Bogdan Wojdowski’s Bread for the Departed was the first novel to introduce spectral imagery of the Holocaust to Polish literature.1 Published in 1971, the novel, written from the perspective of a single survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, paradoxically elaborates on the spectrality of the living and the chorus of their voices. As one of the earliest manifestations of this type of supernatural imagery, the novel preempted three cinematic works that reinvented, each in their own way, representational strategies engaged by (without claiming any influence from) Wojdowski. These works are Pokłosie [Aftermath] (2012) by Władysław Pasikowski; Demon (2015) by Marcel Wrona; and Ziarno Prawdy [A Grain of Truth] (2015) by Borys Lankosz. All three works highlight the tension between the nationally accepted narrative regarding the nature of the Poles’ relationship to the Jews and the historical truth of their interactions during and directly after World War II. The goal of this thesis is not to say that the Polish government is wrong in its assertion that many Poles risked their lives to save Jews, or that Poland itself did not suffer greatly during World War II. Instead, it is to demonstrate the need for a confrontation, within Poland, between historical truth and contemporary narrative.
Such a topic requires a historical preamble. There were around 3.3 million Jews living in prewar Poland. This changed with the start of World War II and the 1939 German invasion of Poland. During WWII, six million Jews were killed in German camps, ghettos, interment centers, and battlefields across Europe, especially in the Polish territories under German occupation.2 According to the recent statistics, three million of these Jews were from Poland.3 After the war, the Jews, who mostly survived in the Soviet Union, returned to their home country. It is estimated that 7,000 Jews live in the country today, although this number is difficult to ascertain.4 The decimated community has faced a formidable challenge in gathering the accounts of genocide and collecting witness statements, as well as continuing the cultural interactions between Polish Jews and non-Jewish Poles.5 This state of affairs has been complicated by the dominance within Poland of the “grand national narrative,” which emerged after the late 18th century loss of Polish statehood. Between 1795 and 1918, Poland had no independent existence, and was instead divided between Austria, Germany, and Russia. This period was marked by numerous rebellions and uprisings, all of which ended in bloody battles, deportations, and exiles. It has often been remarked that Poland survived this lack of independence through its literature and language, especially through the masterful poetry of Adam Mickiewicz and his Romantic contemporaries. The notion of Poland as a long-suffering martyr dominated the long 19th century. This idea has carried into modern Polish discourse and – with a brief interbellum caesura — continued during WWII. Exacerbated by the postwar Soviet occupation and the Communist ideology imposed on the nation, the national narrative of Polish martyrdom and heroism dominated both official and unofficial discourses.
Invaded by Germany and then under Soviet control, Poland once again ceased to exist as a truly independent country from 1939 to 1989. Three million Polish Jews were killed during the Holocaust as well as millions of non-Jewish Poles.6 Although thousands of Poles helped the Jews by providing shelter or an escape, and the Polish underground organization Żegota worked to rescue Jews, especially children, Poles also collaborated directly with Nazis in the murder of Jews.7 All of these factors contribute to Poland’s complicated relationship with its history in relation to the “Jewish question.” This situation was also complicated by the control the Soviet Union had over Poland until its downfall, as well as the anti-Semitism that remained very present in the years following the war.
After WWII, anti-Jewish violence surged between 1946 and 1948, claiming many lives in a multitude ofincidents.8 In 1968, the regime of the Polish Communist Party, forced upon Poland by the USSR after WWII, became vehemently anti-Jewish. From 1968 through 1972, an estimated 20,000 fully assimilated Polish Jews were forced to leave Poland, accused of being anti-Polish Zionists.9 These events show that the suffering and trauma inflicted upon Jews in Poland did not end with the German surrender. After a period of the Communist ‘Polonization’, during which time Jews were forcibly assimilated and discourse focused on the German crimes against Poles, rather than Jews, a seemingly new chapter started in 1989. The newly Polish government, out from under the control of the USSR, introduced a new approach that attempted to provide full discursive transparency to the Jewish genocide. In 2018, however, history took another turn when Polish President Andrzej Duda amended the Act of the Institute of National Remembrance to criminalize the ascription of blame to the Polish state or its institutions and citizens, directly or indirectly for the genocidal actions against Jews during the occupation. This law was controversial in the international community. Questions arose as to whether the Polish state wished to paint Poles exclusively as innocent victims and saviors of Jew. The reality is more complex than most would like to admit.
In this difficult historical context, Wojdowski’s most famous novel, written from the perspective of a single survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, enhances the complexities of survival and elaborates on the supernatural conditions of the living and the unity of their voices. Positioned between life and death, neither completely alive nor dead, the specters that inhabit the Warsaw Ghetto have the power to voice their suffering through lament. The book is conceived of as historical fiction in the form of a memoir, told from the perspective of David, a young Jewish boy who is forced into the Warsaw Ghetto with his family. The novel follows David as he navigates familial relationships, his religion, and survival in the ghetto. The book ends with the liquidation of the ghetto, leaving the reader to imagine the dreadful fate of every character. David’s story is a multilayered reflection that he writes from the perspective of the child that he once was but with the knowledge of an adult man. In it, he presents the traumas of the Holocaust from within the walls of the ghetto, traumas which haunted him far beyond the years of the war. David’s narrative stands out not only because it is that of a young Jewish boy, but also because the world he describes in it is entirely that of the Warsaw Ghetto.
