‘Aftermath’ exposes dark secrets in Poland

The Nazi occupation of most of Europe during World War II and the Holocaust tested the moral fiber not only of the individual citizen but also of entire nations.

Today, 68 years after the guns fell silent in Europe and the Far East, historians and filmmakers not-yet-born in 1945 are still wrestling with the questions of moral courage, indifference and depravity that comprised the human mosaic in that era.

Most films dealing with the years of the Holocaust focus on the bravery of the resistance and some on the villainy of collaborators, but only a handful of German and French movies have examined the much touchier issue of national guilt.

This is certainly true of American producers and directors, who can smugly pat their nation on its collective back, because it never had to face the harsh test of living under enemy occupation.

Given this preamble, the Polish movie “Aftermath” is a particularly valuable contribution to the examination of national guilt or fortitude.

In the collective Jewish memory, the old Poland was a hotbed of anti-Semitism, and there are enough personal and historical accounts to validate the attitude. Yet in the Yad Vashem listing of the Righteous Among the Nations, which honors non-Jews who risked their own and their families’ lives to shelter or otherwise aid Jews, Polish Catholics outnumber the rescuers of every other country.

But if the Polish nation, one of the chief victims of Nazi barbarity, had its heroes, it was also home to numerous perpetrators who happily denounced their Jewish neighbors and took over their houses, businesses and fields.

That duality is at the heart of “Aftermath,” a movie so powerful and provocative that its lead actor has received numerous death threats in Poland, while the movie won the Yad Vashem Award at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival.

“Aftermath” is set in the recent past and opens with the arrival of Franek, who has lived for the past 20 years in Chicago and is returning to his native village in Poland to visit his younger brother, Jozek.

Jozek works the family farm, but, to his brother’s puzzlement, is the hostile target of the villagers, who throw rocks through his windows, paint Zyd (Yid) on his barn door, and finally burn his fields.

Gradually, Franek learns that Jozek’s initial offense was to damage public property by excavating the gravestones that had been taken from the Jewish cemetery during the war and used as road pavement. He carefully hauled the old headstones back to his farm, where he established his own impromptu Jewish cemetery.

Jozek has a hard time explaining this strange behavior, even to himself, except that “there was no one else to take care of them.” He has even taught himself the Hebrew alphabet to decipher the names on the grave markers.

But worse is to come. The young farmer starts exploring the village’s dark secret, and eventually Franek, though dismissive of Chicago’s money-grubbing “Yids,” joins in his brother’s quest.

After the German army occupied the village, two SS officers approved a plan by some of the leading citizens to avoid the bother of deporting some 340 Jewish men, women and children.

The proposal called for rounding up all the Jews, locking them inside a barn and then burning the place down. After the Germans gave the green light, the villagers put the plan into action with great enthusiasm, drinking vodka and cursing the incinerated “Christ killers.”

Afterward, the villagers took over the homes and fields of the dead Jews.

The main characters in the film are fictitious, but the central horror, the burning of the village’s entire Jewish population, is based on a wartime atrocity.

For decades, during Poland’s postwar communist regime, the official government version had it that the actual mass killing and burning were the work of the German army.

But in 2001, Jan T. Gross, a Polish-American professor, wrote the book “Neighbors,” which documented in devastating detail that the Polish citizens of the small town of Jedwabne had incinerated hundreds of their Jewish neighbors in a large barn on July 10, 1941.

The book’s revelations were contested and bitterly denounced by nationalist politicians and media as “part of a Jewish conspiracy to tarnish Poland’s reputation,” but among many younger Poles, the exposé triggered a curiosity about the Polish Jews they had never known.

One was the Polish filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski, who started to write the screenplay for “Aftermath” 10 years ago.

In one interview, Pasikowski explained that the film is about one “one of the most painful chapters of Polish history. We already have a huge number of movies on the horrors committed by the Germans and the Soviets, and I think it is time to show the horrible things we did ourselves.”

