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Personalization of the Memory of Holocaust Victims in Polish Cinema and Museum Exhibitions after 1989

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This article offers a description of an important strand in Polish memory of the Holocaust after the radical change of 1989, the personalization and individualization of remembering the victims, using as an example two cultural memory carriers: historical cinema and exhibitions. At museum exhibitions, such trends manifest themselves by, for example, ‘putting a face’ to genocide victims by showcasing photographs that document their private lives and histories from before the Holocaust. In cinematography, in turn, focus can be observed on the individual and unique experiences of the victims and emphasis placed on emotions, as well as presenting the internal complexity of the protagonists. This article aims to describe the multitude of manifestations of personalization in cultural memory, sketching the foundations and the factors conditioning this personalization against the backdrop of the transformation of the Polish cultural memory of the Holocaust.

After 1989 the way the Holocaust is presented in Polish memory changed considerably. In communist times the dominant trend was to ‘Polonize’ the Holocaust by focusing on the magnitude of the crime by emphasising its abstract nature and the anonymity of its victims. However, after 1989 that way of presenting the Holocaust was abandoned in favour of emphasising the individual fate of its victims accompanied by clear de-Polonization of the Holocaust. The individual-based approach to Holocaust victims has been appreciated in source literature where the trend is referred to as personalization (Szacka 2006, 148; Ziębińska-Witek 2006, 17; Heinemann 2011, 235; Kąkolewski 2014, 112) or antropologization (Thiemeyer 2015a, 83), the latter term understood as an aspect of the antropologization of the entire wartime experience. A similar phenomenon could be observed in the 1990s with regard to the First World War (Frei 2005, 10; Thiemeyer 2015b, 71–76). Notably, antropologization refers to a change in research perspective consisting in the appreciation for the particular and individual as well as seeking an in-depth analysis of phenomena without divorcing them from their social or intercultural context and as such constitutes an expression of a broader trend that can be seen in the language of social sciences (Tarkowska 1992, 14), history or literature. Antropologization of history, for instance, refers to moving away from seeing the past from the perspective of general historical processes or event-based history and towards perceiving it on a micro scale, from the perspective of the daily lives of those who actually lived it.

On the one hand, it forces the researcher to focus on details and the desirable wariness of all generalizations and syntheses. On the other hand, comparative perspective gains special importance, primarily as regards intercultural comparisons, as well as unearthing the existential and subjective dimension of the actions taken in the past by those who lived it (Brocki 2009, 17). That aspect, that is the focus on the experience of individuals and the wartime generation in order to make an attempt at showing and comprehending the meaning of the war for ordinary people, is currently very visible in the narratives concerning the Second World War as seen in Polish art exhibitions and cinematography. The approach in question is influenced by the growing temporal and mental distance between the successive generations and that particular historical event (Schwan 2008, 353). Additionally, the more time passes, the more important media-mediated memory becomes for the historical awareness for the younger generations.

The process is based on the need to make young people interested in that chapter of Polish history, especially as surviving witnesses are passing away. This is the reason why attempts are being made to use new ways of communicating human experience through the media. Consequently, messages are adapted to the requirements imposed by visual culture where non-verbal aspects of information are key. As a result, content is less important than the conciseness, visuality, brevity and originality of the form when compared with other messages. This is of considerable importance when cinematic forms and museum exhibition scenarios are being developed. Individualization and antropologization are manifested through strengthening the private and intimate relation with the audience by focusing on the fate of ordinary people. Such a mode of experiencing the past becomes possible thanks to showcasing photographs, personal effects and other keepsakes, the main objective being to transport the audience into the world of experiences made by the witnesses to those past events. That is also a way to recall persons who incarnate socially desirable values, which are worth upholding in the present, such as patriotism, being faithful to one’s ideals or of an unbroken spirit. This facilitates embracing research that focuses on the role of multiculturalism as well as historical variables that contribute to wartime experiences in their diversity and multidimensionality. This new trend is seen particularly as regards the carriers of memory referred to above. Another aspect of personalization is placing much emphasis on the emotional side of wartime narratives, that is, explaining wartime events through the emotional engagement of persons who are the recipients of the message, as well as constructing the narrative in such a way as to affect the emotional side of the audience primarily, that is, shaping their attitudes through emotions.

Changes in the direction described above can be observed in the case of a number of memory carriers and various aspects of cultural memory. In this article, we showcase and discuss two: museum exhibitions and feature films.


Personalization in museums

From the very start of the post-war period, the most characteristic trait of Holocaust descriptions in Polish museums was, apart from their Polonization, a focus on making the visitor aware of the scale of the German crimes. Museums located at former concentration camp sites were to document the crimes committed by the Germans and testify to them. Consequently, their mass nature was placed to the fore, with its emphasis on the abstract dimension of the crimes, thereby keeping the victims anonymous.

After 1989 the trend has been to abandon both the Polonization of the Holocaust and the emphasis on the abstract nature of the crimes perpetrated, moving away from putting the stress on the anonymity of the Holocaust victims and their suffering. All this has been replaced with attempts to individualize and personalize the narrative about the victims.