In the novel, in a departure from the status quo that will be seen in the films, almost all of the characters are Jews. While David does sometimes describe the Poles outside the walls of the ghetto as well as the guards who work within it, the main actors are the members of the Jewish community who are trying to survive. The novel itself is the work of a survivor who is confronting the ghosts of the people he once knew. As he writes the book, he memorializes them, cementing them in memories outside of his own. The workings of Jewish memory are explored in the narrative in terms of everyday survival. As David sits around the table with his family, his grandfather implores him to take the path of indifference and oblivion:
David, forget that you are a Jew. In order to live you have to forget. Do you hear me, David? …You will be alone… When people say nasty things about the Jews, be silent. Forget who you are, who your father and mother are. Don’t let your eyelid twitch when you see your own people driven to the pit. Turn away from that place and walk on… You have to have a stone instead of a heart. Do you hear me? Drive us all out of your memory. And live, amen.10
According to his grandfather, David’s only option is to move forward and forget everything, including the fact that he grew up Jewish. The novel, however, does the opposite of this, exploring the ways David is influenced by stories from the Hebrew Bible and the oral family history shared with him. This history is full of detailed descriptions of the family and friends he was forced to leave behind. On the metaphorical level, the story functions as a nourishing narrative, just as the crumbs of bread evoked in the title. These crumbs are thrown to ghosts of those he knew and loved to become an ultimate act of offering both sustenance and preservation. This motion is reflected in the title, which does not describe the actions of anyone in the novel itself, but rather the spiritual function of the book in the contemporary climate of remembrance.
While this confrontation of memory happens both in the novel and the yet-to-be-mentioned films, the spectral presence of Jews is, at times, very different, partly due to the nature of the genres. In the novel, the narrator faces the events as they happen in the historical time of the Ghetto and the confrontation with these events as the past only serves to frame them. The temporal framing of the novel belongs to the much older narrator as if he assumed another role—that of the author. In Bread for the Departed, David sees the starvation of Jews all around him. Indeed, hunger was the main cause of death there. He describes the starving Jews he sees on the streets of the Ghetto in the dark and detailed rhetoric:
A group of skeletons were dying there, their hands outstretched… Their scabs oozed and their lips, ulcerated with canker sores, smiled broadly, jaggedly. Red blotches grew on them like weeds. The stigmata of abscesses, scarlet stains on necks and torsos, persistent thrush infections, and an assortment of rashes covered the frail, swollen little bodies that shunned the bright rays of the sun.11
The theme of skeletal bodies in this description is filled with specifics, which are listed to enhance the abject images. Later, he describes these corpses again, stressing their mobile nature and a moment of emergence from places of hiding and death:
Ghostly figures crept out from dark alleys, from the hallways of tenements, from basements and attics, into the light of day: children abandoning their fathers’ corpses, women abandoning the frozen skeletons of their infants in the ruins.…they joined together in the parade of skeletons. Emerging from their lairs, they covered their nakedness with rags. Positioned between life and death, neither completely alive nor dead, the specters that inhabit the Ghetto, have the power of voicing their suffering.12
David observes the journey of skeletons as if it was a dance macabre in the present tense, for he actually observes his neighbors, friends, and family turning into corpses. Their mobility is proof of their condition of living, though it can be seen that this will not be the case for long. Though they remain technically alive at this point, it is impossible to see them as anything but walking dead, almost literally decomposing in front of his eyes.
While the hunger that David sees in the Ghetto is a state of being, the starvation that followed was more than a mental state, it was a medical condition. The observations David made about the physical state of those suffering from starvation are corroborated by the historical understanding of how starvation affects the body:
The swollen legs signal an advanced stage of choroba getta [the ghetto disease], as it was called there. According to the Jewish physicians imprisoned in the Ghetto, who worked in the Bersohn and Baumann Hospital, where they researched symptomatology of starvation, swelling was a symptom of the victim reaching the point of demise.13
To put it simply, in medical terms, this is the point of no return for the victims, therefore the people that David sees are beyond help. The others in the Ghetto had to focus completely on their own needs to survive, which left them with nothing to spare. Even if they were to offer bread to the living skeletons lining the street, however, they would not be saved.
