It was en route to a historic commemoration of the massacre of thousands of Poles by Stalin’s secret police, in the Katyn Forest, that Poland’s top echelon of national leadership was wiped out in a plane crash last week. The current willingness of Russia’s post-Soviet leadership to acknowledge this crime in its Stalinist past, is one silver lining of these twin agonies. Exactly one year ago yesterday, I provided a Jewish gloss on the movie, Katyn, for the New Jersey Jewish Standard (“Poles apart—in film as in life”):
Katyn, the most recent work of the great Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda and a finalist for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2008, was held over for a month in its run at New York’s Film Forum, the city’s premier art house. It depicts the Soviet murder of thousands of captive Polish army officers during the spring of 1940 and reverberations of the massacre’s aftermath several years later. Dire, in some instances fatal, consequences befell Poles who insisted on the truth, after the war, as to who was really responsible for this atrocity.
Poland, a medium-sized country of approximately 30 million, mobilized a million men when Nazi Germany struck on Sept. 1, 1939. The film opens on Sept. 17, 1939, with refugees fleeing the Germans meeting others running in the opposite direction from Soviet forces. Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler had sealed Poland’s fate.
The filmmaker’s father was among the victims at Katyn, a forested area near Smolensk, deep within Russia. This mass crime is so obscured amid larger crimes that even the film and its promotional material vary in the number of victims cited: 12,000, 15,000, and 22,000.
Wajda was a protégé of Aleksander Ford, a Polish Jew who headed Polish film productions in the immediate post-World War II period. Ford (who had renamed himself in honor of the American film icon, John Ford) was obedient to the Communist regime’s propaganda needs — as he had to be, to make films at that time. One of his efforts, Border Street, was strikingly “pro-Jewish” in its sympathetic depiction of the Jewish plight in the Warsaw Ghetto. It even depicts the saintliness of a pious old Jew who perishes — surprising because of the militant atheism of the Stalinist state — but it also highlights the fighting spirit of younger Jews, including one child, who resist with weapons in hand.
That film’s production values, including battle scenes and plot lines, are extremely poor, undoubtedly reflecting both a limited budget and political requirements for preachy dialogue. A few Jews were visibly prominent in the new Communist government. The film as a propaganda tool proclaimed the need for Jews and non-Jews in Poland to work together to build a new progressive order; it emphasized the fact that they had faced a common Nazi foe. Anti-Semitism is explicitly reviled in Border Street, whether exhibited by Nazis or by ordinary Poles.
Stalin, like Hitler, was a film buff who avidly screened films in private. Ford is reported to have been told in no uncertain terms by Stalin that Border Street was “too Jewish.” But it was not until 1968, during anti-Semitic purges, that Ford was ousted from his job and from Poland. He lived in Israel, Denmark, and the United States, making two films that were not well received, before taking his own life at a Florida hotel in 1980.
By contrast, Wajda has had a long and illustrious career creating films of artistic note even during the Communist era. This particular film, Katyn, is somewhat disjointed. Post-war segments introduced characters who were hard to place in the story, at least for this non-Polish speaker.
There is nothing in Katyn, not even the dominant scenes of wartime and post-war Krakow, that is specifically Jewish. Yet research has so far identified 231 Polish-Jewish officers murdered at Katyn.
By this, I do not mean to argue that there’s anything intentionally anti-Jewish in Wajda’s work. Several of his films have Jewish characters who figure in them positively. But this work reflects what was a fact in war-time Poland: that the struggles of Catholic Poles and of Jews were of a completely different order. They suffered separately (especially after most Jews were ghettoized), even to the extent that Warsaw was the site of two totally separate anti-Nazi uprisings — the revolt of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in the spring of 1943 and the general Polish rebellion in the summer of 1944.
Jews captured during the former were doomed whether they were fighters or not. The Polish freedom fighters of 1944 were permitted to surrender to the Germans after a prolonged battle (depicted cinematically in Wajda’s Kanal) and incarcerated as prisoners of war.
The Polish underground rebelled in Warsaw when Soviet forces were virtually at the city’s gates. Stalin ordered his armies to halt to allow the Germans to eliminate their ostensible ally, a fighting force loyal to the Polish government in exile in London. Six million Polish citizens perished during World War II — three million Catholic Poles and three million Jews. The non-Jewish death toll was about 10 percent of the population of Poland; the Jewish death toll was more than 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population.
Yehuda Bauer, a renowned Israeli Holocaust historian who is conscientious in respectfully analyzing the historic disasters suffered by a variety of peoples, explicitly characterizes the Polish experience in World War II as a species of genocide. The Nazis intended to reduce the Poles to a nation of semi-literate peasants and manual laborers serving the Third Reich. Polish intellectuals and professionals were imprisoned and murdered in great numbers to deprive the Poles of independent-minded leadership.
One of Wajda’s characters is a university professor summoned with the rest of the faculty to be harangued by a Nazi official, who then herds them off to a concentration camp where the professor dies. But non-Jewish Poles as a “race,” as the Nazis regarded them, were meant to be enslaved rather than exterminated.