials, so today one can say, ‘Where is the proof?’ There was none, nor will there ever be now.[2]

 Bożena Keff:One can often detect anger in the tone dominating Polish discussions of these subjects, and this is the consequence of an inability to see events from any viewpoint other than one’s own. But when we are touching on questions of life and death, this incapacity to tear oneself from one’s own viewpoint lunges in the Jewish direction with brutal and indifferent force. This is not, after all, a question of subtle matters, of sophistry, but rather one that is absolutely fundamental.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:And there is one more thing. Often those who did save Jews asked one thing of them after the war: not to be thanked publicly, for it not to be spoken of at all.

Bożena Keff:Well, maybe that did happen occasionally. . . .

Michał Nekanda Trepka:Occasionally?! It happened very frequently! And it was also often the case that if some Jewish child were saved and survived the war, but had not admitted to being Jewish because he knew of the dangers threatening him, then after the war, when the case came out into the open, there were no tears of joy that a life had been saved, but rather anger and resentment that the little brat had fooled everyone. The point was not that they had unknowingly hidden a Jew, for whom they had risked death, but that they had unknowingly saved a Jew who had additionally deceived them by pretending to be a Catholic. Because Jews are swindlers, as everyone knows.

Bożena Keff:I wonder whether it would be possible to indicate what the most common attitude might have been, because I have the impression that neither active hostility nor active assistance prevailed.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:The name of this attitude awakens the deepest opposition in Poland today, just as it will tomorrow—and that name is indifference. And the so‑called silent majority, that majority which ought, it seems, to have a normal human approach to the question, is against any reassessment of Polish attitudes. And a lack of will or any kind of courage most often went hand-in-hand with indifference. This naked truth has been cloaked in the myth of powerlessness, according to which the worst thing was the utter helplessness. In his film, Marzyński says to one peasant: ‘It must have been hard to watch all that (the murder of the Jews).’ But the peasant is not anxious to confirm this, not at all eager.

Bożena Keff:Yes, but at the beginning of the film is an old miller who speaks like a character from an ancient tragedy: ‘What murdering of humanity there was, how strange that I am still of sound mind!’ In his case, helplessness is not a myth, I think. Nevertheless, in general I think I must agree with you. This myth is additionally strengthened by the stress laid on the ‘passivity of the Jews’, an idiotic term in the context of the realities of the occupation. In the film, Romaniuk also says in his discussion with the Jewish high‑school students: ‘How were we to help the Jews when they helped themselves so little; there were only two uprisings in the ghettos, in Warsaw and in Białystok.’ ‘Only!’ Or should that be ‘as many as’?! This is a historian speaking! And what about weapons? Weapons were supplied to the ghetto unwillingly, rarely, and at a high price (probably the ‘Jew‑communist’ schema was at work here, as if that handful of condemned men could influence anything other than a decision about whether to jump from a window, or a roof, or be gassed). In Anielewicz’s letter to the AK authorities, preserved from the period of the uprising when all hell was breaking loose in the ghetto, he says that of 49 weapons supplied (I don’t know whether they came free of charge), 36 were junk because there was no ammunition for them, and that the suppliers must have known what a faulty weapon meant at that time.[3] And where was the strength for battle? In the ghettos, hunger, disease, and terror reigned, so where was the purely physical strength to come from—the strength that comes from a nutritious diet, freedom from disease, and reasonable mental stability? Today, the ghettos have the status of concentration camps. Yet it is a fact that in 1942 not everyone believed in the gas chambers. People were deported under the banner of ‘resettlement’. They did not necessarily know, then, that they were going to their deaths, nor did they necessarily believe it. And in 1943, after the uprising, or at some other moment, if someone escaped from the ghetto—what next? A neutral Jewish kingdom by the Białowieża Forest in the middle of occupied Europe? In Poland, Jews had no chance to do anything without the help of Poles except die. As Mrs Eliach says: it was thanks to the Poles that some escaped and survived, and it was because of the Poles that others did not. She survived thanks to Poles; her mother was shot by Poles.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:But it’s difficult to grasp that violence was not more rare than help, but indeed more frequent. You needed no courage to kill a Jew during the war. But to help one, you needed a great deal.

