Marek Haltof, Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory.New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012. xiv + 274pp. Notes. Bibl. Ind. $90 hbk.
Marek Haltof’s monograph is the most comprehensive scholarly contribution to have emerged with respect to a long neglected field of study: the Holocaust in Polish film. Haltof’s ‘survey’ is insightful, substantial, and sheds new light on films little known even to a connoisseur. Most importantly his evocation of films made during the years of ‘official silence’ that accompanied the Eastern bloc’s severing of ties with Israel following the Six Day War, and the events of the seminal year of 1968, demands a re-evaluation from all scholars of post-war Jewish life in Poland as to the degree to which Polish filmmakers were willing to self-analyze the actions and inactions of the Polish collective at the heart of the Second World War.
The Polish nation was the indisputable witness to what became known in subsequent decades as the Holocaust, and to the disappearance of the vibrant, multicultural mosaic of Polish culture that had existed prior to 1939. The location of the death camps on Polish soil was not, as has sometimes been asserted, the result of Nazi confidence in Polish antisemitism; instead it was a series of pragmatic decisions. Poland was the site of the largest concentration of Jews in Europe, and the site of an extensive and well-maintained rail network that facilitated deportations. To the Poles this co-location of killing centers did not suggest national complicity either, but ultimately violation. This transgression would be subsumed into Communist and Populist myth-making with regard to Polish matyrology, which would fail to discern between Jewish and non-Jewish victims.
The death of up to five million Polish citizens (3 million Jews and up to 2 million non-Jewish Poles) was the base from which this national and historiographical matyrology arose; the Polish nation was once again the victim of history. In the aftermath of the Yalta agreement, Poland’s post-war occupation by the Soviets continued until the return of democracy in 1989. In the minds of Polish citizens this national matyrology extended to the murdered Polish Jews, who were incorporated into the collective memory of citizens killed during the war. In turn, as Marek Haltof explains, this gave rise to a double memory, of two very different, Polish and Jewish, recollections of atrocity. For both the Polish and Jewish nations this central historiographical event played a major role in post-war self-image and self-definition. Thus, from the beginning two completely different versions of history and two different national memories claimed ownership of the events.
In Polish historiography, Poles had conflated the suffering of their own nation and the Jews, claiming the Holocaust as part of Polish historical heritage. It cemented their role of a European martyr nation, a ‘Christ among the Nations,’ a thematic that had emerged during the period of the partitions. As Haltof demonstrates this self-image returned forcefully after 1945, especially in light of the fact that the reality of Polish wartime experiences were now distorted and misshapen by the Communist interpretation of history. This distortion took many forms; perhaps most prominently, the widespread wartime activities of the nationalist Armia Krajowa (Home Army) were subjugated by officialdom in favour of the Communist Armia Ludowa (People’s Army), whose relative strength and activities were magnified and glorified in film, historiography and literature. The Communist party falsified history to create its own legend. Yet in both versions of history - the nationalist and the Communist - the occupation was seen as a heroic armed struggle marked by resistance and martyrdom. There was little room for Jewish martyrology in these versions of history.
As is to be expected in any book dealing with the representation of the Holocaust in a national cinema—in a country dealing concurrently with Communist domination—the political context surrounding the development of films is integrated into Haltof’s narrative. Notably, this parallel narrative is extended by Haltof to include the development of Holocaust memory worldwide, particularly after the return of democracy in 1989.
Haltof has organized his material into eight chapters that broadly parallel the expansion and contraction of Holocaust thematics in Polish cinema from 1945 up until the early twenty-first century. Each of the chapters is illustrated with well-chosen photographic stills from the films under discussion. Chapter I elucidates the background political mosaic: the complexities of the new political system imposed on the Polish state by the Soviet Union after 1945; the nationalization of the Polish film industry and the introduction of Film Polski. He then turns to the complex question (noting that it requires extensive further research) of Jewish participation in the Polish state security apparatus in the period to 1956, before concluding with the first efforts of filmmakers to introduce Holocaust thematics into Polish film in the period to 1948.
The next two chapters deal individually with two classic films of the late 1940s: Wanda Jakubowska’s Ostatni Etap (The Last Stage, 1948) and Aleksander Ford’s Ulica Graniczna (Border Street, 1948). Both films are of inestimable importance, the first cinematic representations of the Holocaust, with Ulica Graniczna (Border Street) emerging as a central Holocaust text, its aesthetic imagery borrowed, reinterpreted and re-staged by directors as diverse as Wajda, Spielberg and Polanski.
In Chapter 4 Haltof considers the most vibrant period in the history of post-war Polish film, the years following the political thaw of 1956, which allowed young filmmakers to diverge from social realism and produce several well-known films about recent Polish history. Thereafter he considers the period he characterizes as ‘organized forgetting,’ 1965 to 1980, during which - although they were subsequently shelved and in the main remained unreleased until after 1989 - a few largely unknown, yet starkly evocative portrayals of the Holocaust emerged that significantly challenge academic views of the way Polish society has been portrayed in the films that constitute the ‘Holocaust canon’ of Polish cinema after 1945. In Chapters 6 and 7 Haltof analyzes the cinematic landscape post-1981, with particular attention paid to the films Korczak (1990) and Wielki Tydzień (Holy Week, 1996), before concluding with a brief overview of an area that is in need of separate and detailed academic study, documentary film.