Efforts to individualize and personalize that narrative in contemporary Polish museum exhibitions focusing on the Second World War take different forms. One of the most common is the attempt to ‘putting a face’ to the genocide victims. The earliest such attempts were made at martyrdom museums situated at former concentration camps. ‘Putting the face back’ consists of attempts to individualize the story about the war victims by showing (most typically by means of photographs) their individual fates, including reconstructing their pre-war lives. The earliest example may be the exhibition that opened in 2001 in the building of the central sauna, or washroom, in the grounds of the former annihilation camp in Birkenau, entitled ‘The history and functions of the central camp washroom. Before they were gone. Photographs found at Auschwitz’. Opened in late 1943, the central washroom has a symbolic dimension to it today thanks to its past function. It was a place where thousands of people of various nationalities, predominantly Jews, were brought from across Europe, and were received and registered as inmates of a Nazi concentration camp. It was there that the Nazis would start the process of dehumanizing their victims. The producers of the winning design for the exhibition moved visitors along the same route through the same rooms as both new arrivals to the camp and prisoners who were bound for bathing and disinfecting.

By following the movement sequence imposed on the inmates, visitors learnt about the function and history of the facility. As the building was positioned on the stretch where warehouses stored the personal items of the victims of this mass-death factory, as well as being close to the gas chambers and crematoria, its deadly role in the camp operation was highlighted. The final room for the visitor featured photographs found in the luggage of the Jews deported to Auschwitz and taken before being rounded up and deported before the Holocaust. The collection includes approximately 2,400 photographs, both individual and group portraits. They were found after the war at the former Auschwitz concentration camp and show people captured in situations close to anyone’s heart: joyful because of a child’s birth, in love, admiring the beauty of nature and taking part in important events in their private, professional and social lives. Thanks to these photographs, the beholder has the opportunity to look at the victims not through their absence, having been killed in the camp, but through their earlier lives. The visitor is thus given a chance to complete their biographies, and identify with them. The sense of the ‘putting-a-face-back’ process is explained by Anna Ziębińska-Witek who writes: ‘Each recognized photograph takes anonymity away from those murdered, returns identity to them and helps the visitor identify with a single human being, a victim. It is difficult to identify with someone who due to the efforts by the Nazis was deprived of features differentiating them from other inmates; it is easier when one looks at photographs taken in situations familiar to all. It also brings life back to the victims, the life they led before the Holocaust, and does not allow the visitor to perceive them only through their stay in the camp, suffering and death’ (Ziębińska-Witek 2006, 17).

A similar direction was pursued in the current preparations for a new permanent exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. While the existing exhibition focuses on the mass nature of the Nazi crimes, and to their enormous scale, the new narrative, its creators say, is going to take a broader view accommodating such aspects as the fate of particular persons as well as the individual dimension of the murder.

A similar example of using photographs of camp victims in order to give them back a human face is an exhibition at the museum situated at the former concentration camp in Bełżec (Museum Memorial Site in Bełżec, a branch of the State Museum of Majdanek), the youngest martyrdom museum located at a former camp and the only one established after 1989. Entering the exhibition hall of the museum featuring a historical exhibition entitled ‘Bełżec, a death camp’, the visitor walks under enlarged photographs that hang from the ceiling, showing camp victims and taken before the Holocaust. 1

Similar efforts aimed at ‘putting a face’ to the victims have been made at the museum in Sztutowo. In 2008 it initiated a project called ‘Last Witnesses’, which entails recording accounts of former inmates and collecting their photos. The material gathered in the project has been used for an openair exhibition and two temporary ones, as well as to enrich the permanent exhibition. M. Owsiński (Owsiński 2013, 93) points out that the project can be seen as proof of the symbolic evolution of the site of the former concentration camp Stutthof from a cemetery towards enhancing the presence of its inmates, witnesses to history.

Yet another example of ‘putting the face back’ is the most recent exhibition at Pawiak Prison Museum (a branch of the Museum of Independence in Warsaw). On view since 2008, the biographical show ‘Let us remember their faces’ aims to: ‘bring the history of the Pawiak prison in 1939–1944 closer through the individual fate of those murdered in prison, the Gestapo detention unit at Aleja Szucha, during executions or in camps, for whom photographs, snippets of accounts and keepsakes handed over by the families of the inmates have miraculously survived.’ 2 The exhibition features a large black-and-white glass board set in the middle of the room showcasing biographies of five selected inmates called ‘the heroes of the Pawiak prison’ (for example, Father Maksymilian Kolbe, Ludwika Uzarówna-Krysiakowa and Halina Jaroszewiczowa). Each of the boards features a life-sized photograph of a given inmate standing face-to-face with the visitor. They are lit by halogen lamps, which, combined with the milky white of the glass boards, make them resemble images of saints (Heinemann 2011, 225).