Bożena Keff:But in Poland there isn’t any real knowledge about what the actual conditions in the ghetto were and about what happened if a Jew managed to get out of it. And when one tries to make this information more widely known—and it always has some uncomfortable elements from the Polish point of view—then there is the kind of resistance familiar to psychotherapists treating disturbed patients: no, no, no, and no! Why no, and no again? Why such a desire to justify, or such a resistance to realizing truths about extortionists, plunderers, murderers, valiant partisans who often killed Jews trying to get into their units or to survive in the forest, why? And the same is true of nationalistic groups printing antisemitic newspapers and leaflets, and thus, given those circumstances, supporting genocide. Why, my friend, must you be closer to that killer than to his victim? Simply because of tribal membership? During the discussion that followed the film on Channel +, Michał Cichy said that Marzyński had endangered the peasant who hints that he knows who informed on a certain Jew during the war, because that man would no longer be safe now in his village. It is almost the year 2000, the occupation is long past, and Michał Cichy presents this village as some nest of bandits bound by a criminal understanding of loyalty—something at which he fails to direct even one measly word of condemnation. And that defence of the heroes of Marzyński’s film before the director during the discussion, as though they were mental deficients not responsible for themselves!

Michał Nekanda Trepka:People who deal with the documents also know that for every survival there are—in the background—ten deaths. In each case of survival and assistance—and statistically it took four Poles to ensure the survival of a single Jew—in the background there are tens of cases not only of failure to help—we cannot resent that—but of informing and killing; that is, of collaborating in the crime.

Bożena Keff:Nor is it a known fact that Jews who escaped to the forest and wanted to join the partisans ‘were not accepted’—as one of the high‑school girls in Ramat Aviv says. The students in Israel learn about the history of the Holocaust in great detail and conclude with a visit to Poland.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:And sometimes, at the end of such trips, they are followed by stones.

Bożena Keff:That’s right. But they, too, are very prejudiced and take on a defensive attitude from the very start. But we are not talking about the Israelis now, but the Poles.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:For which we will catch it, because we should criticize the Jews or the Israelis in the interests of balance.

Bożena Keff:But we won’t, because there is no justice in the world. Nevertheless, the girl who says, ‘they were not accepted’ immediately adds ‘the Polish partisans killed every Jew’. Of course they didn’t, of course it depends on which group, but on the whole there were many such cases.[4] That is why the Jews went to the Soviets, and then those Soviets in turn formed their own groups, too weak to fight, in order to survive.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:There is no way to express it. ‘Jews with the Soviets’ sounds like the confirmation of the antisemite’s dream schema. Especially since those Soviet units were here sometimes not for the sake of battle, but to penetrate the terrain before the entry of the Red Army. (There are also known and confirmed cases of the murder and robbery of Jewish refugees by Soviet partisan units.) In the AK units, everything depended on the position of the leader. In turn, one can speak only in a whisper about the right‑wing organizations that hunted Jews during the war for ideological reasons. The Jews were not even between the frying pan and the fire. They had no choice. And showing the real scale of the phenomenon, discussing it, probing it, is almost impossible because there is an invisible border beyond which one discovers not the individual, not the group, not the organization, but the nation. And criticism of this group becomes slander and defamation. Then up jumps a member of the collective (understood in the spirit of the herd) and shouts: ‘veto!’ But it is possible to indicate this border. Let us say that we know for a fact that the murder of twelve Jews took place in some little town after the war. Well, we then hear that this was after the war, there was chaos, demoralization and so on. But not during the Warsaw uprising! Because an uprising is a sacred thing, a national act of battle. Here the Polish authorities were legal, linked with the Polish émigré government in London, and here the killing of a Jew by an insurgent is a fact that could have no place; this is holy ground and such is the echo of that sentence that one’s patriotic ears ache. In this connection, a fact such as the following is never revealed: during the Warsaw uprising, a decree was announced from the government delegate, the vice‑premier of the London government in exile, binding throughout the terrain of the uprising, which declared that all German laws concerning the Jews were revoked. This document has not been preserved in the archives. I learned of it from people who saw it with their own eyes. In other words, in the consciousness of society, Jews—in accordance with German ordinances—could be deprived of the right to life and this had to be revoked in writing. Was it necessary to revoke any decrees concerning Poles? I will not even hint at what this signifies.

