Shtetl – In Retrospect

On 7 November 1942, the Jews of Bransk, a rural shtetl in eastern Poland, were ordered by the occupying Germans to gather by the main ghetto gates. As they waited for the horse-drawn wagons that would take them to a train station and to their deaths at Treblinka, Zew Cukerman, the Chief Rabbi of Bransk, said: ‘The sentence has been given in heaven. We must die. But I think that those who will survive will inform the world of our sufferings.’ More than half a century later, on 17 April 1996, the world heard a selective version of the fate of this community when Frontline [a documentary series broadcast on the PBS television network] aired Shtetl, the film produced by Marian Marzynski.

Shtetl provoked immediate and intense reactions, from unqualified, uncritical praise to venomous polemics. Our presence at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum today suggests that the fallout lingers. We need to talk about Shtetl or, perhaps more accurately, about what each of us individually thought was the film-maker’s point. For our discussion, I will try to sketch what I understand to be the assessment and opinion of some Polish Americans. Why is the Polish diaspora in America, which shares a common interest with the Jewish diaspora in promoting a broader awareness of World War II and the Holocaust, increasingly alienated from the presentation of the Holocaust in America?


There are three actors: Marzynski, the film itself, and the film’s hero Zbigniew Romaniuk. Marzynski is a Polish Jew who survived the German occupation. He was saved by being raised as a Christian in a Polish orphanage. His mother found him after the war, and Marzynski lived for some twenty-five years in post-war Poland working successfully in the Communist party-controlled media. He emigrated and settled in Chicago. He has made a career in America teaching and producing documentaries. In Shtetl, Marzynski implies that he has not been back to Poland since he emigrated, but in fact he has returned on several occasions.

The Story

The subjects are some Jewish survivors from Bransk near Bialystok and a young Polish gentile, Romaniuk, a local historian and elected public official who is trying to recover Bransk’s Jewish history. Marzynski pays surprisingly little attention to the cataclysmic destruction of Bransk Jewry by the Nazis. Rather, he focuses on the survivors, their relationship with their Polish neighbours, and the behaviour of the Bransk Poles before, during, and after the German occupation. Marzynski’s relentless interest is Polish antisemitism and whether the Poles have, will, or want to confront the issue. Marzynski brings Bransk survivors together with Romaniuk, and a partial recovery of the history of the world of the Bransk shtetl begins. A picture of Jewish–Polish relations emerges. In the end, Marzynski implicates Polish society for not confronting and for being unwilling to confront its past. Romaniuk comes to symbolize this stance when it is said in the film that he does not mention Bransk’s Jewish history during the celebration of the town’s five-hundredth anniversary. To underscore the point, Marzynski says at the very end of Shtetl that he leaves Romaniuk as ‘the lonely guardian of my people’s past’.


It is this picture of past and contemporary Polish attitudes that provoked intense reaction and polemic. Among Polish Americans, there was reflective reaction. Irena Grudzinska-Gross saw Shtetl as a film about how ‘truth overtakes and wearies the search for it. The terrible reality of World War II was that everyone, even the noblest, were entangled in the monstrous crimes.’ More common were sober questions about historical context, comprehensiveness, and objectivity. John Kulczycki commented that the treating of the film as ‘an objective picture of Polish–Jewish relations would be a misunderstanding.’ And Jan Nowak-Jezioranski said, ‘The comments of Jews and Poles in the film are true and authentic. The thing is that a half-truth ceases to be the truth. . . . Shtetl’s falsehood is its arrangement of lighting to show Poland and Poles as a criminal and backward nation. Yes, there is mention of those who, for the noblest of motives, saved Jews, but only to preserve the illusion of objectivity.’

There was also reaction that was emotionally violent. A Polish American columnist from Chicago described the film as ‘the latest violation of the Polish nation’, the ‘wreaking of hate and prejudice’, ‘three hours of venom’, and ‘only one in a long line of anti-Polish films born of mindless Jewish hate’. Comments of a similar nature can be found in the Polish American press or on the Internet.