‘Putting-the-face-back’ efforts should be seen in the context of a broader trend present in museums of seeking to reduce the distance between the audience and the exhibition. This is one of the main premises of ‘new museology’. Seeking to reduce the distance between the audience and the exhibition by attributing the former an active role aims at making it possible for the museum visitor to identify with those who are the focus of the exhibition. To that end, the creators appeal to the visitor’s emotions and senses rather than their intellect, frequently using strategies to evoke emotions. This is particularly visible in modern narrative museums. As regards the Holocaust, two good examples are the Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Museum in Kraków and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. In the latter, the Holocaust is seen from the Jewish perspective, 3 whereby the creators of the museum believe that histories should be told through the voices of those who lived them. As a result, the historical realities are learnt through the eyes of witnesses to history. I. Kurz has aptly concluded: ‘This is a very powerful effect, aiming not to impose an ahistorical perspective where we look at past inhabitants of Poland through what we know, but rather through their ignorance or uncertainty. This is at its most powerful in the gallery dedicated to the war and the Holocaust, which is consistently arranged from the perspective of people who do not know their destiny’ (Kurz 2014b). In line with the objectives of modern narrative museums, through this exhibition we are supposed to not only learn more about history but also be transported back in time. That is why the structure of the gallery dedicated to the war and the Holocaust as well the selection of the exhibits and the way they are presented are supposed to invoke in the visitor the sense of tension, claustrophobia and oppression which all recur in the accounts of Jews crowded together in ghettos.

Interestingly, the above-described efforts to personalize and individualize history are part of a broader process related to the changing ways in which the war is commemorated, the phenomenon, concerning remembering victims of armed conflicts, of moving away from the national phase to the transnational one. As B. Szacka writes, one of the basic manifestations of that process is the individualization of the memory of the fallen expressed by shifting the commemorative emphasis from stressing their anonymity (in the national phase) towards paying special attention to their individual fate (in the transnational phase) (Szacka 2006, 148). As the role of the national perspective diminishes, new opportunities open up to show the features in common for all war victims, which are at the same time linked to their private histories. The individualization and personalization of war victims may also be interpreted as a manifestation of memory privatization. Its shortest definition would be the widespread popularity of such references to the past where the bond of the individual with the past is established without being mediated through collective values (of the state, nation or society). Since 1989 the trend has clearly been visible also in Polish memory (Korzeniewski 2010, 162 n.). In the case of museum exhibitions, the process is marked by a changed strategy for wartime narrative building, which is moving away from emphasizing the anonymity of war victims towards making an effort to personalize their memory. The objective of those efforts is clear: to improve opportunities for the audience’s identification with the fate of the people whom the exhibition concerns, and hence to reduce the distance between the visitor and the exhibition (Urzykowski 2014, 8).


Personal histories and the Jewish perspective in films

Nowadays, film narratives are becoming the predominant form of intergenerational war memory transfer. They are taking over the role of carriers of memory concerning the Poles’ memory of wartime past, taking part in the living process of remembering the content and emotions related to it (Aleksander 2004, 22). One could risk the hypothesis that the image of the Second World War among the youngest generation of Poles is largely shaped by films. It is also because the war continues to be an important topic that is willingly taken up by directors three generations removed from the events while the motifs, stereotypes and symbolism conveyed in films shape the way the Second World War is discussed today.

One of the first Polish films to have made an attempt at showing the wartime fate of Polish Jews from the perspective of the main character was the 1990 film by Andrzej Wajda entitled Korczak. It is a fictionalized biography of Janusz Korczak, a guardian of Jewish orphans in the Warsaw ghetto. It was only forty-five years after the war that it became possible to make a film about him, although there were earlier attempts to tackle the subject, as evidenced by ready-to-roll scripts by Ludwik Perski and other Polish auteurs. This was due to the far-reaching breakthrough of 1989 which lifted censorship and so guaranteed creative freedom to film directors. This changed the way Polish cinema looked at war, from its focus on the fight with the Germans, concentration camps and the German occupation shifted and opened up to subjects previously absent in both cinematography and public discourse, such as the Soviet assault on Poland and Soviet repressions, including the 1940 Katyn massacre of Polish officers executed by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), as well as the role of Soviet Russia in the war and its influence on the post-war communist system in Poland.

The film Korczak was made in late 1989 and early 1990, and premiered in 1990. Its artistry was appreciated, unlike Andrzej Wajda’s Holy Week [Wielki tydzień] (1995) and The Condemnation of Franciszek Kłos [Wyrok na Franciszka Kłosa] (2000), the main goal being to take up subjects from Polish history that were difficult and absent in the cinema. Korczak is still considered a topical film. However, after its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival it was much criticized by foreign film critics, barring it from distribution outside Poland. The message of the picture was interpreted as anti-Semitic4 since it showed the daily life of the ghetto taking its ordinary course despite the constant threat of death. The controversial scenes included the Jewish elite having fun listening to songs in Yiddish in a cabaret and speculators striking shady deals in the ghetto, as well as Jewish characters portrayed as resigned and passive, an image colliding with the idealistic and sacralizing vision of the ghetto entertained by foreigners.