Bożena Keff:Then I will. Before the war Jews could be held in contempt—and they were. An enormous part of the Jewish animosity towards Poles, this Jewish antipolonism, is a remnant of a very general contempt, scorn, and prejudice. But shouting ‘starozakonny’! [Old Testament‑follower] at someone or ‘Yid’, or ‘scab’, or . . .

Michał Nekanda Trepka:‘Żydek’—to a child, often heard during the occupation.

Bożena Keff:. . . one can imagine. But not denouncing them. Jews were not denounced; in most cases it was evident that the person was a Jew. Denunciation was something bequeathed by the Nazis—and often accepted. Do you remember the testimonial concerning Polish (read Aryan) descent that the Bishop of Płock gave Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister, when he was standing for president in the 1991 elections? It stated that Mazowiecki came from a Polish and Catholic family which figured in archives dating back to the fifteenth century. It must have been the first (semi‑)official testimonial in Europe since the Nazi Nuremberg acts were repealed in Germany! And in today’s intimations and persistent rumours on the subject of who is a Jew—above all in the area of politics—a denunciatory tone continues to resound. But now there is no Gestapo or ‘navy blue police’, and one can only rely on other people knowing what Jew means.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:There is also a canon that obligates everyone who takes up Polish–Jewish affairs. Just as there is a recipe for vegetable soup—so many carrots, so much parsley, so many greens—here, too, a recipe of sorts exists. One of its elements is obviously the assistance given by Poles to Jews, saving them at the risk of their own lives and the lives of their families. If this is not included, the soup is inedible, and the film anti‑Polish. We criticize Polish antisemitism—ah, well then, one must mention antipolonism, although these two phenomena are neither equivalent, nor harmful to the same degree. No other soup can be cooked, no matter how much you insist that this time you are making dumplings, for example, because you’ve had soup up to the ears.

But to be sure, those Poles who saved Jews, or those belonging to Żegota, do not have combatants’ rights to this day, in a free Poland. They themselves and the Israeli Yad Vashem Institute approached Zbowid and attempted to interest the Sejm in this problem through political parties, but nothing came of it. One of those people, a member of the PPS before the war, said that he saw this as a continuation of antisemitism. He himself is, in any case, a Pole. Recently, in the spring of 1997, the Sejm (in which the post‑communist left‑wing Left Democratic Union and the peasant PSL party had a majority) rejected a plan for a law that would have straightened out this problem.

Bożena Keff:So those who helped, few of whom are left today and who are held up as evidence by the thousands, have no rights in this country comparable to those of partisans from the groups that hunted down Jews in the forests.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:No, nor do they have a pension such as might be received today by a German who served, for example, in an execution unit, if he hasn’t been tried as a war criminal. There are no common graves for the two thousand Poles killed by the Nazis together with the Jews they hid, and who were denounced in a notably large majority of cases by their Polish neighbours. Those who have earned the respect of the world’s nations are not considered to have ‘actively fought Hitlerism’ by saving Jews—for that is the criterion on which gaining combatants’ rights is based. Nor is there any way of examining the law in other countries in this regard, for only in Poland was there a death penalty for helping Jews. This has been repeated a million times, but not in this context.

