Confronting The Past

This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Report.

Actor Maciej Stuhr in "Aftermath." (Courtesy of Menemsha Films)

Actor Maciej Stuhr in “Aftermath.” (Courtesy of Menemsha Films)

Polish producer Dariusz Jabłoński compares the 2012 release in his country of his feature film, “Pokłosie” (“Aftermath”), to drilling for gas.

The film, a gothic thriller written and directed by Wladysław Pasikowski, and now playing in New York, tells the story of two brothers who discover in the early 2000s that neighbors in their rural village had been involved in massacring approximately 100 of their Jewish neighbors during World War II. Worse yet, the brothers learn that their own parents were leaders of the assault, and that they, like the others in the village, stole the murdered Jews’ land.

Although there is no explicit mention of it in the film, it is widely believed that the plot is based on the July 1941 beating to death and burning alive of almost all the Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne, Poland, a village located some 130 kilometers northeast of Warsaw. The pogrom was long blamed on the occupying Germans, until the publication in 2001 of “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” a book by Princeton historian Jan T. Gross. Gross provided evidence that Jedwabne’s several hundred Jewish residents were, in fact, murdered by their Christian Polish neighbors, and not by the Nazis.

“You dig in to the ground looking for gas, you go through layers, and the gas eruption brings everything – both positive and negative – to the surface,” Jabłoński tells The Jerusalem Report. “What happened with “Aftermath” is that the explosion was bigger than we thought.”

Indeed, with the release of the film, the filmmakers were engulfed in controversy. Polish nationalists accused them of producing anti-Polish propaganda and distorting a sensitive aspect of Polish history; lead actor Maciej Stuhr received death threats; and some local cinemas banned the film.

On the other hand, a number of prominent individuals publicly praised the Polish-Dutch-Slovak-Russian production. Polish Minister of Culture Bogdan Zdrojewski reportedly said, “I admire the courage in taking up such a difficult theme and analyzing, in a cinematic form, a dramatic episode in Poland’s history.” And veteran Polish director Andrzej Wajda was quoted as saying, “I am very happy that such a film was made in Poland.”

In addition, “Aftermath” won the Journalists’ Prize and special jury recognition at the 2012 Gdynia Film Festival, Poland’s most important movie industry event.

However, the fact that the film provoked such a virulently negative and defensive reaction among some sectors of Polish society points to the country’s ongoing process of facing and dealing with its wartime past.

The rest of this article can be read in the December 16, 2013 issue of The Jerusalem Report. It is currently unavailable online.

© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


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