The black-and-white film, which featured authentic archive images recorded by the Nazis in the ghetto that could not be distinguished from other fictitious scenes, aimed at lending authenticity to the history shown. This interpretation is also confirmed by the meticulous stage-setting in replicating the living conditions in the ghetto and references to remembered symbolic scenes described by witnesses such as the doctor’s march with children at the Umschlagplatz (a holding area near a station) Wajda’s attempt to show a true picture of life in the ghetto, and so make history more authentic, seems a targeted and conscious act of the film director against a falsified picture of the Jews ghetto, woven by successive generations who lacked a solid knowledge of the ‘normal’ way of life in the ghetto and who ‘angelized’ its inhabitants. And yet the director was charged with the opposite: presenting the Holocaust in an unrealistic manner, mainly because of the final scene whose mythical message was underscored by showing it in slow motion where – freed from a sealed train carriage – the children and their guardian joyfully move away into a foggy landscape. The suggestion contained in the scene that the fate of the children could be positive (as the carriage gets disconnected from the rest of the train) was interpreted as an inadmissible lie and an attempt at presenting Treblinka as the redemption of the murdered Jewish children. Putting the charge of Christianizing the Holocaust aside, it was also raised that the film reduced the very character of the Jewish physician to a Catholic and Polish saint. The film shows the fate of Jewish children from Korczak’s perspective, which is emphasized by first-person narration (quotations from Korczak’s surviving diary).

Untypically for Polish films about the subject, it contained no references to national memory and its heroes. It also seems that the Holocaust was not the main theme of the film. Quite the opposite, its chief topic was the desire to invoke a personal history of a man who managed to defend himself and at the same time protect the children entrusted to him against the brutality of the world surrounding them. In the film, it was as if war and its cruelty determined the sequence of events and pushed the plot forward, yet it remained nothing more than a background for showing the world of children, their experiences and dreams. This explains the metaphorical ending of the film whose massage is optimistic, as the children’s innocence has been saved.

Its message is that even in the difficult times of Nazism, when external circumstances conspire against it, it is possible to see a rebirth of the world of humanitarian values that can prevail over the havoc the war has wreaked in the spiritual world. Mostly thanks to finding positive aspects of Korczak’s biography, the film helped trigger the process of grappling with the Holocaust trauma, both by its audience and director. It made an attempt at painting a picture of war with a positive message, offering to replace the conventionally negative (shocking) Holocaust images with positive replacements. The film showed the possibility of reconstructing collective consciousness, since the image of war shown from the perspective of an individual breaks down defence mechanisms and supports understanding and empathy. The film in question has contributed to deconstructing stereotypical visions of the Holocaust in public consciousness, particularly in the case of western audiences, although its plot was not structured in a way to highlight the complex context of the events (their moral overtones) it presented, as some plots do now (for example, in Agnieszka Holland’s film In Darkness).

Another strength of the film is its stance in the dispute concerning acceptable forms of representing the Holocaust (Mąka-Malatyńska 2012, 270–73) as well as possibilities in using film documentaries in feature films. Earlier documented attempts failed to discuss the fate of the Warsaw ghetto victims in a film, particularly through focusing on the fate of a single person, since the censors forced emphasis on national bonds. Aleksander Ford’s film about Korczak, whose script was reworked numerous times, was ready as early as in 1947, and ultimately was made abroad as You Are Free, Doctor Korczak [German: Sie sind frei, Doktor Korczak], premiering in 1974.

Since 1989 there have been many Polish films featuring the Holocaust and the subject is tackled from various standpoints. Apart from Korczak by A. Wajda, such films include Farewell to Maria [Pożegnanie z Marią] (1993) by F. Zylber, Germans [Niemcy] (1996) by Z. Kamiński, Love, Obviously [Oczywiście, że miłość] (2002) by P. Gralak, Pornography [Pornografia] (2003) and Venice [Wenecja] (2010) by J. J. Kolski, Summer Solstice [Letnie przesilenie] (2014) by M. Rogalski, Walpurgis Night [Noc Walpurgii] (2015) by M. Bortkiewicz and series Fame and Glory [Sława i chwała], episode 7 (1997) by K. Kutz as well as Time of Honour [Czas honoru] (2008, TV broadcast 2008–2010) by M. Kwieciński and others. Notably, just two films try to actually present the Holocaust through strictly Jewish war experience, a rarity in Polish cinema. 5 These are Europa, Europa (1990) by A. Holland and The Pianist (2002) by Roman Polański. 6

Both films show the wartime experience of their main protagonist’s point of view. The scripts of both films are based on authentic recollections of survivors: the composer Władysław Szpilman in The Pianist and Sally Perel in Europa, Europa. By focusing on the individual fate of a Jewish fugitive and attempting to bring closer the dramatic experiences from the survivors’ perspectives, including their emotions and sensitivity, both films fit in with the growing trend in Polish cinema to personalize and privatize memory of the Second World War. To that end, narration is subjectivized and accentuated by statements in the first person in Holland’s film. The focus on details and the camerawork make viewers believe they are watching reality as if through the eyes of the main character of The Pianist (Mąka-Malatyńska 2012, 69–88). Such effects aim at enhancing the audience’s impression of taking part in the events narrated. In this way, the directors recreate the emotional mood they think could have been felt by both men in hiding, even more so as Polański knew first-hand such sensations as fear or hunger. 7

Showing events by means of the victim’s perspective has also an ethical dimension, as it marks an attempt to break the dominance of the perspective of the oppressors (Nazis), assumed in the case of most photographers or filmmakers, thus weakening the naturally shocking images of the Holocaust. In the case of Holland’s work, attempts are made at interpreting the fate of the individual and the transformations of the main character’s identity. From a broader perspective, it reflected the more general problem of European identity. That is why the director puts the main character at the very centre of the historical events occurring in occupied Europe (Jankun-Dopartowa 2001, 213; Mąka-Malatyńska 2012, 86). Interestingly, the tendency to personalize the Holocaust narrative through presenting the topic in the film from the perspective of Jewish victims aroused more interest in other minority memory narratives in Polish cinema.