Bożena Keff:Because theory is theory, and practice is practice. In the film, this type of confrontation is particularly marked in the scene with the high‑school students in Israel, when Romaniuk, accompanied by Marzyński, is discussing whether or not the Poles could have helped the Jews more during the war—not necessarily by hiding them, but at least by not informing on those concealing and those who were concealed. Many people think that this scene reveals how Marzyński allows himself to manipulate his hero and that it constitutes evidence of the hostility of Jewish youth toward Poland and Poles. But, for me, this scene shows something different. It is a clinical picture of the inability to communicate. The young people have no fondness for Poland. This alone is unpleasant for a Polish viewer. Quite the opposite: they feel a clear distance and are hostile. This is in part because, between the image of Poland and Poles they have acquired on the basis of historical knowledge and perhaps tales heard at home and from acquaintances, and the image that Romaniuk defends, there are not many points of contact. And in part it is for other reasons—which are their own problem. Nevertheless, Romaniuk concentrates on defending stereotypes that it would be better not to defend. He talks with them as though from behind fortifications. As if he were afraid that some terrible truth will emerge about his mother or grandmother or himself and maintains that everyone in his family was very good and as for that uncle, well, he wasn’t really family. But after all, he could have said (1) I’m sorry about that uncle; or (2) I am not responsible for my uncle. Or maybe both at the same time. Apropos, as with every neurosis, many Poles often do not realize how just a little good will suffices and that the point lies in the courage to possess independent judgement. It’s sad, but real individualism, in the sense of intellectual independence and independence of opinion—civil courage—are not abundant in Poland. That doesn’t mean that I think they don’t exist at all. But there is too little of them.

Romaniuk could also have said something like this: Some people—there were not many of them but neither were there few—helped at the risk of their own lives. Their greatest fear was not the Germans, but their Polish neighbours. That was the general rule. There was also a sea of indifference and too much cooperation with the Nazis. You are pained by the frequent antisemitism of Poles—it pains me too. Amen.

This kind of formulation could function like the incantation ‘Open Sesame’. A dialogue could begin. But Romaniuk does the opposite—there comes a moment at which, when pressed, he drops the subject and goes on the offensive asking: so how were people supposed to help? They didn’t have the conditions. And how did the Jews help themselves, just look, there were only two uprisings.

At this point, Marzyński, who until now has been sweating over how to bring the two sides closer, interrupts and says—as though wanting to give Romaniuk a sign to stop and think, to change his strategy—‘Oh Zbyszek, Zbyszek. The question of help was most often a question of your views. Everyone had a home.’ In other words, everyone (who had a home) had (theoretically) the right conditions. That is, let us not blame everything on conditions, let us look at principles. Marzyński wishes, in this sentence, to show a different mental perspective, a breaking free of that way of thinking in which one is forever forced to justify and exalt the facts of the occupation, saying of them that ‘it could not have been otherwise’. He has in mind an assumed ideal state, a will, a stance. This means, let us suppose, that from the outset there would exist good will and the exploitation of whatever conditions one had. One would then have seen how many out of a hundred, say, would have dared to hide a Jew in these conditions. And the rest would at least not have informed on them.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:But there were such villages. Not many, it is true, but there were some where a Jew was hidden in every cottage. There was such a village near Białystok. Before the war, the parish priest would remind the peasants every Sunday that Jesus and the Mother of God were Jews. And then, during the occupation, he said, in effect, ‘If you take these Jews, I will help you manage.’ And here no neighbour could inform on another—that was very important. And in the neighbouring village the peasants were killing Jews.