Among all the death, there is one thing that is a constant source of life for David: bread. The hunger could not be mitigated by charity such as soup kitchens, because the food rations were below what is necessary for survival. The people imprisoned in the Ghetto spent most of their time trying to acquire bread. It was the ultimate form of sustenance, although available only as an inferior substitute, and altered state of real bread, an Ersatz; one of the many such products that were a part of the wartime diet. David describes the Ersatz bread through the act of eating it:
The ration cards get you clay that sticks to your teeth and crumbles in your hand, because chestnuts and potato peels are added to the dough. Sand crunches between your teeth; sometimes you have to spit out a piece of string, and sometimes the knife grates against a rusty nail. Filth.14
Despite the disgusting nature of this bread, it is still coveted by those living in the ghetto. In this revolting space of the Ghetto, bread is the object of desire. But the Jews in the novel are strikingly complex human beings. While many are already dead or dying, and this constant presence of death is felt heavily by David as well as the other characters, there is a form of hope despite the hostile conditions. The book itself is a realization of some of that hope; David, who survived the horror and has faced this past, is the living proof of that faith.
Wojdowski develops the spectral poetics of his novel for the sake of heightened expression, but also for historical accuracy. Wojdowski could not be aware of Jacques Derrida’s concept of spectrality,15 which is indebted to Karl Marx’s opening sentence in The Communist Manifesto, because the concept was not introduced by the French philosopher until 1993. Derrida’s spectrality, however, still strongly reverberates in the novel. It should also be mentioned, however, that the theme of ghosts is a popular one in Yiddish media, as demonstrated by the popularity of Shloyme An-sky’s play Der Dibuk [The Dybbuk] written between 1913-16. The play was adapted into a movie in 1937 by Michał Waszyński as a part of the Yiddish cinema then flourishing in Poland. Yiddish cinema had been thriving even before World War I, especially in Warsaw; altogether between 1911 and 1918 about 20 silent Yiddish films were made in the Russian partition of Poland. Prior to WWII, there was an unprecedented cultural vibrancy in Yiddish-speaking urban centers. After the caesura of WWII, postwar cinema portrayed the experience of the Jewish genocide in Wanda Jakubowska’s Ostatni etap [The Last stage] in 1948. The film follows the experiences of three women imprisoned at Auschwitz and was a critical success. Although it made sacrifices for aesthetic purposes, this was the first film that depicted life in the camps..16 There is, however, a signifcant divide between the cinema of the Holocaust produced during the Communist period and after its demise, mainly stemming from the Polonized perspective embraced by the movie makers and enforced by censorship. In a brush stroke, the movies made during this period represented Polish and Jewish people as equal victims without depicting tensions (and even murder of Jews committed by Poles) between the two groups.
This faulty and deceptive narrative was gradually amended after the systemic change of 1989. An early example of this is the 1992 documentary Miejsce urodzenia (Birthplace) by Paweł Łoziński, which follows acclaimed Polish-Jewish writer Henryk Grynberg’s visit from America to his home village in Poland 50 years after the war to find and rebury his father.17 While the Grynberg family was initially helped by the villagers, Grynberg discovered that his brother was handed over to the Nazis and that his father was murdered and buried in a ditch. Despite the reluctance of the villagers to talk to Grynberg, and the silence surrounding the events in general, they tell him exactly where his father’s bodily remains are. This allows Grynberg to dig up his father’s remains and find closure. The documentary directly demonstrates the double-sided nature of the village people’s relationship to the Holocaust, as well as the culture of silence and oblivion that surround it. Without Grynberg’s personal motive to recover the evidence of his father’s murder, this crime would have remained hidden. No one from outside the village would have been able to pinpoint his father’s initial burial site, and the evidence would have been lost to time.
Since 1989, filmmakers have begun to use cinema to highlight the tension between this narrative and the role of Poles as perpetrators. Set long after the war, the films examined here portray a generation of Poles born after the war and as such unaware of the once large Jewish presence in Poland. Thus, one of the obstacles the films must face when portraying the interactions between Poles and Jews is the representation of Jewish absence. This problem has often been solved by portraying Jews as ghosts. Characters must confront the Freudian uncanny, a process which is difficult and sometimes painful, both for them and the communities within which they live. This uncanny comes in the form of the traces of Jews that make the protagonists uncomfortable by reminding them of hidden truths and turning them into ones which are undeniable. This truth is a threat to the Poles, because it undermines the grand narrative of heroic actions of Poles during the Holocaust. Through education in Polish schools, Poles were raised to believe that Poles and Jews lived in harmony. In their portrayals of this confrontation with the uncanny, each film examines Polish characters forced to reckon with the often dark past of their parents and question commonly held beliefs. The process of unearthing uncomfortable truths calls for the resurrection of Jewish dead and their ghosts. While all three films that I will consider – Aftermath, Demon, and A Grain of Truth – demonstrate how the historical truth has been concealed or denied by communities, they also prove that through investigation the truth can be discovered, and that the memories of Jews can resurface after years of being buried.