One outcome of the trend to individualize and personalize the war narrative in Polish cinema over the past twenty-five years is to pay much more attention to the existential dimension of the war. The picture of the Holocaust in Polish memory is becoming increasingly polyphonic thanks to the personalization of the war narrative. In Polish collective memory, personal histories are allowed to be heard whose message is not always unambiguous in ethical terms, and that a broader social and historical context is shown of the aid given to the Jews in Poland during the German occupation. Given the multitude of Polish films taking up the subject of the Polish–Jewish relations during the war – and those made in the communist Polish People’s Republic – a vital new trend is the increase in the number of films showing difficult or unprocessed aspects of those relations, which had previously been socially taboo because they were ethically contentious.

It is not just about the frequently discussed motif of the less-than-noble intentions of the Poles who helped Jewish fugitives. What is presented in these films is the various ways Poled participated in the Holocaust: through indifference, collaboration with the Germans, denunciation and co-participation in murdering Jews and the Poles who hid them by Polish neighbours, in particular when the murder was motivated by property theft and other deprivations during the war. Films tackling those topics since 1989 from the point of view of the main character’s current situation – apart from the already mentioned films Holy Week (1995) and The Condemnation of Franciszek Kłos (2000) by A. Wajda – include: Just beyond this Forest [Jeszcze tylko ten las] (1991) by J. Łomnicki, Warsaw 5703 [Tragarz puchu] (1992) by J. Kijowski, Deborah (1995) by R. Brylski, Keep away from the Window [Daleko od okna] (2000) by J. J. Kolski, Edges of the Lord [Boże skrawki] (2001) by J. Bogojewicz, Joanna (2010) by F. Falk, In Darkness (2011) by A. Holland, Aftermath [Pokłosie] (2012) by W. Pasikowski, Ida by P. Pawlikowski (2013) and The Just Man [Sprawiedliwy] (2015) by M. Szczerbic, as well as the series The Just Men [Sprawiedliwi] (2009, TV broadcast in 2010) by W. Krzystek. These films show the variety in which the Poles behaved towards the mass murder of Jews on Polish soil perpetrated by the Germans. They also showed the evolution of their behaviour, from reluctant or plain anti-Semitic attitudes, which ultimately resulted in the highest sacrifice as they were unjustly executed as ordered by underground commanders (for example, Joanna) or even death at the hands of the German occupant (Just beyond this Forest). On the other hand, those films presented moments of dignity loss, encirclement, loneliness, threat to one’s life, consequences of double identity or fear experienced by the victims (for example, Deborah, Keep away from the Window and Edges of the Lord). Films also reflect on how memory works and ways to come to terms with the heritage of the Holocaust, as well as generational-trauma transfer by the victims and also by their descendants (Walpurgis Night, Aftermath, Ida and The Just Man).

The personalization and antropologization of wartime experience goes hand in hand with the tendency to reveal uncomfortable facts from the past previously left unsaid. It not only deconstructs and supplements the previously simplified image of the Second World War, as already mentioned, but also confronts stereotypes and myths that abound in the general memory and historians’ knowledge. The long tradition of making war a film subject in communist times has helped solidify a largely false picture of the Second World War in the Polish collective memory (Korzeniewska 2015, 170–77), and most certainly to the creation of myths, such as the ‘good-Pole’ myth, deeply rooted in the present-day Poles’ collective memory (Steinlauf 2001; Preizner 2011, 38–49). Although the subject of the Holocaust was present in Polish films before 1989, its entanglement in the political context (Zwierzchowski 2013, 7–26, 135–232) deprived the Polish audience of an opportunity to grapple with the trauma related to it, including in particular the long-term consequences of having witnessed the murder of fellow Jewish citizens. 8

The major change is marked in just making Polish guilt a film subject, guilt resulting from ambiguous attitudes towards the Holocaust, as these are aspects of the Polish history of the Second World War that have the potential of questioning the current positive self-image of the Poles at present. In the context of Holocaust remembrance, understood as not just an ethical duty but as the basis to critically appraise the past in relation to various victim groups and historical responsibility, Dan Diner used the term ‘antropologization of suffering’ for the first time (Diner 2003). By doing so, he stressed the need to discern the fundamental difference between the experience of the perpetrators and their victims. He concludes that the death of both the victims and those causing their suffering (for example, during bombardments of concentration camps by the Allies), who from that perspective could also be seen as victims, makes no difference to the dead, yet for the generations to come a qualitative differentiation between those deaths is of considerable importance. The phrase in question (the antropologization of suffering) focuses on the claims stemming from history and a sense of human justice: on the one hand, doing justice to the victims and, on the other, critically precluding the perpetrators from manipulating history (Diner 2007; Tillmans 2012, 63–65). It is also true for the co-perpetrators, who regularly became victims of the Nazis, too. The ethical challenge addressed here to the guardians of memory would consist in distancing oneself from self-understanding and perceiving contemporariness as obvious, since this carries the risk of the relativization and falsification of history.

