Few Polish films have in recent years stirred as much controversy as Władysław Pasikowski’s Pokłosie (Consequences). Despite being criticised as being “anti-Polish” by some, this new film, inspired by the Jedwabne pogrom of 1941, can lead to more honest discussion of Polish-Jewish relations.
Regarding Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War, the Polish-British historian Adam Zamoyski writes that under German occupation a minority of Poles were heroes who risked their lives to save Jews, and a minority were scum who sold out Jews to the Gestapo for sausage and vodka. Most Poles, however, kept to their own affairs. This did not result from callousness. Rather, the Nazi ideology regarded Poles as only slightly above groups singled out for extermination, such as Jews and Roma. Consequently, the Nazis killed over three million non-Jewish Poles. Furthermore, Poland was the only occupied country where aiding Jews was punishable by death.
In 1942, the Polish underground formed Żegota, the Council to Aid Jews, saving tens of thousands. Żegota was an alliance of diverse political groups, from right-wing Catholic nationalists to Communists. It gave Jewish children forged baptismal certificates and placed them with Gentile foster parents and monasteries. Meanwhile, Jan Karski, a courier of the Polish government-in-exile in London, met with Roosevelt and Churchill’s inner circle to tell the American and British governments of the extermination of Europe’s Jews and to persuade them to use their military power to stop the genocide, tragically without success. Overall, 6,339 Poles – more than any other nation – have been designated as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem in Israel.
However, Gentile courage is only part of the story of wartime Polish-Jewish relations. Although during the Middle Ages Jews fleeing persecution were welcomed by tolerant Polish kings, this changed in the twentieth century. As elsewhere in Europe, the economic hardship of the Great Depression encouraged popular and institutional anti-Semitism. Right-wing politicians in the interwar period boycotted Jewish businesses. Polish universities set up quotas to limit the number of Jewish students, while the Parliament pushed legislation restricting the production of kosher meat.
However, perhaps the most horrific case of Polish anti-Semitism was the Jedwabne pogrom, which occurred in a small hamlet in Podlachia on July 10, 1941. At the command of the local Nazi occupiers, a group of Polish men gathered as many as 340 Jews into a barn, setting it on fire. This was the largest massacre of Jews in which Poles took part. Until 2000, locals believed that solely Germans were responsible for the pogrom in Jedwabne. Revelations that Poles participated in the murder of a couple hundred Jews provoked a cathartic discussion on anti-Semitism among all parts of Polish society.
Although more than a decade has passed since the Jedwabne debate, the pogrom continues to provoke contentious debate in Poland. Recently, Władysław Pasikowski released his latest film Pokłosie, loosely based on the massacre.
The film tells the story of Franciszek Kalina, a Polish émigré who has returned to visit his brother Józek in rural Poland after spending 20 years as a construction worker in Chicago. A few years before, Józek discovered that during the war the Nazis used matzevot (Jewish tombstones) to pave a local road. Józek believes that this is morally unacceptable: “They may not be Christians, but everyone deserves a decent burial,” he muses. Thus Józek safeguards the tombstones at his farm. With the exception of the parish priest (who will soon retire and be replaced by an anti-Semitic younger cleric) who believes that the Jews’ graves should be respected, the local villagers hate Józek. They kill his dog, burn his property, and spray paint anti-Semitic graffiti on his house.
Initially, Franek is an anti-Semite, constantly noting that in Chicago he worked for “the Yids,” who are simply bloodthirsty capitalists. He fears that Józek’s concern for the Jewish tombstones will lead him to be hurt by the villagers. Yet with the passage of time Franek agrees with his younger brother that what he is doing is morally right.
As Franek and Józek’s interest in their village’s Jewish history piques, they reach a horrific discovery – the local Jews were killed not only by the Nazis, but also with the help of local Poles. In what has become Pokłosie’s most emblematic scene, one villager kills Józek, nailing him to his barn door, causing him to resemble the crucified Christ to stop him from telling the world about what really happened in that village.
Naturally, Pasikowski’s newest film has provoked bitter controversy. As is usually the case with controversial films, those most opposed to Pokłosie have not yet seen it. Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of Poland’s opposition Law and Justice party, said that he does not plan on watching it, yet that it was scandalous that Poland’s Ministry of Culture subsidised such a work. One of Poland’s most prominent right-wing journalists, Rafał Ziemkiewicz, said that although he has not seen Pokłosie he knows that it is an example of propaganda that is intended to show Polish patriotism and Catholicism as something backwards. Although unlike Kaczyński and Ziemkiewicz he had seen the film, Jan Pospieszalski, a famous albeit controversial television personality (and a former guitarist of Czerwone Gitary, one of Poland’s great rock bands), deplored Pokłosie as “anti-Polish libel.”
Is this film a work of anti-Polish propaganda? Such accusations are absurd. Although there are wicked Poles in the film, such as the old man who participated in the wartime massacre of Jews, there are noble ones, such as Franek and the priest. The fact that the latter character encourages Franek’s rescue of Jewish gravestones and protects him against local anti-Semites debunks Ziemkiewicz’s assertion that Pokłosie links Catholicism with backwardness.
Furthermore, the discussion of sins in Polish history does not equal being anti-Polish. Perhaps the best evidence of this is that critics of Pokłosie such as Kaczyński and Ziemkiewicz eagerly discuss the crimes of Poland’s Communist regime. Does that make them unpatriotic or anti-Polish?
Many modern nations have had to deal with shameful episodes in their history. Germany was particularly successful in this. In the early 1970s, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s gestures such as kneeling in front of the Warsaw Ghetto and laying a wreath in front of Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were instrumental in the process of Germany’s reconciliation with the Poles and the Jews. Others have been less successful. Post-Soviet Russia comes to mind, as particularly under Putin there has been a tendency to downplay Soviet crimes and to glorify Stalinism.
Since the shocking information that Poles took part in the Jedwabne pogrom emerged, Polish society has not denied past anti-Semitic crimes in the way that much of Russia’s political and intellectual elites have whitewashed the Soviet Union’s crimes. Perhaps the most telling sign of this is that Roman Giertych, a onetime deputy prime minister and former head of Poland’s Catholic-nationalist League of Polish Families party, himself the grandson of Jędrzej Giertych, one of interwar Poland’s most rabidly anti-Semitic politicians, himself came to Jedwabne in 2006 to pray and to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the Polish nation.
Nonetheless, the Poles overwhelmingly like to downplay horrific events such as Jedwabne and to overemphasise the heroics of people such as Jan Karski or Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who under Nazi occupation smuggled 2,500 Jewish from the Warsaw Ghetto, saving twice as many Jews as Oskar Schindler at much greater personal risk. Perhaps Pokłosie can help Polish society discuss its past relations with the Jews and realise that, when Hitler turned Poland into the world’s largest Jewish graveyard, there were both saints and monsters.
Filip Mazurczak is a graduate student studying international relations and European studies at the George Washington University. His academic interests include Second World War history, Polish-Jewish relations, and Christianity in modern Europe.