Identity, family, faith, and history in Poland

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

Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna in a prayerful moment from “Ida,” as she seeks to learn more about her buried past.

Poland, like most countries occupied by Germany during World War II, emerged from the war shattered and changed. Within months of Poland’s liberation by Soviet troops, Polish moviemakers were detailing the war’s impact and showing the Holocaust on film. Five million Polish lives were lost during the war – three million of them Jews. Before the war, Jews represented a quarter of the Polish population, and the loss of so many Jews weighed heavy on a people, a large number of whom were not saddened by the country’s dejudification. That void created in Poland, with its absence of Jews, would have an impact on subsequent generations.

Under the postwar communist dictatorship in Poland, filmmakers were encouraged to show the war’s horrors and malign the Nazis, but the intent had to be for the glorification of the Polish people. Certainly, there were Jewish characters, and even Jewish heroes, but the film theme had to be perceived as in the best interest of the new Soviet-controlled state. For four and a half decades, there were Polish films on such Jewish-interest subjects as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, educator Janusz Korczak, and Jewish resistance. Some of these films used the Holocaust as a means to display Soviet authoritarianism in the guise of Nazi tyranny.

“Ida’s” director, Pawel Pawlikowski.

With the restoration of democracy in Poland in 1990, Polish filmmakers finally were free to touch on all aspects of the Shoah, but few chose to do so. Over the next 20 years, at the same time as the country became flooded with Jewish tourists, Polish filmmakers largely were silent. But just as there has been a renewed interest in the Holocaust by German filmmakers these last dozen years, it now appears that Polish screenwriters and directors are beginning to focus their attention on Jews and the impact of the Shoah on Poland.

Three years ago, Warsaw-born Los Angeles-based Agnieszka Holland returned to Poland to make her Academy Award-nominated film “In Darkness.” The next year, Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s “Aftermath” shook the country up in its loosely veiled cinematic attack on Poland’s unwillingness to deal with its complicity in the mass murder of Jews. Now, with “Ida,” another Polish émigré, Pawel Pawlikowski, tackles the story of a young woman, who, as she is about to take her vows as a nun, is told by the Mother Superior that she must first visit her only living relative, about whom she had previously known nothing. As more and more Poles seek out their origins and discover some Jewish ancestry, this film very much speaks to many in Poland today.

Eighteen-year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) has been raised in a convent, leading a very sheltered life. It is 1962, and the innocent Anna will set out to meet the aunt she never knew she had and learn quite a bit about her background. Aunt Wanda, played by Agneta Kulesza, who had been a highly respected judge during the postwar years, takes the naïve Anna to the countryside to see her family home, and the two embark on an exploration of the events of a repressed past.

They seek a “buried past” and in this context it is more than real, with writer/director Pawlikowski literally wanting to dig up what had been covered over and seek out the truth. The director grew up in Poland in the 1960s, and he returns to this time period because he “remembered Poland through the prism of childhood, which was not only very intense but very vivid.” But when I questioned him further on whether this was his way of inquiring into how Poles acted in the war, he told me that “it is not a film that indicts.

“Polish and Jewish culture became quite symbiotic. I tried to cherish that!”

Pawel Pawlikowski left Poland with his family when he was 14; after stays in Germany and Italy, he went to England to study. He has been making films in England since the late 1980s, but he chose not only to return to Poland to film “Ida,” but also to make Warsaw his home. When I asked him how it was to be a Pole living in England, he responded: “I always felt that I was between cultures. I regard Poland as the country that shaped me most – a magnet that keeps drawing me back, which probably explains why I went back to Warsaw.”

Late in his teens, Pawel learned that his paternal grandfather was Jewish and that he died in Auschwitz. In a real way, this film may be Pawel Pawlikowski’s search for his roots, his chance to take control of his demons.

“Ida” is a sensitive, beautifully made film about identity, family, faith and reclaiming history. I highly recommend it. The film opens today at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York.

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