28 February 2015 | LeonardKniffel
Another Horrifying Take on the Holocaust
I have become increasingly interested in films and books that address the topic of Polish anti-Semitism. Initially, I approached the topic defensively. How, I wondered, did France and Italy get so conveniently off the hook in the post war years, when the capitulation and collaboration with the Nazis that occurred in those countries is indisputable? Poland's government was the only one that did not capitulate to the Nazis during World War II, and that is part of the reason Warsaw was reduced to rubble. Nazi punishment for Poles during the war was exceptionally harsh; whole families were put to death for harboring Jews.
"Aftermath," directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, is another example of a new generation of Polish writers and artists coming to terms with a dark past. The film begins with the return of a man to his hometown after 20 years of living in Chicago. Something is clearly amiss. His brother has inexplicably begun unearthing Jewish gravestones that were used as paving blocks after the war. The neighbors are unaccountably hostile. The buried secrets concern the wartime fate of the local Jews who, contrary to official history, were not deported by the Nazi occupiers but massacred in a single day by their Gentile neighbors. Released in Poland in 2012, "Aftermath" reignited the controversy that surrounded the publication in 2000 of the book "Neighbors" by Jan T. Gross, a searing account of the covered-up slaughter in Jedwabne, a once half-Jewish village in northeastern Poland where hundreds of Jews, including children, were murdered in a savage pogrom in 1941.
In "Afternmath," Poles, accustomed to seeing themselves as victims during World War II, are confronted with an incident in which their countrymen had been victimizers. Nationalists were incensed. Others found this revelation evidence of a nation coming to terms with its disturbing past. Pasikowski saw the subject as material for a movie. "The film isn't an adaptation of the book, which is documented and factual, but the film did grow out of it, since it was the source of my knowledge and shame," he has said. "Aftermath," which is set around 2001, at the time of the Jedwabne debate (to which the film never explicitly refers) in the same rural region of northeast Poland, and draws not only on the book "Neighbors" but also the 1996 documentary "Shtetl," made by Marian Marzynski to create not a documentary but an impassioned plea for truth no matter how ugly.
Obsessed with the idea of rescuing the remnants of Jewish life, Pasikowski's protagonist, Jozef Kalina (Maciej Stuhr), is subjected to intense hostility. Jozef is ostracized by his neighbors. His wife, unable to withstand the pressure, leaves for Chicago. His older brother, Franciszek (Ireneusz Czop), who departed Poland on the eve of the 1981 declaration of martial law, returns to investigate and finds himself unwillingly drawn into his brother's mission, excavating the past with increasingly violent and ultimately devastating results.