Whether the reaction was reflective or emotional, it was intense and ran deep. Statements by Mr. Edward Moskal, President of the Polish American Congress and the Polish National Alliance, confirm this. His controversial letter to Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, in which he accused the Polish government of ‘submissiveness . . . with respect to demands raised by Jews’ raised, inter alia, [the issue of] Shtetl. He announced that his organization was launching a campaign against the film, ‘another source of irritation because of the manipulation of facts. What might have been a step in the right direction toward understanding and compromise is instead another cause of friction.’ Moskal raises two points--manipulation of facts and a missed opportunity to promote understanding and compromise. They are themes previously voiced in Polish American criticisms about earlier made-for-media Holocaust presentations.

Moskal states the most frequently voiced Polish American criticism of Shtetl, which is that the film, despite efforts to present it as such, is not a historical documentary. The film diverges from its original purpose, a report of Nathan Kaplan’s visit to Bransk, his parents’ shtetl, and become ‘an investigation into the minds of Polish peasants who are urged to remember’ the war and ‘to admit to antisemitism and complicity in the killing and plundering of the local Jews’. Failing this, Marzynski continues, assuring the viewers that he is ‘an intrepid seeker of truth of the unpunished crimes of the Holocaust in Poland’. In the second part, the film-maker catalogues the anti-Polish sentiments and stereotypes of the Branskers in America ‘with no effort’ by Marzynski ‘to correct them or to eliminate them’. Finally, Marzynski shows ‘the fanatical hatred’ with which young Israelis ‘have been inculcated toward Poles who are described as traditional antisemites’.

Moskal regrets a missed opportunity to present a balanced view of Jewish–Polish history and relations; to tell the story of the ‘contemporary Polish–Jewish dialogue that the Solidarity generation, represented by such Poles as Zbyszek Romaniuk [has produced]’; and to balance the stories of tragedies ‘with more constructive accents on the constructive side’ by including examples of Polish ‘human altruism, heroism, and sacrifice’.

Marzynski’s self-appointment as a moral critic of Polish wartime behavior toward Polish Jews is also criticized by Polish Americans. They have noted that the director does not ask how Jews, if the situation were reversed, would have acted if confronted with the choice between personal/family survival and sacrificing one’s life to save the life of one’s neighbors.

Zbyszek Romaniuk

Polish American concerns about the manipulation of history, the absence of a balanced presentation of Jewish–Polish relations in Bransk, and the absence of the historical context invoke or echo criticisms from the third actor, Romaniuk. When he first met Marzynski, the historian [Romaniuk], who had learned some Hebrew to pursue his recovery of Bransk’s Jewish history, began to hope that the film-maker would make ‘a film which contributes in some degree to the coming together of both nations, the explanation of many misunderstandings and false charges from both sides’. He hoped to break the stereotypes that he encountered in Israel identifying every Pole as an antisemite and ‘concentration camps only in Poland’.

Romaniuk believes that his expectations were not met. As editor of the journal Ziemia Branska (The Bransk Lands), he listed his reservations in a letter to Marzynski. He found the film unbalanced: ‘There is definitely not enough about heroic rescuing and too much about murdering. . . . You talk about atrocious people and keep quiet about heroism.’ Interviews with Poles who aided Jews were not included in the film, nor is there mention of the local Catholic clergy, who from the pulpit called upon their congregations to assist Jews [Rev. Boleslaw Czarkowski], who sheltered Jews themselves [Rev. Jozef Chwalko], or who were murdered by the Nazis for aiding Jews [Rev. Henryk Opiatowski]. Romaniuk argues that Bransk is a bad example of Polish indifference or cruelty because out of the 300 Jews who survived the Nazi destruction of nearly 2,400, 76 survived the war, and there were instances of Poles losing either life or property for helping Jews.