Bożena Keff:Then crimes can be discussed all the more calmly, since we already have the righteous people in Gomorrah. The point of all this is the formation of attitudes. We cannot form them retrospectively. But we can form them for today and for tomorrow. If the attitudes of so many Poles are going to be formed in relation not to the actual state of affairs, but to their own desires concerning the subject, and if Polish reactions are so often going to be brutal with regard to the Jews, that is to those attitudes, interests, and situations that differ from their own, and so tolerant with regard to the very worst attitudes that were present in their own communities, then it will be impossible to discuss anything seriously. This wishful view of the past is like an invisible cage often separating the Polish mentality from more general feelings and language, from the world, from freedom to discuss painful issues relating to Poland, from reality. It is for this reason that Marzyński’s statement that ‘everybody had a home’ becomes suspect, a dark insinuation and a hidden accusation, even though it isn’t. Poles are often angered that in the world they are assumed to be universally and strongly antisemitic and are even burdened with some of the responsibility that ought to fall exclusively on the Nazis. This does indeed happen, but apart from the fact that a very real Polish antisemitism continues to exist today—despite the absence of Jews and despite the work of activists supporting this cause—it awakens a very meagre level of protest in the country. In speaking of ‘activists’, I am thinking of people like Father Jankowski of Gdańsk, the priest friendly with Wałęsa, who makes ferociously antisemitic statements. How else is one to describe the assertion that the swastika and the hammer and sickle are inscribed in the Star of David, or the priest’s opinion, which he preached in November 1997, that the presence of a Jewish minority serving in the Polish government indicates that the Jews wish to rule Poland? Or take Wrzodak, the Solidarity chairman at Ursus, whose union members also voiced similarly ferocious antisemitic slogans while protesting outside the Sejm. Or Father Rydzyk from the Catholic, nationalistic, and antisemitic Radio Maryja. At the very least, such people do not permit the world to revise its opinions on the subject of Poland; the other obstacle is the very weak reaction of Polish public opinion and the relevant Polish institutions to such statements. It’s a question of the state of Polish consciousness—which is what we are discussing here.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:The Germans have a better image than the Poles because, on the whole, they generally take responsibility for what happened. They do not look for ways to whitewash themselves. They see their history differently. Of course, their case is clear but good will is necessary, as we see, even for the obvious. Of course, there are manifestations of antisemitism and fascism over there too, as there are everywhere in Europe (a fact with which the Poles like to console themselves). The point is not the absence of such manifestations, but their intensification, their status, and how one reacts to them.

Bożena Keff:In any case, the growth of antisemitism in Poland is considerable and reactions to it are weak. Antisemitism is not always seen as a prejudice or political bias, but often as a viewpoint. Do psychoses and schizophrenia constitute viewpoints? Well, perhaps in some sense, but not in a political one. Even the outraged readers of Gazeta Wyborcza who flooded the editor with protests about Fr Jankowski often said that he is permitted to have antisemitic views, but that he shouldn’t voice them publicly.[5] These are not prejudices, not delusions, not a projection of his own fears or aggression, but ‘views’. In any case, the lack of decisive reactions to manifestations of antisemitism makes it appear less dangerous and pathological than it is in reality. There is no consistent political tradition, in any party of protest in Poland, of action against those manifestations of antisemitism that appear in the permanent function of mythic explanation for the mechanisms of power, politics, history, and economics. In other words, they appear as a viewpoint, whether it happens to be the statements of Fr Jankowski (for the last one he was forbidden to preach for a year—a symbolic punishment, but even that is something compared to the previous lack of reaction from the church hierarchy), or the demonstrations of the Ursus branch of Solidarity, whose members, together with their leader, Wrzodak, yelled ‘Down with the Jews’ and ‘Gas the Jews’ outside the Sejm (no action was taken), or the various antisemitic statements and allusions on Catholic Radio Maryja, led by Fr Rydzyk, clearly baiting Jews in the good old pre‑war style.[6] Rydzyk was recently sent away for a month’s holiday. A month—can you imagine? And he has millions of fans. Does anyone, perhaps in a political and comradely manner, officially boycott these publicly active antisemites? A political ailment is condemned by non‑political means and half-heartedly, if at all.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:Sometimes, such views or actions are commented on afterwards, but there is certainly no storm of outrage, as we know. It usually happens on an unofficial basis, in letters to the editor and in semi‑private statements.

Bożena Keff:Returning to that scene: the girl from the high school gets to the heart of the matter. ‘If’, she says to Romaniuk, ‘you think nothing else could have been done, that things had to be that way and that now one cannot change consciousness (for in what regard should it be changed since everything was just fine), that means that if tomorrow something similar happens in Poland, things would have to take a similar course.’