The events in the movie Aftermath, both a drama and thriller are inspired by the recently revised understanding of the historical event that took place in a small town of Jedwabne in the summer of 1941. Famously examined in Jan T. Gross’ book Neighbors: The Deconstruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, the pogrom of the Jews living in Jedwabne was an initiative of the local Poles who rounded up the Jews and confined them to a barn which then they set on fire. Gross’ major claim is that these events occurred without Nazi coercion.18 This claim that redefined the nature of Polish anti-Semitism as self-inflammatory. When this nature remained hidden, it could be claimed that Poles who committed crimes against Jews during WWII only did so because they were threatened by Nazis. Gross’ exposes the Polish initiative, forcing Poles to examine the anti-Semitism that was present in Poland independent of the German invasion.
Aftermath is derived from the events in Jedwabne, in particular the inhuman cruelty. The film follows two brothers, Franciszek and Józef in a small, rural Polish town. When Franciszek returns to the family farm on a visit from Chicago, he discovers that his brother has been digging up old Jewish gravestones (matzevot) and installing them in one of their wheat fields. This aspect of the film is based in reality: Jewish gravestones can be found throughout Poland having been repurposed by Nazis during the war – and later by Soviets – as documented by Łukasz Baksik in his collection Macewy Codziennego Użytku [Matzevot for Everyday Use].19 They were taken from Jewish cemeteries and used as building materials, mostly to pave roads and sidewalks or to lay foundations. In the film, Józef is ostracized by the town for his work, which the townspeople believe to be intrusive, unnecessary, and strange. As the brothers find and mount more matzevot, they discover that some of the land that the local farmers live on and farm was stolen from Jews during WWII. Tensions rise when the brothers learn that an even darker truth lurks behind this theft – their own, now deceased, father helped to orchestrate the murder of the town’s Jews, burning them in his barn (in a direct reference to the Jedwabne massacre) with help from neighbors. The truth goes against the self-interest of the locals and unleashes their worst instincts. In the end, Józef is crucified on his own barn door and Franciszek is successful in exposing the truth to the wider world and creating a memorial. The last scene in the film shows Hassidic Jews and a rabbi praying in the field where Józef installed the matzevot. Thus, the narrative of recovery makes a full circle: Jews from Poland and beyond can visit the cemetery, pray, and keep the memory of the victims alive.
While the idea of Jewish ghosts is present in Aftermath, the film gives Jews no direct voice in the film. There is no ghostly appearance or demonic possession, as will be seen in Demon. The only time the film shows Jews is at its closing scene, which takes place after the main action of the film, in the present day. Instead of being given a visual presence, Jews are embodied in memory by their names written on gravestones and their existence proven through the bones that the brothers dig up at the site of their father’s old barn. The brothers literally retrace the lives of their relatives, becoming more uncomfortable with each discovery. Through his excavation work, Józef begins to decipher basic Hebrew and is able to read some of the names carved into the stone. Later, Franciszek is examining land ownership records in the state archives only to realize that the names his brother decoded match up with the names of Jews whose fertile farming land was appropriated by Poles who betrayed them to the Nazis. The act of uttering the victims’ names brings them back to life insofar as it makes them real. No longer are they forgotten figments of history who can be denied or ignored.
The skeletal remains function in this way as well. When Franciszek discovers that the local farmers have no legal right to the land because it was stolen from Jews, he is reluctant to accept it as true. In a pivotal scene, he and Józef confront an old neighbor, who tells them, not without the glee of resentment, that their own father was instrumental in the violent death of the local Jews. Franciszek wishes to bury that inconvenient truth, to keep it a secret as the rest of the town has done for years. In doing so, however, this becomes impossible because through the discomfort of facing the uncanny, he had already encountered the real truth of the tragedy. The record and knowledge of the names and the presence of the human remains at the site of the barn are undeniable proof of the mass murder. The lingering presence of the Jews murdered by the town in the form of a quickly arranged Kirkuk means that separation from the truth is now impossible. Franciszek must accept the truth of his family’s past and take responsible action. Only in his doing so is the truth and memory out in the open.
In Aftermath, the memory that is confronted by the brother is not his own, but rather that of his family and the people that live in the town. In this way, the brothers forcibly unearth not just the evidence of the crime, but the memory itself. Furthermore, it is not only the memory of Jews that is resurrected. While the Jewish presence in the film is represented by memory and remains, the repressed memories that the brothers uncover are those of the Polish perpetrators who live in a denial that cements their unity and prompts them to kill Józef. The culture of repression that exists in the town has to be disturbed by the brothers before they can find out what happened. It is easier for them to pursue their goal when they achieve a distance from the crime. While Franciszek is initially not supportive of his brother’s efforts, he comes to realize their importance and helps him. The work of discovering the truth is easy when one acts as the innocent bystander, but once a family is implicated, the memory becomes more personal, and Franciszek has to take blame. The specters of his own family’s past haunt him and scare him into, at first, inaction, and later into a willful action after he discovers his brother’s tortured body. In sum, the Jewish spectrality that is present in the film cannot be erased by any exorcism; it haunts the population of the village. In Aftermath, the treatment of specters is a prominent, haunting, presence; the strategy engaged in Demon is quite different.