Haltof’s review of the period 1965 to 1980, in the Chapter entitled, ‘The Years of Organized Forgetting,’ adds immeasurably to our existing knowledge. The complex in-fighting amongst Communist party cliques that lead to the ‘March events’ and the so-called ‘Zionist conspiracy’ of 1968, had profound effects on Polish cinema. Not the least of which was the last substantial exodus of Polish Jews that followed the Communist rhetoric of 1968, during which many notable contributors to the Polish cinematic landscape emigrated. Haltof also narrates that Communist authorities became paranoid about national image, insisting on cinematic portrayals that emphasised wartime Polish help for Jews. What in effect led to an eventual ban on films with Polish-Jewish themes corresponded with growing worldwide interest in the Holocaust, allowing a populist reading of the Polish silence on its own wartime behaviour as unremettingly antisemitic.
Haltof demonstrates that despite the Communist imposed external silence, Polish cinema remained actively engaged with Jewish themes throughout the period. Several film projects were abandoned or suspended during these years including Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Austeria, Aleksander Ford’s Korczak, and Wajda’s adaptation of Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel Wielki Tydzień (Holy Week), which he later made in the post-Communist period. Haltof then proceeds to demonstrate the degree to which Polish cinema was permeated by Jewish motifs during these precise years of official forgetting.
Very few films dared to confront to Holocaust directly, by referring to the wartime reality, during the ‘years of organized silence.’ Haltof, however, notes the best of them, and therefore makes it incumbent upon future scholars to explore not only their thematics and aesthetics, but also the degree to which they show a commitment in some circles of Polish society to explore that society, both positive and negative, under the pressure of War. From the period 1965 to 1980, Haltof examines the films Długa noc (The Long Night, 1967) and Wniebowstąpienie (Ascension Day, 1969). Both films contained scenes analyzing Polish behaviour during the midst of the War, and were ultimately - although for different reasons - withheld by the censors for release ‘at a later date.’
Długa noc (The Long Night, 1967) was based on a novel by a Communist party activist, Wiesław Rogowski, and is set one week before Christmas in 1943 in a small Polish town. Just before the extended wartime curfew, the inhabitants of the house discover a Jew hiding in the apartment of a neighbour. Thrown together after the curfew descends, they argue bitterly what shall be done with the Jew. In the end his protector accompanies the nameless Jew to the partisans under the cover of night. The arguments of the buildings tenants contain stereotypical antisemitic comments, accompanied by images the censor did not want to release. In addition the tensions leading to the severing of relations between the Communist bloc and Israel in the aftermath of the Six Day War also contributed to the shelving of the film.
The other film highlighted by Haltof is Wniebowstąpienie (Ascension Day, 1969). Based on the short story of the same name by Adolf Rudnicki, Wniebowstąpienie, in both the literary narrative and the film, eschews any larger social or political context. Instead the intimate psychological drama focuses on the attempts of a Jewish couple from Lwów--Raisa Wolkowa and Sebastian Goldstein—to survive the collapse of their world. They relocate to Warsaw on Aryan Papers where they are continually plagued, until Sebastian’s death, by his psychological problems and descent into mental illness. The absence of any large-scale accounting with the social or political problems of the War, on the face of it, should have made it easier for the film to pass through censorship review. Instead it was decided that images of Jewish isolation and suffering could not be shown in the absence of images of suffering Poles, and that the references to ‘Polish help’ verbally scattered through the film did not sufficiently emphasize the matyrology of Poles, who, despite persecutions, helped the Jews. The film was subsequently shelved to be screened ‘at a later date.’
One further film chosen by Haltof that emphasizes the efforts of some segments of Polish society to examine its wartime behaviour, belongs to the period post-1981, W cieniu nienawiści (In the Shadow of Hatred, 1986). Like several other Polish films of the era post martial law, this film was virtually ignored by Polish audiences, who displayed a preference for commercial cinema, often seen on pirated video, and in the face of a general decline in cinema attendance. W cieniu nienawiści - loosely connected with the story of Irena Sendler and the workers of the Wartime Warsaw Health and Social Welfare Department - focuses on the efforts of a Polish woman to save a Jewish child. The films presents a panorama of Polish characters and their attitude towards Jews. It strives for a balanced image of the occupation: images of those that risked their lives to save Jewish lives are juxtaposed with those who blackmail the hiding Jews. Although unnoticed at the time, the film anticipates later efforts by Polish filmmakers and others to confront Polish society with an unmythologized portrait of Polish behaviours in the difficult days of the War.
Despite the array of qualifications Haltof’s notes in his introduction with respect to his aims for this book, it emerges as a singular and noteworthy study of the Holocaust in Polish film. His original contribution is undoubtedly the revelation of Polish efforts to confront the past during the ‘years of organised silence’ between 1965 to 1980. While the Holocaust in Polish film may await its historian, Haltof’s analysis of these pivotal years calls for immediate scholarly re-examination of Polish efforts to honestly confront the past during the very years when worldwide criticism had characterized the nation as unremittingly antisemitic.
More generally, Haltof has intertwined the difficult themes of complex and varying Communist politics with the development of post-war cinema, and the linear narrative constitutes a sophisticated meditation on the difficulties faced by Polish and Polish-Jewish filmmakers in the decades since 1945. This is a significant study that will prove indispensable to historians of post-war Polish film, and the Holocaust, separately and together, along with all those concerned with Polish-Jewish relations after 1945.
Leon Perlman, University of Sydney