It’s very simple. In accordance with those who defend Polish consciousness as it was during the war (they do this by claiming that nothing more could have been done), we must accept that those who were killed had to be killed. Yaffa Eliach’s mother had to perish. Those exposed had to be exposed. The existence of unpunished extortionists could be and should be inevitable. It was inevitable that those forced to act secretly in their own milieu were not the informers, but those who rescued Jews, and only in a few villages was it possible for the priest to remind people that Christ was a Jew and so on and so on. Nothing more could have been done—not a drop more human sympathy, not one iota less tolerance for the informers and extortionists, nothing, not one death fewer. For if we were to say that perhaps just something more could have been done, then that would be a negative evaluation of the state of Polish society of that time, and maybe even of today’s society. So what? Would the earth shake? Every affair, every detail, every fact is argued and haggled over today, and many historians and writers bombard each other as intensely as if in a fortress besieged, once again, by Jews—or rather their spirit or ashes. This is one of the reasons why one still cannot seriously recast this problem in Poland; one cannot essentially change the way in which we teach this period in schools to make it more authentic; we cannot offend the Polish self‑image which—and what a paradox—clings like a growth on the nobility and moral greatness of those few Poles who, despite their many countrymen, rescued or helped Jews.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:And anyway they are not combatants.

Bożena Keff:And they will die out before that’s granted to them. But let us return to the film. After the conversation with the pupils, Romaniuk and Marzyński are left and the latter keeps the camera rolling. For the first time he enters the film so directly—which I see as a signal that he has been taken by surprise by what had developed before the camera. Not only is there no trace of manipulation, but somehow it is an almost desperate gesture on Marzyński’s part, this desire to explain, this personal involvement. Does it not pain him after all, this bolstering of Polish self‑esteem at the expense of the Jews? Does it not pain Polish Jews when they speak to Poles about Polish nationalism, racism, and the antisemitism that Poles often do not even see because it is so obvious and yet at the same time so hidden in its very obviousness? Just as once upon a time it was obvious and hidden in obviousness that witches cast evil spells and should be burnt at the stake. And does it give one any satisfaction to say ‘I live (lived) in a country where there is so much prejudice towards Jews, in which so many people will be unable to see me as a person, for they are capable only of seeing this Jewish mask that they hold in their heads’? Do you remember the peasant in the film who tells the son of the goose‑breeder who was murdered during the war that the latter’s father, his employer, had once cheated him? Fifty years later, after that world had fallen apart, seeing the man’s son, himself an elderly man visiting his region of origin after many years, this peasant has it in his head that he was cheated by a Jew. And the son does not cry out to the heavens for vengeance, he is not angered as he could be, because he knows that this peasant perceived his father through an antisemitic schema.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:A Jew from Israel or the States would have turned on his heel and left.

Bożena Keff:It is unspeakably brutal in itself, what that peasant says! But the son of the goose‑breeder knows that this peasant did not decide the fate of the Jews. And the schema survived everything and stepped over it with its feet dry, stepped over truth, understanding, human feeling, over the Holocaust itself.

So Marzyński tries to explain to Romaniuk, as to a friend for whom he is anxious, what I have just said: Don’t defend a wrong cause, try to see that an individual good does not outweigh indifference and evil, because these are not scales, and if they are, then better to weigh nothing, for the outcome may not be what you think. Do not defend evil; you are a good enough human being, sensitive enough and intelligent enough to stand face to face with the unadulterated truth, which will not in any case change anything of what was good. And that was too difficult for Romaniuk, what a shame!