Demon is a horror film that takes place in rural Poland. As the narrative begins, a local girl, Żaneta, is set to marry a Londoner of Polish heritage whom she met over the internet. Following his arrival, the groom, Piotr, falls into a pit where he discovers human bones buried on his soon-to-be father-in-law’s property. Disturbed by this discovery, but not wanting to make trouble right before the wedding, he decides to keep quiet. When strange happenings begin to occur, the wedding party begins to worry. Possessed by the ghost of a Jewish bride named Hana, Piotr begins to act erratically. The guests and family at first believe him to be drunk, but when he begins to speak Yiddish, a local Jewish teacher named Szymon Wentz confirms that Piotr has been possessed by a dybbuk, the spirit of a Jewish bride who was never able to marry her husband.20 When Piotr goes missing during the wedding reception, the family tries to find him – all while reassuring the wedding guests that nothing is wrong. When eventually Piotr dies, Zaneta’s father tries to brush it all away, insisting that the whole ordeal just needs to be slept-off. This easy solution he proposes will not suffice, and the events of the day will haunt those who observed them far beyond the wedding night.
Demon is a film that features Jews both as ghosts and real human beings. Wentz remembers life in the village before the war, when many Jews lived there, and everyone knew each other. He also happens to remember Hana, who was a beautiful girl whom he, and many other men, wished to marry. Her disappearance had never been explained. This return of wartime memories, combined with the demon’s appearance, creates a situation which is extremely uncomfortable for all who bear witness. While living Jews are able to speak up, they are largely ignored. When Wentz laments the loss of the vibrant Jewish community that once inhabited the town, Żaneta has no response. His knowledge of the demon that possessed Piotr as well as his Jewishness are both seen as traits that make him an outsider more than ever; the townspeople’s acknowledgement of his past would force them to acknowledge the historical presence of Jews writ large. Acting through Piotr, Hana’s ghost tells the teacher of her death and her desire for a groom. The truth of the crime that Hana fell victim to is undeniable, as is the guilt of the bride’s father, who works to conceal these events. The Poles observing the possession, and especially the guilty party, would rather turn away from that which makes them uncomfortable than face the real.
This resistance is indicative of the greater attitude towards the uncovering of the past in Poland. While the evidence is there in the form of the skeleton on the land, the Polish wedding guests wish to separate themselves from the blame of crimes committed against the Jews during the occupation. The appearance of the Jewish ghost additionally causes discomfort because it is seemingly separated from modern-day attitudes. It can be seen that the film has a clear connection with Stanisław Wyspiański’s play Wesele [The Wedding] (1901), in which, Rachel, the daughter of a Jewish innkeeper, welcomes specters of the Polish past to the wedding at which she is a guest. Her gesture is a catalyst for the all-encompassing testing of the wedding guests’ capacity to confront the truth; a truth which has to do with their indolence to fightAustrian dominance.
While Wentz survived the war and lived through the changes that came with it, the ghost of Hana still believes she is in the past. Her confusion, her inability to speak anything but Yiddish, and her story are all markers of a way of life that once existed; the non-Jewish residents of the town would ignore this evidence if it weren’t for the uncanny aspect of the situation. While the haunting in Demon is much more obvious and physical in comparison to Aftermath, the haunting of memory is still a prominent component. The dybbuk that inhabits Piotr’s body inspires fear because it is foreign entity that cannot be understood, but so fear-causing are the bones that Piotr falls upon in the garden, prior to his possession. Hana’s story is similarly frightening. Piotr’s father-in-law is desperate for the events of Hana’s death to remain a secret and for the whole incident to be covered up. It is for this reason that he so strongly encourages the continuation of the wedding and the guests’ enthusiastic drinking. The guilt of knowing what happened and having covered it up for so long, as well as the fear of legal reckoning, has him overwhelmed by panic. Hana, the spirit possessing Piotr, is haunted by memory, or rather its lacuna, as well. She has no idea where she is, what has happened to her, or how much time has passed. She is desperate to claim the groom she was destined to take before her murder, and she also is scared when she finds herself surrounded by the Polish-speaking wedding party and guests. Thanks to Wentz, who functions as an intermediary between her and the Poles, they learn who she is, although she herself is never able to comprehend the truth of the past. Her case draws a distinction withAftermath, because although Hana is a dybbuk,the pain of the past is interiorized in Hana, a Jewish victim. This pain is not only displayed in Hana, but in Wentz as well. His conversation with Hana leads him to finally understand what happened to the girl he knew in his youth. While he has lived through the war and remained in Poland, and thus understands the changes that occurred in the country and has come to accept them, the pain of Hana’s death remains fresh. The knowledge of the brutal death of Hana at the hands of a member of Polish community, which is now his own, and the realization that her bones were buried all those years on the property, deeply haunt him. Demon, by representing Jews directly, both as a survivor and a victim alongside the Poles, some of whom were implicated in the crime, expresses how Poles can begin the work of excavating memories of the war. Through this they and their victims can eventually rest.