Films created with the use of antropologization would focus on reconstructing diverse attitudes to, as well as various ways of surviving in, the ‘inhuman’ world. Such films are characterized by being constantly in touch with the audience, offering subtly instructive messages that facilitate understanding. Such an interpretation of the Holocaust can be seen in The Just Man, a film with educational value yet not didactic. It tries to show a broad behavioural spectrum: of a Jewish victim and fellow victims – people whose lives are in danger too because they help the little Jew. The film director lacks the naive belief that intergroup conflicts can be avoided, sketches a clear division between the survivor, who belongs to another culture, and her saviours, but also shows a range of tensions and conflicts that exist inside the same group, and even between members of a single family. The film also tackles the issue of the identity of the contemporaries, where an important factor is their attitude to the past, thanks to the main character, a Jewish girl who does not feel any special gratitude towards the saviours and cannot really understand what they have suffered. It is only her conversation with other characters, and mainly a return to the intimate bond she forged in her childhood with Pajtek, one of her wartime guardians, that releases positive memories and reconciles her with the past. The presentation of a tragic history of a child embraced by a Polish family using plain simple language (the characters explain various aspects of the past reality to the survivor like to a child and shed some light on the context that forced some actions but not others) refers to universal human experience and helps the audience to empathize. Showing the fate of an individual against the backdrop of her saviours’ similar experiences in their struggle to uphold universal human values during the war (for example, the Jewish girl’s relationship with Pajtek, who used money found in clothes once belonging to a Jew to save her, or the presence of another Polish orphan in the home who shared the Jewish girl’s life experiences, which she learns about after the war) helps dilute the uniqueness of her situation and weaken her resentment. This is a conscious act on the part of the director, whose primary aim was to replicate this effect in the audience. The personalization of wartime narratives is supposed to serve, thanks to common experiences, building a transnational consolidating picture of the past and a better understanding between the Poles and the Jews.

Another film that confuses the issue of Polish guilt is In Darkness by A. Holland. It tells the history of a Pole who hides a group of Jews. It is a highly nuanced picture, which reflects the complexity of his motivation and of tragic human choices made during the war. In the same year, 2012, an original film was made that plays out like a dark crime story and uses clichés which amplify its tragic finale: W. Pasikowski’s Aftermath, which refers to the Jedwabne massacre. Here, the fate of the Jewish inhabitants of the village and the motivation of the perpetrators are shown simultaneously, convincingly and realistically by means of reference to wartime clichés – shockingly powerful scenes and black-and-white characters intensify the dreadfulness of the crime and invite reflection. The context of the Holocaust is invoked to enhance the emotional message of both films. They both stirred controversy and continue to arouse heated debates: they brought reflection on not just the past and past attitudes of the Poles, but also on the current self-image of the Poles, primarily in the context of disputes around the Jedwabne events and charges of anti-Semitism. The trauma related to the Jedwabne massacre suddenly became a nationwide subject and polarized the public who revealed a whole gamut of attitudes, from the most basic defensive ones all the way to calls for a critical appraisal of the past. The latter were considered more progressive by some yet equally extreme (Czyżewski 2008, 125–38).

Among the films that tend to personalize and individualize the cinematic memory of the fate of Jewish victims during the Second World War is IdaAll Souls’ Day (1961) and Salto (1965) by T. Konwicki, yet it takes on the difficult Polish–Jewish relations caused by the war, proving that not everything has been said about it in Polish cinematography. And it does this by exploring both the Poles’ guilt – their participation in murdering their Jewish neighbours and taking over Jewish property – and the Jews, who already after the war were active in the Stalin-era judiciary in delivering unjust sentences and condemning Home Army soldiers to death. For both the main characters who were saved from the Holocaust, a Jewish girl kept in a cloister and a Stalinist judge ‘bloody Wanda’, their journey in provincial Poland in search of Jewish roots becomes a painful experience of homelessness, isolation and loneliness, from which one returns to the safe haven of the cloister and the other commits suicide. This film has no intention to reignite the contemporary ‘moral panic’ in the Poles (M. Zaremba) or condemn the ideological stances taken by some Jews. On the contrary, this black-and-white film speaks of those issues quietly and subtly, thanks to using the metaphor of returning to old places and recalling snippets of private memories (Sobolewski 2013). The film poses important questions about Jewish identity: what it means to be a Jew in Poland, after the experiences of the Holocaust and communism, as well as showing the tragedy of the Jewish fate, not only given the dispersion and mass murders of the Jews by the Nazis during the war, but also Jewish participation in the building of a communist system hostile to the Poles. Critics focused on the film’s artistic weaknesses and poor sound, and because the melancholy memory work is more important that the plot here, the film was considered boring, where literally ‘nothing ever happens’ (Wolniewicz 2015). Its harshest critics stressed that the film falsifies history: with no mention of the German occupation of Poland, the film suggests that it was Polish peasants motivated by their ‘greed for profit’ who were the Holocaust perpetrators. 9