Michał Nekanda Trepka:This scene is interpreted as an attempt to impose a vision of the past on Romaniuk. And yet it is the opposite. Marzyński wants to speak of what will be tomorrow, not of what was yesterday, because nothing can change that now. But here we come to the great Polish problem of the collective. The collective as a slavish community of thought and action, in the spirit of the herd. Look: here we have a hero, brought up in a Catholic and patriotic atmosphere. Then one fine day, right under his nose, he discovers something ‘other’: these matsevot, cultural difference, religion, the society of neighbours who are no longer here and whom he treats with great openness, goodwill, and feeling. This all propels him forward right to the moment when he understands that he has taken four steps too many. And one day, he realizes that the collective to which he himself belongs is observing him carefully and is not terribly pleased. As long as the parish priest accepted the removal of the matsevot from the presbytery, because the poor man didn’t know what it was he had under his feet, then Romaniuk’s actions were accompanied always by a certain approbation on the part of his own community. But his visit to the States and then Israel ought to give him food for thought because there he is confronted not with history or archives, but with real people, with Jews for whom what he views as historical research is still an integral part of their lives, albeit in the past. And, of course, he comes across Poles, including ‘real’ ones in Chicago. And under the pressure of the ever clearer realization of what he has gotten himself into, you can see a real feeling of dread flow over him during the scene of the town council meeting. There he really backs off, and the theme of the Jews is bidden farewell with a heavy, leaden silence on the part of the majority in the room.

Bożena Keff:Romaniuk already has that graffiti on his stairway, ‘Join the Jews’, which bothers him. He is really bothered by it.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:Because it’s a signal from the members of the local herd that he has ‘detached’ himself. The herd is saying: Be careful, you’re not one of us any more! And he says: What do you mean, I am one of us, I’m a Catholic, a Pole, I’m with you and I’ve done nothing against you! And the herd: Oh yes? Well just look what the vox populi has written on your wall. You want to come back? All right then, on your knees and show some humility. Leave those Jews, and we’ll think about what to do with you. And at the meeting he is met mainly with silence and unfriendly glances. Not rebukes, which would really have been some kind of lame form of dialogue, but silence. And he knows now that his only way out is to be silent—not a word on the subject of Jews during Brańsk’s celebration of its 500‑year history. And he didn’t breathe a word.

Bożena Keff:Which is a bitter confirmation of the words of that Israeli schoolgirl. Not returning to the past in a critical way (‘nothing more could have been done’) means that one cannot escape falsehood, and silence is a form of deceit. One cannot but appreciate that this pains Marzyński as a Jew and as a human being who warms towards Romaniuk. Nevertheless, he ends the film addressing Romaniuk warmly, and these words provide a balance and not a difference of opinion.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:Let us look at it this way: Romaniuk, wishing to be a respectable and accepted citizen of Brańsk, does not mention that Jews used to be citizens of the town—and Polish citizens—or that until 1942 they made up over half of the population. The theme of Jewish citizenship does not figure at all in Polish public discussions on the subject of the Jews; tribal criteria have completely overwhelmed social, state, and legal criteria. Just as if their Polish citizenship were meaningless.

Bożena Keff:Which is precisely why the word Jew can be used as an insult—it means someone temperamentally incapable of being a citizen of this country, in the sense that he always has his own dark interests that lie in opposition to Polish interests. Here the question arises: Is Poland generally understood today as a tribal community or a state and legal one? Which way will it go? But whichever direction it takes, some of the people will not soon give up the construct that Jew constitutes: an explanation for failures, the cause of unfulfilled hopes, interchangeable with the word devil. Why be surprised at ‘antisemitism without Jews’? The metaphysical value of this construct is all the more justified by their absence. This metaphysical understanding can be applied to all things at all times. Which is why Romaniuk’s naiveté amazes me even more. Of how much was he ignorant, and to what extent did he fail to be concerned with what Jew can mean in Poland? This is not a ‘Frenchman’ or even a ‘German’. A Jew is a Jew; it’s a landmine; it’s not a neutral theme. Touch it and it explodes. Many Poles watch this film and think, ‘What a noble man, and he has harboured a viper in his own bosom, oh we know that feeling well.’ But they do not know. Romaniuk thought he was taking archives into his hands, stones, photographs, and here, from behind the matsevot, emerged living beings. They want something, they say terrible things, that they were murdered, despised. They speak of horrors. This was terribly manipulative of Marzyński: he took Romaniuk where Brańsk’s dead world lives and carries on, and exposed him to its emotions and conflicts.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:Terrible, indeed. Furthermore, though everyone had a home, today that home is often a formerly Jewish one. And what is one to do about that? These Jews weren’t supposed to exist anymore; they’d perished after all. Nor is that aspect comfortable for the Jews either. They don’t care about the houses; they know that returning to that subject could harm that which concerns them more: the graves.