Romaniuk raises another complaint--one that is a common Polish American complaint about much of Holocaust scholarship, educational material, and media. In Romaniuk’s view, Marzynski reduces ‘the problem of Polish help to “good will”, which is too simplistic and does not take into account the reality of the war and of the occupation’. Romaniuk raises two specific points in this regard: the machinery of the German occupation and its application of the principle of collective responsibility, and the behavior of some members of the Bransk Jewish community during the Soviet occupation between 1939 and 1941, some of whom were implicated in abetting the Soviet occupiers in killing or deporting Poles to Siberia. In the former case, Romaniuk faults Marzynski for ignoring the nature of Nazi terror, while in the latter he argues that this behavior under Soviet occupation ‘had a colossal influence on later attitudes of some Poles during the Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1944.

Romaniuk also raises the question of the manipulation of contemporary history. Contrary to Marzynski’s presentation of Romaniuk caving into community pressure and excluding mention of Bransk Jewry from his remarks at the celebration of Bransk’s 500th anniversary, Romaniuk says that he did mention Bransk Jewry in his public remarks, in remarks not included in Shtetl.

Considering the facts absent from the documentary Shtetl and the controversial presentation of what is there, questions then arise about Frontline, a series known for its investigative reporting, as the appropriate forum for airing Shtetl. Shtetl is not a factually comprehensive presentation of Polish–Jewish wartime relations, and Dr. Joseph S. Kutrzeba questions whether Marzynski’s Shtetl meets the criteria of documentary film-making. Airing the film on Public Television gives Shtetl a credibility that it does not merit. Shtetl is reminiscent of the Oliver Stone approach to film-making, in which historical accuracy is not the issue.


In a way, Marzynski acknowledges this. In a letter to Romaniuk, he criticizes [him] for treating Shtetl as ‘if it were a historical essay about the Jews in Bransk, while for me, a film-maker, it has always been a psychological drama’. Marzynski maintains that he had no other choice if he wanted to make an interesting film. ‘Nobody could follow a story of an obscure little town in Poland unless the human emotions are translated into a universal tale. This is not a film about Bransk, but the search for a lost world called Shtetl, about you (an individual confronting the conservatism of a small town), about me (how to reconcile my thankfulness for the saving of my life with the painful memory of the [Jewish] brothers who did not survive, about Nathan (good and evil in the soul of the same person), and about Jack (how to complete a life full of tragedy and in accord with the good spirit and understanding for others).’

This description does reflect the film as a personalization of Marzynski as a self-appointed moral authority. For Marzynski, the film was never an objective historical documentary. Thus, as is often the case in Jewish–Polish affairs, there are conflicting visions, in this case conflicting expectations of just what Shtetl was supposed to be or is.

Whatever our individual expectations and disappointments, Shtetl is a useful pedagogical tool. What has vanished cannot be recreated. Nevertheless, one catches a glimpse of the shtetl world through scenes from the Bransk region. Poles remember dealing with Jewish merchants and traders, and working for Jews. Branskers remember their vital families and community. In Romaniuk’s encounters with the successful and prosperous Branskers in America and Israel, a lost world suddenly reappears in family photos. In a scene that is almost magical, a women who was a young girl when she left her childhood world of Bransk, and is now living in Atlanta, sets her kitchen table with her mother’s Sabbath tablecloth and candles. This scene, more than any other, evokes our awareness of a lost world. Marzynski accumulated some extraordinary material, but he did not listen to it. Overall, the viewer sees two communities once linked in daily business, and now separated not only by an ocean, but socially, by religion, and by economic success and social class. This contemporary reality suggests the pre-war reality.

Whatever the nature of Marzynski’s work, it does raise a set of questions. While Poles will argue that the character of the Nazi and Soviet occupations influenced people’s actions, Marzynski wants a reconsideration of this defense, at least in the case of Bransk. In posing, out of context, the fact that there were just five representatives of German authority in Bransk, Marzynski is asking whether Poles could not have acted collectively to defend their Jewish neighbours. And in asking the question, Marzynski may be asking it of every European who lived under Nazi occupation. The question makes some uncomfortable, but it is the question that for Polish Jews [and for other Jews] goes to the heart of the matter, or to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, to the heart of darkness at a time of terror.