A Grain of Truth is a crime drama adapted from the novel of the same name by Zygmunt Miłoszewski. The film follows Teodor Szacki, a prosecutor who is investigating the murder of a woman found outside a synagogue in the town of Sandomierz. When it is established that the woman was killed with chalef, a knife used for ritual slaughter by a shochet, the people of the town begin to believe that it must have been a Jew who committed the crime.21 Their logic is paradoxically determined by their irrational belief that a Jewish curse was set upon them because following the war a Jewish mother died in childbirth along with her baby when a Polish midwife abandoned her out of fear. Her husband, a Jewish doctor, had been detained by the Soviets after another Polish citizen of the town told them out of jealousy that he had American medicine. As Szacki investigates further, learning of the anti-Semitism deeply rooted in the town, he comes to see that the real killer manipulated the town’s hysterical fear of Jews to confuse the police and the public in order to evade capture. The film demonstrates just how effectively false appearances, and the human need to protect one’s self-image, can distract from reality. While the town appears to be a quiet, insular, harmonious place, past anti-Semitic values are quick to resurface. For those living in the town, the ghosts of Jews in A Grain of Truth are something to be feared. While Jews are not represented on-screen as ghosts, characters throughout the film mention the idea of Jews haunting the town and cursing the people who betrayed them. The fear the townspeople feel is twofold – one, because they hold on to the belief that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in matza, and two, because Jews remind them of their own guilt which they wish to forget. The perpetuation of the myth of blood libel allows them to deny the real reason behind it – anti-Semitism acted upon following the conclusion of the war. No one wants to disclose to the prosecutor the truth that motivates them. In reality, when Jews came back into town after the war, they were met with indifference at the best. The disclosure of this truth would force them to admit their own awareness that the myth of ritual killing of Christian children is built solely on lies. Just as in Aftermath, the knowledge of the dark history is the secret everyone knows.
While A Grain of Truth is a fictional representation of life in a small Polish town, it asks the viewers to examine their own pasts and beliefs. Something that seems to have been proven so false – in this case blood libel – was quickly brought back as a seemingly reasonable explanation for the murder in the minds of the people living in Sandomierz.22 In this way, Jews continue to live as ghosts in Polish minds. Their spectral reappearance shows that they not only remain the Other in the Polish mentality, but also that the fearful national subconscious is inherited by the younger generation. The prolonged life of these memories is a signal that the Holocaust, in its full dimension, has not been reckoned with.
Though the belief in the Jewish ghost haunts the townspeople, Szacki is helped throughout his investigation by an old Jewish survivor who has lived in the town since he was a little boy. During his investigation, Szacki also encounters a rabbi, and these two men help him comprehend the nature and details of Jewish tradition and practice; the knowledge which eventually allows him to realize that the murderer must have been a non-Jew. Just as in Demon, the Jewish survivor is questioned throughout the film. Szacki, who is reluctant to listen to the old Jewish man advising him, approaches his discussions with the Jewish men with an ignorant sense of superiority. The presence of the Jewish survivor in the community does not suffice to sway the people from their deeply ingrained beliefs. On the contrary, his presence unsettles them because he is a reminder of the past and, therefore, another threat. This narrative of Jewish spectrality and the desire to deny an anti-Semitic history are stronger than the physical reminders of truth. In this way, the film exemplifies how anti-Semitism takes on a phantom existence and lingers independently of the presence of Jews. This is why the figure of the Jewish ghost has been chosen in Polish cinema produced in this century. The specter of a Jew is a tool for historical reckoning alongside the work of Jewish survivors, whose historical experience directly confronts the Poles themselves.
A Grain of Truth combines some elements from both Aftermath and Demon in its presentation of the conflict between Jews and Poles. Like in Aftermath, the main character comes into the situation with some degree of latent anti-Semitism, for example, in the beginning of the film, Szacki is very receptive to the idea that the crimes could have been committed by a vengeful Jew. When he discovers the dark history of the town, he is even more convinced about this myth, and at times he even overlooks clues as to the killer’s real identity. As the movie progresses, Szacki goes on his own journey of moral growth, just as Franciszek does in Aftermath; both men are reluctant to do the work of self-discovery and memorialization. Moreover, in these films, while no possession takes place, both the witness and the victim are present, and their very presence enhances the drama of the film. Something which bringsA Grain of Truth into comparison with Demon is the critical intermediary function of the Jewish survivor. Until meeting him, Szacki has no knowledge of the Jewish religion and folklore; he does not understand the symbols that he sees, and he also does not understand, at first, what happened in the town under the communist rule. While the Yiddish language acts as the barrier between the Polish and Jewish worlds in Demon, in A Grain of Truth it is the lack of understanding of his country’s own history that demonstrates the gap between the Jewish and Gentile worlds. The people who live in Sandomierz are haunted by Jewish ghosts, not only by those which are embedded in memories of injustice, but also those which originated in an anti-Semitic propaganda. They believe that the murders are retribution for a death that would have never happened had anti-Semitism not already been present. It was their belief in blood libel and other anti-Semitic prejudices that created their own fear. In each of these films, it can be seen that real Jewish experience and pain have been ignored and covered up. It takes another generation, a systemic change in Poland, and almost half of a century, for these experiences to be recovered from oblivion. With this recovery, the haunting should stop.