Bożena Keff:But why does that scene with the high‑school students stir people up so? Why do some say: well all right, but this is just too much?

Michał Nekanda Trepka:Because from that it emerges that if Poles were to take this girl’s words seriously, if they were in a position to hear them, if these words got through to them, then they would have to look more seriously at those values which so many of them acknowledge and which one hears about in church. Besides, many people are of the opinion that in that scene a vision of the facts is imposed which could not have taken place.

Bożena Keff:Which facts?

Michał Nekanda Trepka:Well, everyone hiding someone in their home simply could not have happened. And one is not permitted to say such things. Saying such things sounds like sneering, like surrealism; it’s like some kind of persecution, affliction, insult.

Bożena Keff:In other words, it is impermissible to suggest such a model, an ideal, in which everyone has human reactions and is at least moderately protected from those who do not have them? For Marzyński does not actually say this; it is an example, imagined.

Michał Nekanda Trepka:Yes, an example. But in response to what he did say, we are dealing with a deep reaction of protest. I would not trivialize it. It is so strong that many things must be hiding behind it.

Bożena Keff:So if we were to present the following hypothesis, that of a hundred people, say, half had human responses—is that too many?

Michał Nekanda Trepka:Too many. And very tactlessly harms Polish–Jewish and Christian–Jewish dialogue. This is not a proposition for today. It is, alas, still too soon for that.

Bożena Keff:And on this sad note we must end in gloomy contemplation.


Michał Nekanda-Trepka is a film director whose works includes films on the theme of Polish–Jewish relations against the background of the war and the Holocaust (Karuzela). In addition, he ran a programme called Shalom on TVP 1, one of the main Polish television channels. that familiarized the Polish public with contemporary Israel.


Bożena Keff is a writer and poet as well as a film and literary critic.



[1] A documentary film concerning the death of the writer Henryk Grynberg’s father. Grynberg’s father was murdered in 1942, in all probability by a Polish neighbour with whom he had left two cows for safekeeping for the duration of the war. There was never any investigation of the incident.

[2] Lucjan Dobroszycki, ‘Restoring Jewish Life in Post‑war Poland’, Soviet Jewish Affairs 3/2 (1997), 66. Dobroszycki estimates the number of Jews murdered in Poland during l945–47, having survived the ghettos and camps, at around 1,500.

[3] The letter was published in several historical works, e.g., Bernard Mark, Powstanie w getcie warszawskim (Warsaw, 1963), 221, doc. 37. In his letter to the AK leadership and representatives, Anielewicz wrote: ‘The assignment of weapons without ammunition gives the impression of a cynical mockery of our fate. . . .’and ‘We had hoped not only for “understanding” of our situation on the part of the authorities and delegates, but that the murder of millions of Jews, citizens of Poland, should be treated as the principal immediate problem today.’

[4] Many such accounts are accessible at the Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

[5] Such formulations can be found in Gazeta Wyborcza in the Public Opinion section in November 1997.

[6] In November 1997, when the public prosecutor’s office in Toruń announced that it would summon Fr Rydzyk for questioning in connection with the abuse of government representatives, the Minister of Justice, Hanna Suchocka, personally intervened in his defence. In Gazeta Wyborcza Marek Beylin wrote, ‘it would have been better to accuse Fr Rydzyk of propagating hatred towards other nationalities and creeds.’ (Gazeta Wyborcza, 27 November 1997, 19.) To be sure, only who was to do it, given that in a less weighty matter he was shielded by government ministers?