Coming to terms with Poland in ‘Aftermath’

Coming to terms with Poland in ‘Aftermath’

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

A scene from “Aftermath.”

For the last 20 years, a trip to Poland increasingly has become a key component in any Jewish teenager’s coming to terms with Jewish identity and history. “March of the Living” trips have been going on for decades, and high-school trips to Israel often include a prelude period in Poland; even Israeli students often visit now as part of their high school education. Poland also has become a Jewish adult tourist destination. After all, most of the concentration camps were in Poland, and nearly half of the victims murdered in the Holocaust were Polish Jews.

Other Jews, though often feel an aversion to Poland, because anti-Semitism is so closely tied to it. It is hard to imagine that after the victory over the Nazis, some surviving Jews returned to their homes only to be murdered by Poles. Pogroms took place after the war was over! Yet since the war Poles have been mesmerized by Jews, and Jews continue to want to see the memory-sites that have become a fixture in contemporary Jewish history.

Since the war’s end, Poland’s curiosity about the Shoah has been carefully examined in Polish cinema. Former Auschwitz prisoner Wanda Jakubowska recreated a concentration camp in her piercing 1948 film “The Last Stage,” and that same year Jewish director Aleksander Ford made “Border Street” about the Warsaw uprising. Andrzej Wajda often depicted anti-Nazi actions in such films as “Kanal” (1957) and “Samson” (1961) as a way of subtly taking on Soviet tyranny, and more recently Agnieszka Holland examined delicate Holocaust subject matter in films like “Europa Europa” (1990) and “In Darkness” (2012). Now, Wladyslaw Pasikowski, who co-wrote Wajda’s 2007 “Katyn,” about how the Soviets murdered thousands of Polish officers, and then created a myth that the massacre was perpetrated by the Nazis, has written and directed “PokÅ‚osie” -Aftermath. This time, the question is what happened to a fictional community of Polish Jews. How and by whom were they murdered?

Pasikowski is a master filmmaker, and he gives us a powerful detective story and thriller. The narrative revolves around two Polish brothers, Franek Kalina, who left Poland 20 years earlier and has been living in Chicago, and his brother Józek, who stayed behind and has managed the family farm. When Franek returns, he finds that his brother has stumbled across several Jewish gravestones that had been uncovered in a local road during a repaving project.

Józek has taken it upon himself to find an appropriate place to reset the stones, taking a corner of his farm and creating a final resting place, a field of gravestones. Franek believes his brother to have lost his mind, but soon becomes fascinated by the question of what happened to the Jewish community during the war. The local townspeople are not happy about this new Jewish cemetery, and they do not like the brothers poking around into wartime activities. Tension in the town mounts.

“Aftermath” is not a Holocaust film. There are no flashbacks to the past, and it is not set during the war. It is a look at today’s Poles, who are struggling with the memory of a country once dominated and deeply affected by its Jews. On the eve of World War II, Jews constituted 10 percent of the population. Yet, according to Yad Vashem, only 380,000 Polish Jews, just 12 percent of prewar Polish Jewry survived, and most of those survivors soon left. Yet, today a Poland devoid of its Jews continues to provide Jewish story lines for Polish cinema. It appears that filmmakers like Pasikowski see their role as forcing Poles to struggle with their repressed past and memory.

Twelve years ago, Princeton historian Jan Gross wrote “Neighbors,” an historical study of the Jews of Jedwabne, who were murdered by their Polish neighbors, not by Nazis, as the world had been led to believe. The book created quite a stir here, but a even greater controversy in Poland. “Aftermath” seems to have stimulated a discussion in Poland today, but this time it is a Polish filmmaker, not a Jewish expatriate, who is asking the tough questions.

Pasikowski’s “Aftermath” does not provide easy answers or happy endings. There are no Jews in this film, just their memory. Ireneusz Czop as Franek and Maciej Stuhr as Józek give us outstanding performances. This is a film to be seen and to be reckoned with. It opens today in Manhattan.

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