Marzynski does present Poles who aided and hid Jews, and the gratefulness of survivors like Bransker Jack Rubin, and there is a quick aside about Yad Vashem. However, he still demands that Poles confront their past. And it appears that he feels that the manipulation of history is one way to compel them to do so. But is this the most effective way? What about the war-time and post-war writing of Milosz or Andrzejewski? What about a film like Ulica Granicza? What about the five international academic conferences on Polish Jewry in the 1980s; the study of Polish seminarians at Chicago’s Spertus College and the pioneering lectures of Rabbi Byron Sherwin at Polish seminaries; the master essays and doctoral dissertations [more than fifty or more annually] on Jewish and Polish Jewish themes submitted to the competition sponsored by the Israel-Polish Friendship Society; the letter of the Polish bishops condemning antisemitism as a sin; and President Lech Walesa’s apology on behalf of his nation at the Israeli Knesset in 1991?

All this is not to say that every Pole has confronted the implications of the Holocaust, or that remnants of antisemitism do not survive. However, a real confrontation became possible only with the downfall of communism. A process, interrupted by Stalinist and subsequent communist regimes, is underway, but one does not learn this in Marzynski’s Shtetl. Ewa Hoffman commented upon Jewish–Polish dialogue, stating that it ‘cannot proceed if the minority group continues to hold the majority moral hostage in perpetuity, or if the history of powerlessness is taken as proof of moral superiority’. By these standards, one would hesitate to describe Marzynski as being interested in dialogue.

Will we be able to learn anything from all this? Marzynski, maybe not intentionally, gives us an answer when Romaniuk meets with Israeli high school students who have just returned from a recent trip to Poland as part of their study of the Holocaust. The students will not hear anything about circumstances that may have affected action or inaction by Poles during the war. [Even Marzynski intrudes to, as it were, set Romaniuk straight.] On the one hand, there is Romaniuk, who in the course of his study of Bransk Jewry taught himself some Hebrew and who is dedicated to trying to understand this community’s history and point of view. On the other hand, there are the high school students who show no indication of [recognizing] the fact that history is more than one group’s story of itself.

My seminar students, two of whom are high school teachers with no Polish or Jewish background, viewed and discussed Shtetl last year. The teachers were appalled by the intolerance and close-mindedness of the Israeli students. If Bransk is emblematic for Marzynski of Polish antisemitism, is the viewer of Shtetl to take Marzynski’s intolerant Israeli high school students as emblematic of the Israeli secondary school system?

Shtetl merits both criticism and favorable comment. Tamara Trojanowska believes that a faulty syllogism pervades the film: ‘Poles are anti-Semites, antisemitism is responsible for the Holocaust, hence Poles are responsible for the Holocaust.’ The Germans destroyed the great civilization of East European Jewry. Nevertheless, Poles, who were themselves terribly victimized by both Nazis and Soviets, and Polish Americans have to grapple with the questions raised about Polish witness to the Holocaust.

All that remains of Bransk Jewry are the Jewish gravestones collected by Romaniuk and placed in a cemetery, disconnected from bodies. Romaniuk, worried whether he was acting correctly in his labor of cultural and historical preservation, was told by a rabbi from Israel who came from Bransk that he had done what he could: he had performed a mitzvah, a good deed.

Poles were not the perpetrators of the Holocaust, but neither was every Pole an innocent victim or witness. The confrontation with history goes on in Poland and among elements of the Polish American community. Perhaps someday this process will be acknowledged as a mitzvah. Likewise, Marzynski might someday do a mitzvah by producing a comprehensive and balanced film about Jewish–Polish relations during World War II and the Holocaust.

Stanislaus Blejwas