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Kielce pogrom: The battle over memory

Interview with Michal Jaskulski, co-director of the documentary “Bogdan’s Journey”. Interviewer: Paul Toetzke.

February 15, 2018 - Paul Toetzke - Stories and ideas

PAUL TOETZKE: Your film Bogdan’s Journey talks about the pogrom in Kielce in 1946, in which more than 40 Jewish Holocaust survivors were killed. It therefore touches upon quite a sensitive topic. Why is it still so hard for the Polish people to face this chapter of their history?

MICHAŁ JASKULSKI: The problem in Poland is that we have never really had good education about the Holocaust and its aftermath. It is very basic and informal. As our protagonist says, “in our talks about Poles and Jews there is no compassion, no regret, no sorrow.” It is easy to blame others for our scars. But we never looked at what the Holocaust did to Poles -– not as a nation but as people. None of us living today is able to answer how religion, social considerations and the terror would have shaped us. We have not learned this sensitivity yet. This is why the debate often ends up with attacking and defending. In a way, the conversation about this difficult past begins with your own attitude.

Why did it take so long for this attitude to change?

For many years there was no access to the records on the pogrom. In the 1980s there was a short time when the archives were opened and first works on the pogrom written. As the subject was not discussed in public, a number of conspiracy theories emerged, which claimed that the pogrom was a communist provocation. And as many underline that Jews were part of the communist apparatus of repression, some believe it was actually the Jews in the secret police who organised the pogrom. Of course, none of the conspiracy theories have ever been proven, but in the end, for years the memory of the pogrom was related to the provocation rather than the suffering of victims. This is what our film’s character has changed.

…Bogdan Bialek, a Pole, who is neither Jewish nor from Kielce. Yet he is the one, who brings the memory of the pogrom back to town by organising debates, erecting monuments and speaking with the survivors. Why did he become so involved in the topic?

We asked him this question every year throughout the ten years of shooting the movie. There are some hints in the film: his childhood in Białystok in eastern Poland, where he grew up around Jews and in poverty. There was a number of moments in his life, when the attitude of Poles towards the memory of Jews hurt him. But there is no defining moment. On the other hand, every year when the event he had organised was over, he would say that that was the last time.

“It tore me apart. I paid a horrible price: internal devastation“, he says towards the end of the film.

Yes. You are taking on shoulders something you do not want and that is not necessarily appreciated by others. Bogdan never expected any reward. But he did not have any support in the beginning. His biggest burden is his loneliness in experiencing the suffering of others and the hostility among people. I started understanding him a bit after sitting in the editing room for one and a half years with all the tears and screams. You are becoming a sponge filled with these emotions. It eats you. And Bogdan’s work does not have any ending.

How did Bogdan become your protagonist?

When we came to Kielce in 2006, the film was supposed to be about an artist, who was building a monument for the victims of the pogrom on the 60th anniversary. But by accident we joined the first big debate about the pogrom. It was shocking to see that 60 years after the events, the subject is still causing so many bad emotions. We decided to come back. Bogdan was there all the time. Three years later, during one of the interviews, he said that he has an enormous amount of empathy for what had happened to the Jews in the Polish land but at the same time he has a lot of empathy towards Poles, even for the perpetrators. At first it sounded like a heresy: How can you put the victims and perpetrators in the same sentence? But this was the moment, when we understood that this man does not have a Jewish or Polish perspective. He sees things through a human perspective.

What was your impression of Kielce when you began filming in 2006? How did it change throughout the ten years of shooting?

It was a city like any other. But during the second year we tried to do a survey on the street. As soon as people realised that it is about the pogrom, they did not want to talk. When we finished the film and showed it in Kielce, the locals said that the film gave them a lot of strength. Before they saw the pogrom as something they were burdened with and could not do anything about it. Now they realised that although you cannot change the past, you can still build something.

The film starts and ends with the events of the 70th anniversary of the pogrom, during which a group of nationalist protesters claimed that the pogrom had been initiated by the communists. Why did you decide to use this image as a frame?

The scene is in the beginning of the film because this kind of aggressive atmosphere is characteristic for the discussion on the provocation, which in a way is a summary of the past memory of the pogrom. It comes back in the end to show that the new generation is coming. Surprisingly, it also augurs the atmosphere after the film ends.  

Why does it end there, with the 70th anniversary?

After eight years we finally managed to get funds for the project and this allowed us to finalise the film. Then, in the last year, a miracle happened. The grandson of one of the perpetrators decided to speak up publicly about his suffering and how the pogrom influenced his family. We started at a moment, when nobody wanted to talk about it and we finished when the grandson of a perpetrator decided to speak up. This was a good moment to end.

What were the reactions to the film in Poland?

The film got great reviews. There were only two or three small right-wing media articles online, complaining that the film does not stand against the stereotype of an anti-Semitic Pole, as we are showing Poles who killed the Jews. One of them was written by a journalist of the Polish national television. We were anxious before the premiere but it turned out that there were Polish Jews, Jews from abroad, Polish Catholics, atheists. And they all cried together. After the screening in New York a Jewish lady came to me and asked how Polish people suffered during the war and how we are dealing with the post-Holocaust trauma today. And that is a reward. If Poles and Jews start caring about each other’s suffering, that is where we should get.

The political attitude towards the pogrom is still controversial. When asked during a TV interview about the Kielce pogrom, the former Polish Minister of Culture, Anna Zaleska, refused to acknowledge that Polish people were responsible for the killings. Isn’t that hindering the efforts of people like Bogdan?

I think that because of the Minister of Education’s behavior, some important political gestures have passed unnoticed. The current president of Poland was the first one to come in person to the commemoration in Kielce. The former prime minister wrote a letter expressing appreciation for Bogdan’s work and stating clearly that any kind of provocation theory is no excuse for what happened. Many were surprised with that. This famous TV interview with the minister of education clearly shows how the good work of some politicians can be easily destroyed by politicians from the same party. I am often asked if the film has had an effect on politics. And the answer is: No, and it will not. You can learn sensitivity from what you watch, but you cannot attack anyone with this film. So, as far as politics is concerned, it is useless.

The Polish parliament has recently passed a law that criminalises any mention of Poles being responsible crimes committed by Nazi Germany. Doesn’t that complicate the debate?

I am thinking about how much damage the controversies related to the law are going to cause. There are people like Bogdan, also in Israel, who spent decades bringing Jews and Poles together. I am afraid the current situation has taken us 15 to 20 years back, as both in Poland and in Israel the crisis has caused reactions which will see a lot of old stereotypes resurface. And the discussion about the law is not only about the Polish government versus the Israeli one. It also affects the debate inside Poland. The biggest concern is that due to the way the law is written, a judge will decide what is true and what is not. This is terrible. It used to be up to researchers to decide on historical facts. Now the question is what the truth is. The truth most Poles have not learned about or the truth that is politically dictated?

In the beginning of the film Bogdan says that the past ends when we end it by talking about it normally. Is Poland ready to end its past?

I am not sure. For me making this film meant trying to put myself emotionally in a certain place. And as long as there is this cynical attitude to right away defend or attack, we will get nowhere. It will begin when we put ourselves in the situation that Bogdan was in when he visited Israel. He is talking to two women survivors of the pogrom and one of them says that she is sure that Bogdan would have saved her during the war if he had been there. And Bogdan replies: “I’m not so sure. I didn’t live at that time.” Until we do not get where Bogdan is, we will not be able to end the past.

Michal Jaskulski is co-director of the documentary Bogdan’s Journey.

Paul Toetzke is a freelance journalist and Masters student of East European Studies at the Freie University in Berlin.

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