Other than Ida, Polish films since 1989 have failed to be a direct cause of public debate. This includes the films that focused on unearthing themes previously absent in Polish cinematography as their creators wanted to made up for what was missing in Polish films made in communist times and set right the history of the Second World War. The films are rather a consequence of the discussion caused by other works of culture. For instance, the film Aftermath was made a few years after the debate related to the publication of the controversial book by T. Gross entitled Neighbours. There is much to suggest that Polish cinematography refers to the Holocaust and related topics that used to be a taboo mainly in an attempt to somehow restore ‘normality’ after forty years of communism. There is a desire to interpret wartime experience independently from ideological and political pressure. One factor which may play a role in the context of difficult relations with ethnic minorities and explain the ‘delay effect’ in Polish cinematography as regards its interest in the subject in question as compared with, for instance, literature, is ‘fatigue’ with topics that expose the need to undertake self-critical evaluation of events related to the Poles’ doing harm to other nations. This opinion should be seen in the context of the widespread belief that much has been done since 1989 to explore Polish–Jewish wartime relations, not just in cinematography (Borodziej 2003, 85; Werner 2014, 276).

Closing remarks

Revisiting the settled interpretations of the past and by, yet again, sifting through the reservoir of collective non-memory (that is matters that are seemingly closed, settled and known) (Kwiatkowski 2009, 121–22) is noticeable in the most recent films. This has an impact on the aspects of the wartime past that still appear controversial or are forced into the sphere of collective non-memory, as their potential to create conflict and trauma is reduced this way (Esposito 2002; Hirszowicz/Neyman 2001, 24–48).

The tendency to personalize and individualize wartime film narratives is conducive to reflection and a better understanding of history and one’s place in it as the cinema has the power to interpret controversial histories as well as to create alternative ones, analyse the motivations of the participants of past events and present a variety of views and stances. The reliability of such an interpretation of the past is ensured by its emphasis on the non-anonymity of the victims and presentation of their personal histories. Thanks to the empathy and understanding felt, that aspect of memory personalization and individualization helps distance oneself from one’s own experience or views resulting from a collective family memory and offers an opportunity to process the past and find reconciliation. As the films discussed in this article trigger the therapeutic work of memory, supporting the process of critically confronting difficult problems including the individual’s own past, they facilitate re-evaluation of both individual and collective identity (Schwan 2008, 345–74; Korzeniewski 2010, 177–81). It is notable, however, that it is very rare in Polish cinema for a film narrative to be offered exclusively from the perspective of a Jewish protagonist.

Films about the Holocaust, museum and educational projects and other ways of remembering the Holocaust, such as anniversary observance events, trigger debates that have an impact on the historical awareness of not just those who are directly interested but also on an entire society, and/or testify to the transformations that are broadening historical awareness. Notably, nearly all of the most recent films focusing on Jewish war victims have courted much controversy. This is similar to the reaction to museum exhibition projects. The controversy pertains mainly to a conflict between collective wartime imagery and how it is presented in the film (for example, Ida, directed by P. Pawlikowski) and in museums. A confrontation with memories of others and a different interpretation of past events (for example, the film version of the role the Poles had in the Jedwabne murder) can distance the film’s audience from their own memories. It can also free them from the need to cultivate the family-based version passed down from their ancestors. Forgotten things from the past or those left unsaid may be revealed as a consequence of public debate and some issues tackled by films or exhibitions may also require responses at the level of biographical memory.

It should be remembered that the Poles upheld the memory of Polish martyrdom in non-official historical memory, which in communist times was motivated by the desire to regain state sovereignty. There is a particular focus on Soviet crimes that were tabooized before 1989; the crimes are looked at in the context of the history of Polish-Soviet relations, as well as in relation to the ethnically different communities of the Jews, Germans and Ukrainians. This was ‘highly important for the development of the spirit of resistance against the Soviet dominance’ and ‘an important factor in maintaining the sense of independence’ (Wóycicki 2003, 93). However, it also had some side effects in the form of focusing on Polish suffering and its heroization, national and religious matters, and the competition of victims in the context of the Holocaust. Such aspects may, and today do, find their expression both in films and museum exhibitions.