(Originally, the film was to have been titled “Kaddish,” and the present Polish title, “Poklosie,” translates as “Consequences.” Either choice would arguably have made for a more apt title than “Aftermath.”)

The movie has its Polish heroes, foremost the brothers Jozek, played by Maciej Stuhr, one of his country’s best-known actors, and Franek (Ireneusz Czop), as well as an elderly priest, but it is unsparing in depicting the anti-Semitic mob mentality of the mass of villagers.

Predictably, “Aftermath” aroused a storm of controversy in its native land, split mainly along political right/left lines. The primary target has been the actor Stuhr, shown on magazine and newspaper covers as a traitorous “Zyd.”

In an e-mail exchange, Dariusz Jablonski, one of the film’s producers, noted that Stuhr was the public face and defender of the film, championing the “new” Poland against the prejudices of the “old” Poland.

Asked, “What made you decide to produce this film, knowing that many of your countrymen would bitterly resent it,” Jablonski responded, “It is not easy to tell uncomfortable truths to your nation, but that is an artist’s/filmmaker’s job. The truth is unconditional, and when I read Pasikowski’s script, I felt obliged to do it.

“We Poles have to acknowledge that being one of the main victims of World War II, and having at that time so many brave people saving Jewish lives, so often paying with their own lives, we also had a few perpetrators among us. Why do we have to do that? We owe it to millions of Jews who found their good life for centuries on Polish soil.”

Is the movie based on Gross’ book on the actual mass burning of Jews in Jedwabne?  “The film is not based on any single book or document, but every element in the film is credible and can be identified as coming from documented stories,” Jablonski responded to the Journal’s question.

Despite the controversy, “Aftermath” won the Critics Prize at Poland’s most important film festival at Gdynia, but it was not chosen as the country’s entry for the Oscars’ foreign-language film competition.

“Aftermath” opens Nov. 15 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino.

Report: Security guards fail to pursue assailants of German rabbi

Security guards at a shopping mall in Germany failed to pursue the youths who attacked a rabbi, a German news agency reported.

Mark Dainow, vice chair of the Jewish community of Offenbach, told the epd news service that six to eight youths, who appeared to be of “Middle Eastern origin,” attacked Rabbi Mendel Gurewitz at the southern German district’s KOMM-Center on the evening of June 2.

The youths reportedly shoved the the 39-year-old rabbi and shouted “s*** Jew,” “f*** off” and “viva Palestine.” Investigators are reviewing videotapes from security cameras.

Mall security guards and the alleged assailants reportedly demanded that Gurewitz erase images of the attack he had taken on his smartphone. One of the police officers who arrived after being called by mall security reportedly also told the rabbi to erase the images, which he reportedly did.

The head of the local police department later apologized to the rabbi, as did the mall manager for the behavior of the security personnel.

According to a report in the Hessischen Rundfunk radio online edition, Gurewitz phoned the head of the local Jewish community, Henryk Fridmann, during the incident. The latter reported hearing the words “s*** Jew” over the phone.

Dainow told reporters that the youths followed the rabbi out of the building, but that an acquaintance of the rabbi was driving past and picked him up. Gurewitz described the incident as “horrible, shocking.”

He has filed charges against the unknown assailants.

“The least we can expect now is a full explanation by the authorities,” Corrado Di Benedetto, president of the Union of Councils of Foreigners in the state of Hesse, said in a statement. He called the incident an “attack against the peaceful coexistence of all people in our region.”

Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called the incident “shameful and shocking.”

The Conference of Orthodox Rabbis in Germany sent an appeal to the public to be more vigilant against anti-Semitism and racism.

“One can’t look away in denial when Jews are attacked, threatened and cursed in a public place, only because they are recognized as Jews by their head covering,” the group’s statement read in part.

