‘Journey’ a quest for understanding over postwar Polish pogrom
“Everything good in me comes from my faith.”
The words, spoken by Bogdan Bialek, a Catholic Polish psychologist, are heard at the beginning of a documentary film that confronts one of the bloodiest and most fiercely debated episodes in Poland’s history: the Kielce Pogrom of 1946. By the end of “Bogdan’s Journey,” the faith of its remarkable protagonist feels almost beside the point. Bialek speaks to Jews and Poles alike, bringing them together in the interest of healing.
Unity appears to be a common bond where this tale is concerned. The film’s two co-directors — a Jewish American and a Catholic Pole — spent 10 years assembling footage for the story they thought they were going to tell. Two years into the filming, after encountering Bialek, the documentary that originally was going to be titled “The Burden of Memory” became “Bogdan’s Journey.”
“After we did our second interview with Bogdan, we realized that he is a revelation,” said Michal Jaskulski, the Catholic, who began as the cinematographer and eventually became the film’s co-director and producer. “He can be a voice. He was not presenting either a Polish or Jewish view. He was thinking about people as people, with empathy for everyone.”
“I see this film as an important gateway to understanding something that I think is profound,” added co-director Lawrence Loewinger. “There would be no Jewish life in Poland today if there wasn’t some core of Poles who are interested in fostering Jewish life.”
Jaskulski and Loewinger will take the stage for a Q&A session following a screening of the film at 7 p.m. on March 8 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills. They will be joined by professor Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University. Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak of Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland will moderate.
Bialek, no relation to the rabbi despite the similarity of their names, is making his first visit to Los Angeles. He also will join the panel, but Beliak doesn’t expect the film’s soft-spoken title character to hold forth.
“The role of being the center is not what I think he set out to do. I think he meant to be a facilitator, a conduit for people to talk,” the rabbi said. “In many ways, Bogdan has already said his piece; the film in many ways speaks for him. I’m glad he’s coming, but I think he will feel a little superfluous in the conversation.”
As “Bogdan’s Journey” recounts, when the subject is the history of Jews in Poland, and specifically the events of July 4, 1946, the conversation is not always civil. Amid postwar anti-Semitism in Poland, townspeople in Kielce murdered more than 40 Jewish survivors who were trying to take shelter in a building; 40 more were injured. Even with memorials and annual ceremonies in Kielce honoring the dead, there still are suspicions that the Nazis or secret police caused the uprising or that the incident never happened.
The film depicts angry Kielce residents denouncing the suggestion that their home could have been the site of such an atrocity and demanding why anybody would want to “open an old wound.”
Beliak, who has participated in events commemorating the Kielce pogrom, understands the climate in which the film was made. The Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, a Beverly Hills-based advocacy group, has contributed money to the movie’s Kickstarter campaign, and Beliak calls himself a “fan producer.”
“There are pockets of good will in the Polish community and the Jewish community that want to find a way to come to understanding and reconciliation, and there are pockets of people who, for whatever reason, are highly nationalistic and feel that Poland has been treated shabbily by history,” Beliak said. “Not looking at the historical record is not something that is unique to Poland. So I think this film highlights that part of the Polish population that is largely willing to confront the past and to try to move together to an understanding about it.”
Chief among the “looking forward” faction is Bogdan Bialek, himself, a psychologist who moved to Kielce in the 1970s and made it his lifelong mission to educate people about the pogrom in healing and nonjudgmental ways. The film uses archival footage and photographs and re-creates scenes from the pogrom to chronicle its devastation. In the present, we see attempts at healing as Bialek talks — and listens — to all sides, bringing survivors, relatives of survivors and others from all over the world to Kielce for commemorative events, tours and discussions.
On the anniversary itself, he leads a walk to the Jewish cemetery, where he reads the names of the dead and lights a candle for each of them.
“It’s always very important to remember every person who was murdered that day,” he said in a separate interview. “It’s always very spontaneous and sometimes the program is made very last-minute.”
Bialek has attended screenings of “Bogdan’s Journey” in New York and in Poland, both inside and outside of Kielce. In the discussions that follow, he frequently detects a sense of catharsis among audience members. His own experience watching the film for the first time was quite different.
“For me, of course, it’s different, first of all, because I take so much time on the screen,” Bialek said. “This journey was 20 years for me, so watching it for the first time was more a kind of spiritual experience.”
“Bogdan’s Journey” will screen at 7 p.m. on March 8 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.