The non-Jewish perspective of these three films binds them together.. While the main characters encounter Jews in many different ways and grapple with the memories they left behind, none of them are Jews themselves. This non-Jewish narration makes the experience of interacting with spectral Jewsa uniquely Polish one, but that is not the case. This recent cinematic trend that deals with Poles facing the history of the Jew as Other in the country coincides with recent political controversy surrounding Poland’s role in World War II. Due do the decimation of the Holocaust and its aftermath, Jews are absent from the daily lives of many Poles. Poles today primarily come into contact with Jewish culture through film and other media. These films visualize the lost Jewish world, give voices to Jews through left-behind objects and remains, and show Polish characters literally digging up bones and figuratively digging up the unwanted truth. Demon, Aftermath, and A Grain of Truth exemplify how filmmakers in contemporary Poland engage with their own country’s complex history and challenge the Polish public to question its past. The grand national narrative, unfortunately recently reinforced by the Polish government, only paralyzes and disrupts the national healing process. These films work to demonstrate and question the discomfort felt by Poles when confronted with reminders of the war and of Jews. They ask the viewer why the material heritage and memories of Jews in these places seem strangely familiar to the Polish characters, and why they shy away from confronting them. By forcing the characters and, in some ways, the audience to face the uncanny, the films ask them to examine their repressed histories and feelings of guilt. While questions of memory and the subject of Polish guilt often cause controversy within the country, the continued historical research and production of films that bring them to the foreground ultimately highlight the importance of the conversation both nationally, in order for Poland to reckon with its past, and internationally, as it continues to establish itself as an EU member country and contributor to global discourse on genocides.
The major work of each of these stories is confrontation with the past and the haunting it produces. For the Poles, this involves acknowledgement of a dark chapter that has for a long time been denied. For the Jewish survivors, like Wojdowski, this involves the acceptance of the passage of time and the truth of the trauma that they experienced, which is achieved through the recovery of memory. All the characters are confronted with spectral Jewishness, whether that be through memory, objects, or ashes. The films demonstrate the Polish perspective, haunted by their implication in crimes against Jews during the war and also by the fear of retribution. This is interwoven with, in Demon and A Grain of Truth, the stories of Jewswho survived to see the Poland of today as well as the victims who did not.
In this way, these two films connect with Bread for the Departed, as its writing is a confrontation between the author and his memories. The temporal placement of the book is also significant. Like the dybbuk Hana who appears in Demon, David exists in wartime Poland. While the author of the book lived to tell the tale, David himself, at the time of narration, has no guarantee of a future. The reader and the author are aware of the passage of time and the outcome of the war, but this is not true of Hana or David. In contrast to David, though, Hana is brought into the present day. While she still cannot comprehend exactly what has happened to her, or even communicate with anyone Polish because she only speaks Yiddish, she is given this knowledge – from beyond the grave – of the future. David does not have this experience. The world of the book is the world of the Warsaw ghetto as David sees it, and while we know him, he never escapes. The case of haunting in Bread for the Departed is experienced by David in the constant presence of death and his knowledge that he will contend with his memories for the rest of his life. In Aftermath, the brothers are haunted by spirits that they discover and don’t understand, as well as the knowledge that their father was a primary actor in committing the crime. In Demon, Poles are haunted by the past and Jews are haunted by the future that could have been. In A Grain of Truth, the villagers are haunted by guilt and their own prejudiced views. Taken together, these narratives point to a larger process of haunting that may be experienced by Poles in general as their history is more closely examined.
As is reflected in the representations examined above, the relationship between Poles and Jews in the contemporary world is a complex one, marked by pain, death, and misunderstanding. With an absence of Jewish voices due to the mass loss of life in the Holocaust, the work of remembrance is complicated by it being primarily the responsibility of Poles, who, although victims, at times were also perpetrators The fear of being considered outsiders, as well as the focus of the Polish people on re-establishing an independent existence and dealing with large waves of emigration, left many Jewish stories unexamined. The Poles left behind often were affected by their own traumas, watching their country shed one occupation only for another to take control. They were, therefore, rarely asked to take accountability for their actions against Jews during wartime. Left for so long without blame, when the work of remembrance began, many Poles resisted, and with evidence lost to time, the truth became more difficult to ascertain.
It is easy to generalize when analyzing the Holocaust. In the materials that I have analyzed, here such generalizations are avoidable despite the huge temporal separationbetween the Holocaust and the perspectives forged today. This thesis seeks an analysis of the small portion of the contemporary perspective through the “return of Jewish specters.” The spectral return proves that it is not just an allegorical device used for a greater expressivity, but also a cognitive and ethical challenge that, if conceptualized properly, can dispel the unsolved and unspoken ghosts of the painful legacy of the War.
