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So, what made you do it?
Beats me. So many things aren't right, but we live with them anyway because there's nothing you can do about it. But I think that some things are more wrong than others. It's like, you see a guy lying drunk in the street, you walk on by, 'cause you think, "He's drunk," and you got your own problems and all. But when it's a child lying there, you just can't walk by. Understand?
The Germans destroyed that cemetery. I can't help that, I wasn't even born then. They ...
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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 has reignited the controversy that surrounded the publication in 2000 of the book Neighbors by the historian 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 are incensed. Others have 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.
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, has left 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.
As a naive outsider learning about World War II from people who survived it and their children, I was obsessed during the seven months in 2000 that I lived in Poland with the enormity of Poland's loss during World War II. I visited cemetery after cemetery. In Biala Podlaska, the headstones in the Jewish cemetery had all been taken for building material; the cemetery itself was there, a large green lawn that somebody kept mowed. In Wyszkow, the stones had been recovered and built into a monument that reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, only without visitors. In Nowe Miasto Lubawskie, where I lived, we found a stash of Jewish headstones in storage in the sanitation services yard, set aside after they had been unearthed during road construction. I shocked at how Jewish tombstones had been treated after the war but no more or less shocked after asking a priest to help me find my grandfather's grave in the Catholic cemetery, "He is buried there, for sure, but in those days people did not buy these big gravestones like today. A wooden cross. It lasted maybe ten, twenty years, and that's it." Then, as years passed, new graves were dug on top of the old.
Watching Aftermath with my knowledge and experience of Poland, I wondered what it would be like to see this film without understanding that 6 million Poles were murdered during the war, half of them Jews and half of them ethnic Poles, without understanding that prewar anti-Semitism was probably less threatening in Poland than in any other European country, without knowing that there are more Poles (6,394) named on Yad Vashem than any other nationality and that one of Yad Vashem's principal duties is to convey the gratitude of the State of Israel and the Jewish people to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. This is the danger of learning history through movies, which must simultaneously serve as entertainment.
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