German fund head rejects project containing anti-Semitic stereotypes

The head of a German fund established to compensate victims of forced labor under the Nazis says he regrets an “ambiguous project publication” supported by the fund containing illustrations that “could be seen as containing anti-Semitic stereotypes.”

Martin Salm, director of the 11-year-old Memory, Responsibility and Future Fund, which also sponsors educational programs, said he was sure that the controversial illustrations in the HEAR student exchange publication were “not motivated by anti-Semitism.” But Salm added in a statement that the foundation “cannot permit criticism of societal conditions to be used to delegitimize the State of Israel. We take the misunderstanding surrounding this project as an opportunity to examine our funding practice with regard to this program.”

The student publication raised alarm bells after the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot broke the story last week.

The Future Fund was established after international pressure led German industry to join the government in compensating Nazi-era forced laborers of all backgrounds. The fund also is mandated to support international and domestic educational projects, most of them having to do with commemorating Nazi victims, promoting Jewish life in Europe and promoting human rights and understanding between nations.

It was under this mandate that the fund reportedly had provided more than $28,000 to the HEAR exchange program between students in Nazareth and former East Germany under the auspices of the Europeans for Peace program.

In the resulting booklet, illustrations purport to show differences in educational content offered to Israeli and Palestinian pupils. One depicts a “Jew” standing atop “Jew” history, holding a key to a padlock around “Palestine” history. In another illustration, two classrooms are juxtaposed: An apparently shiny new “Jewish School,”
with five smiling pupils, versus a crumbling “Palestine School” crammed with unhappy pupils.

According to reports, the Future Fund pressured Yediot and its sister publication, Ynet, to withdraw its story about the booklet, suggesting it was unfair. Salm later said in a statement that “he regretted deeply” that the illustrations produced by the teens were “seen as anti-Semitic from the Israeli point of view.” While he said he recognized which images could be seen that way, he was sure “they are not motivated by anti-Semitism.”

Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, told JTA she thought the incident provided an opportunity for the fund to review its procedures.

“They have taken a generic approach that has lost all specificity to the issues of major importance to this foundation,” Berger said. “I do not believe that there is any malice or ill intent on the part of those organizing these programs, but it does not change the fact that the foundation is doing at the moment very little in terms of combating anti-Semitism, promoting a better understanding of Jewish life and advancing an understanding of modern Israel.”

Violent neo-Nazism rising in Germany, report says

Violent neo-Nazism is on the rise in Germany, according to an annual report by the German government.

The annual report on extremism by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution released this week also said that the proponents of violent neo-Nazism are rejecting organized political parties.

According to the report, the number of neo-Nazis with violent tendencies rose by 10 percent last year, to 5,600.

Heinz Fromm, head of the agency that produces the report, told the Neuen Osnabrucker Zeitung newspaper that the increase should be seen as a warning, though membership in the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) of Germany has dropped to 6,600 and the total number of those identifying as right-wing extremists dropped from 31,000 in 2009 to 25,000 in 2010.

Fromm said that while NPD membership has fallen gradually since 2007, the violence prone, anti-election Autonomous Nationalists gained 200 members in 2010, for a total of 1,000.

In recent elections, right-wing extremist parties with racist and anti-Semitic platforms have cooperated in order to avoid stealing each others’ votes. But Fromm noted that the parties do have differences, including in the degree to which they are willing to relativize the Holocaust and use anti-Semitic propaganda.

Though Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany, some neo-Nazi groups doubt the facts of the genocide and insist that German civilians endured the greatest suffering.

In recent elections in the former East German state of Saxony-Anhalt, the NPD failed to earn the required 5 percent of the vote to reach the parliament. But the NPD still has legislators in two former East German states, and Fromm said it may reach the 5 percent mark in September elections in one of them, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

In other news, a court in Koblenz this week jailed nine neo-Nazis for broadcasting racist and anti-Semitic propaganda via Radio Resistance, the French news agency AFP reported. The station was shut down last November.

The sentences ranged from 21 months to three years. Nine others were given suspended sentences.