Toronto Jewish Film Festival. “Birthplace.” Accessed May 8, 2021. https://tjff.com/birthplace/.
“Blood Libel.” Accessed May 8, 2021. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/blood-libel.
“Bogdan Wojdowski.” Accessed May 8, 2021. https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/508076.Bogdan_Wojdowski.
Derrida , Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Routledge, 1994.
Gross, Jan Tomasz. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books, 2002.
Haltof, Marek. Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.
Lankosz, Borys. Ziarno Prawdy. 30 January 2015. Next Film, n.d.
Pasikowski, Władysław. Pokłosie. Menemsha Films and Monolith Films, 2012.
“Patterns Of Anti-Jewish Violence In Poland, 1944-1946 | Www.Yadvashem.Org.” Accessed May 8, 2021. patterns-of-anti-jewish-violence.html.
Institute for Jewish Policy Research. “Poland.” Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 2021. https://www.jpr.org.uk/country?id=244.
“Poland | Www.Yadvashem.Org.” Accessed May 9, 2021. poland-historical-background.html.
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1 Translated into English by Madeline G. Levine 1997. Bogdan Wojdowski was born Dawid Wojdowski in 1930 in Warsaw. Wojdowski committed suicide in 1994, after which his widow commented “The Holocaust keeps killing its survivors. Other Holocaust survivors who committed suicide later in life include Tadeusz Borowski and Primo Levi. “Bogdan Wojdowski, Goodreads, last modified 2021, https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/508076.Bogdan_Wojdowski.
2 Poland ceased to exist as its Western part was incorporated into the Reich as Warthegau and the larger part became the General Government.
3 “United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), accessed February 15, 2021, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/polish-victims.
4 “Poland,” Institute for Jewish Policy Research: Poland, accessed February 15, 2021, https://www.jpr.org.uk/country?id=244.
5 While the European National Policies Platform confirms that the majority of Poles are Roman Catholic at 87% it is important to note that the terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive and there are in Poland now many Poles with Jewish backgrounds who may identify as non-Jews, as well as many Jews who identify both as Polish and Jewish. In the context of the films, the groups are distinguished because Jewish culture is shown as distinctly different from that of non-Jewish Poles and while any remaining Jews may be able to speak Polish, the common use of Yiddish and Hebrew historically in the Jewish community also kept them separate from those who spoke solely Polish. In accordance with this distinction and for clarity, it should be understood that henceforth the word Poles is in reference only to those who identify first and foremost as Polish with no ties to the Jewish communities that existed prior to the German occupation of Poland in 1939.
6 “United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), accessed February 15, 2021, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/polish-victims.
7 7,112 Poles have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations for their work in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust, more than any other country and making up a third of those recognized overall. “Poland | Www.Yadvashem.Org.” Accessed May 9, 2021. poland-historical-background.html.
8 “Patterns of Anti-Jewish Violence in Poland, 1944-1946,” | WWW.Yadvashem.Org.” Accessed May 8, 2021. patterns-of-anti-jewish-violence.html.
9 Welle (www.dw.com), Deutsche. “Poland Marks 50 Years since 1968 Anti-Semitic Purge | DW | 08.03.2018.” DW.COM. Accessed May 8, 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/poland-marks-50-years-since-1968-anti-semitic-purge/a-42877652.
10 Wojdowski, Bogdan, Bread for the Departed. (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 231.
11 Ibid, 91.
12 Ibid, 287.
13 Shallcross, Bożena. “The Muselmann and the Necrotopography of a Ghetto.” The Journal of Holocaust Research 34, no. 3 (July 2, 2020): 220–40.
14 Wojdowski, Bogdan, Bread for the Departed. (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 46.
15 Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Routledge, 1994.
16 Haltof, Marek. Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.
17 Toronto Jewish Film Festival. “Birthplace.” Accessed May 8, 2021. https://tjff.com/birthplace/.
18 Gross, Jan Tomasz, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2002).
19 Culture.pl. “The Matzevot for Everyday Use – Łukasz Baksik.” Accessed May 8, 2021. https://culture.pl/en/work/the-matzevot-for-everyday-use-lukasz-baksik.
20 A dybbuk is a spirit that is a part of ancient Jewish mythology. It is believed to be an evil, jilted spirit clinging to the living realm by possessing the body of a living person. The concept of the dybbuk is most famously explored in Michał Waszyński’s 1937 film adapted from S. An-Sky’s play, both entitled Der Dibuk.
21 A shochet is a Jewish ritual slaughterer who is learned in the laws of kosher and kills per the tradition of the Torah. The chalef is the knife used in such a process, which is kept expertly sharpened to permit the fast and smooth slitting of the animal’s throat.
22 Blood libel is the false allegation that Jews murder Christians, more specifically their children, in ritual murders in order to harvest the blood, using it for other rituals, such as making matzah.