Enriching the knowledge of the Second World War with new content, such as, for instance, the participation of the Poles in the Jedwabne massacre, contributes to a major revision of the image of the Poles as victims. Family memory is breaking through with increasing force. After all, the intention of returning to the past expressed at the level of cultural memory is consistent – seventy years after the war ended – with the impulse of the wartime generation to bring more coherence to their own life experiences. Wartime experiences fit in with living the biography of the witnesses, the final stage of which is coming to terms with one’s wartime recollections in order to ensure the continuity of the biography (Kaźmierska 2009, 25–47). In the case of victims in particular, this may be the desire to recall and acknowledge those aspects of the past that so far have been suppressed so as to free them from the paralysing consequences of the experienced trauma. They can then move on to critically reflect on the wartime events and cope with the ethical challenges of the present day, in particular in relation to the trivialization of the past (LaCapra 2002, 127–30). This is why Polish writers, directors and curators are much less interested in event history and much more in reminiscing about ‘factographic’ history. Attempts to convey the emotions as survivors consolidate their biographies, and come to terms with the past of one’s generation, calls for entering the mental world of the characters created. In this regard, films appear to be more successful than historiography that seeks objectivity and to keep its distance.

Films and museum exhibitions take on board both individual and collective Holocaust memories as well as attempting to reflect on memory and the mechanisms of its functioning. Film plays a vital role in revealing individual and family values and stresses the importance of personal testimony and individual fate. This is manifested, for example, in the sense of solidarity with war victims and the desire to remember and respect the dead, expressed by the desire to immortalize the wartime experience of past generations in film. This explains why films that focus on the period frequently feature dedications to one’s nearest and dearest as well as in postscripts (as in Agnieszka Holland’s film In Darkness). Footage of witness testimonies has become an integral and critical part of contemporary historical exhibitions focusing on Holocaust victims.

Translated from Polish into English by Mikołaj Sekrecki



Amelia Korzeniewska

Amelia Korzeniewska, PhD, is a philosopher and psychoanalysis theoretician, lecturer at the Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznan, chairperson of the I. J. Paderewski Scientific Society, 2002–3, a PhD assistant at the University of Mainz in Germany, Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD) bursary holder. Her research interests focus on the culture of remembrance in Central Europe, cultural memory and post-memory. She is an author and co-editor of inter alia: Druga wojna światowa w pamięci kulturowej w Polsce i w Niemczech – 70 lat później (1945–2015) [The Second World War in the cultural memory of Poland and Germany, 70 years later (1945–2015)], Gdańsk 2015, and ‘Research proposition on collective representations of the past after World War II: A preliminary outline’, in Solidarity, Memory and Identity, edited by W. Owczarski and M. V . F. Cremasco, Cambridge 2015.

Bartosz Korzeniewski

Bartosz Korzeniewki, PhD (Habilitation), is adjunct professor at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He focuses on collective memory and historical policy. His monographs include: Polityczne rytuały pokuty w perspektywie zagadnienia autonomii jednostki [Political atonement rituals in the context of individual autonomy], Poznań 2006; Święta polityczne w zjednoczonych Niemczech [Political holidays in united Germany], Poznań 2007; Transformacja pamięci. ... [Transformation of memory. Revaluations of the memory of the past and selected aspects of the functioning of public discourse on the past in post-1989 Poland], Poznań 2010. He has edited collective works: Przemiany pamięci społecznej a teoria kultury [Transformations of public memory and theory of culture], Poznań 2006 and Narodowe i europejskie aspekty polityki historycznej [National and European aspects of historical policy], Poznań 2007. Most recently, B. K orzeniewski has published (with S. Bednarek), Polskie miejsca pamięci. ... [Polish remembrance sites. A history of the topography of freedom], Warsaw 2014.





1 Accessed 18 November 2016:

2 Accessed 18 November 2016: ekspozycja/zapamietajmy-ich-twarze/

3 See 1000 lat historii Żydów polskich. Miniprzewodnik po ekspozycji [A thousand years of the history of Polish Jews, exhibition miniguide], Warsaw 2014. system/files/attachments/miniprzewodnik_0.pdf, dostęp: 9 X 2015. It should be emphasized that the Holocaust gallery in this museum is not intended to tell a comprehensive story of this historical chapter; in line with the whole museum, it deals only with the Jewish experience in this particular period, as part of the overall history of Polish-Jewry.

4 Accessed 18 November 2016:

5 M. Szczerbic’s The Just Man (2015) is also such a film in that the plot is based on an attempt to reconstruct memories and understand the past experiences of the main character, a Jewish girl saved during the war by Polish families, as well as thanks to scenes seen by the main character hidden in a trunk (and watching Pajtek act for her).

6Polański was born in Poland and graduated from the National Film School in Łódź, but in the 1960s left his country to live in the USA, then in France, so his cinematic career and perspective may be more West European than Polish.

7Polański spent his childhood in hiding in Poland.

8The ‘non-chargeable guilt’, as this aspect of the Polish participation in the Holocaust is called by K. Piesiewicz, whose emotional consequences one feels despite having been unable to influence the course of action, is the focus of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue, Part Eight, a film from as late as 1988.

9Apel do dyrektor Polskiego Instytutu Sztuki Filmowej. Wymowa “Idy” jest po prostu antypolska [An appeal to the director of the Polish Film Institute. The message of ‘Ida’ is plainly anti- Polish], 18 January 2015. Accessed 6 June 2015: dyrektor-polskiego-instytutu-sztuki-filmowej-wymowa-idy-jest-po-prostu-antypolska

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