A “failed brotherhood”: Polish-Jewish relations and the films of Andrzej Wajda
  by Tim Kennedy

Detail of Polish and French title page of a 1927 edition of the Statute of Kalisz illustrated by Arthur Syzk. Ink and paint on paper. The Jewish Museum, New York. (Gift of Andrew A. Lynn, JM 63-67. Jewish Museum/Art Resource, NY. Reproduced with the cooperation of Alexandra Szyk Braice and The Arthur Szyk Society, www.szyk.org).

Zydowski by Zofia Stryjenska. Woodcut, ca. 1924. Postcard based on an original woodcut. Maja Trochimczyk Collection. Used by permission.

Ashes and Diamonds. In this much quoted scene, Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), a member of the Polish resistance movement, mocks the fate of a generation lost to war – a fatalism symbolised by burning vodka glasses lit in their memory.



Man of Marble. Wajda indirectly criticises the Stalinist regime in Poland with this film about an idealised Socialist worker-hero, Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), first memorialised in marble and then consigned to obscurity by the authorities after being accused of leading a subversive Polish workers’ movement.









For over 700 years Jews were a vibrant presence in Central and Eastern Europe. The earliest official recognition of their status in Poland was the Statute of Kalisz, which detailed the rights and privileges granted them by Boleslaw the Pious, Grand Duke of Poland in 1264. Despite their mixed fortunes—sometimes welcomed, other times reviled— by some estimates about three-quarters of the world’s Jews lived in the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by the middle of the 16th century. This figure remained very nearly steady until the first part of the 20th century by which time they made up over ten percent (3.5 million) of the population of the emerging state of Poland.[1][open endnotes in new window]

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth itself was under constant threat from its neighbors and from infighting between the ruling families. By the end of the 18th century it had disappeared, partitioned between the new Empires of Russia, Prussia, and Austria.[2] Attempts by the occupying forces to suppress Polish culture and language were resisted by a nation united by Catholicism, a common heritage and culture, and the spoken language.

Jews fared differently in the different partitions. But as Davies describes, as each of the occupying states imposed their authority, “Jews for the first time became full citizens of the countries in which they lived” (2005:177). However citizenship did not confer equality nor did it resolve issues of identity. To escape discrimination usually meant assimilation, which mostly involved Jews giving up much of their identity and “accepting the dominant religion, language and culture of the country in which they lived” (181).[3]

The dissolution of Poland by the partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795.

A brotherhood of nations

Thus it has always been common to refer to Polish Catholics as Poles and to Polish Jews as Jews—that is as separate nations living in one place. However, the idea of Poles and Jews as “brothers” with a common cause first appeared at the end of the 18th century during the final, failed defence of the Commonwealth against Russian invasion, and it was cemented by various joint uprisings over the next 50 years, especially the 1863 Polish insurrection. From this latter event derived the important image of “Polish-Jewish comradeship-in-arms” (Steinlauf 1995:430). For some intellectuals they became a brotherhood of “the world’s two most suffering nations” (Opalski and Bartal 1992:2-5) with many common bonds, even in their religious faith.[4] However, the short-lived euphoria that gave rise to this rhetoric soon dissipated, perhaps inevitably, under the twin stresses of growing Polish and Jewish nationalism and the schisms caused by the rapid expansion in the latter half of the 19th century of raw, unfettered capitalism.

Though this ideal of a “brotherhood of nations” may have been partially mythical and in any case limited to small segments of the population, its failure has had far-reaching consequences. Hopes had been raised of a dynamic multi-cultural society only to be dashed, leaving a bitter resentment that has soured the relationship into current times. At least some of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Poland in the late 20th century, which exacerbated the mutual recriminations that followed the Holocaust, can be traced back to the conflicts of the previous century.

The turbulent Polish-Jewish relationship over the hundred or so years between the mid 19th and 20th centuries has been reflected extensively in art, music, literature, and poetry, each of which has received much critical attention.[5] For example, this decorative illustration of a “Jewish dance,” one of a set of eleven Polish country and formal dances, is far from innocent. Orthodox Jews would not dance in this manner and, as Bret Werb notes, it may refer to the way 19th century Polish landowners coerced “their Jews” to perform “a travesty of devout song accompanied by dancing and extravagant hand gestures” in order to ridicule them (2003:1).

Cinema has been more reticent on the subject, especially Polish cinema, with filmmaker Andrzej Wajda providing its most sustained examination. Throughout his career, he has made the treatment of Polish-Jewish relations “one of his major tasks” and has sought “to insist on the centrality of [this] issue for the Nation” (Stevenson 2003:76-77). However, that has often placed him at the centre of controversy as critics and film scholars have scrutinised this element of his work for the manner in which he has represented Jews and Polish-Jewish relations.[6]

Andrzej Wajda

Andrzej Wajda has lived through perhaps the most tragic period of Polish history. Born in 1926, just five years after the foundation of the modern democratic state and two months before its first military coup, he witnessed yet another dismemberment of his country, this time by the brutal forces of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and the subjugation of its people to foreign control.[7]

His father, a captain in the Polish Infantry, was captured and killed by the Soviets in the secret massacre of Polish intelligentsia at Katyn in 1940.[8] Wajda, by his own account, had to remain in hiding during much of the war for fear of arrest and deportation by the Germans.[9] After the war he enrolled first in the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow and then graduated from the Lodz Film School in 1953. In his subsequent career as a filmmaker, he worked under various forms of Soviet-controlled political system and military dictatorship, until Poland emerged again as a democratic state in the 1990s.

Wajda’s first three films—A Generation (1954), Kanal (1957), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958)—form a trilogy set during WWII.[10] The last of these was especially successful both in Poland and internationally. As Stevenson describes that period, Wajda became “a key figure in the contemporary representation of an idea of Poland” (Stevenson 2003:82). Indeed, the exploration of Polish national identity through cinema became his lifetime’s work. Though not always successful, many of his films were influential with Poles, both in Poland and the diaspora in the campaign for national self-determination.[11]

Any analysis of films made under the communist regime in Poland has to take account of the rigid controls and censorship of cultural works.[12] Under this system all film projects had to be reviewed and approved by a committee of the politburo, and many of the scripts that Wajda wrote or commissioned had to be altered. At other times production was delayed or cancelled and he was often forced to cut or edit his films to suit the censors’ demands: cinema was allowed “no political or moral ambiguity” and was required to “illuminate Communist achievements, denounce enemies of the state, and educate viewers in the spirit of socialism” (Mazierska 2005). However, the early international reputation he gained allowed Wajda, at least to a limited extent, to probe the boundaries of political freedom. He stubbornly continued to comment on the frequent subjugation and repression of the Polish people by hegemonic empires and totalitarian states, mainly through the optic of historical events.[15]

Ashes (1965), for example, deals with the Napoleonic campaigns of 1797-1813 and the quixotic and ultimately senseless attempt by the Polish nobility to free the nation from a previous period of Russian domination. The Wedding (1973), based on a verse play by Stanislaw Wyspianski and set around 1900, seems to suggest a socially divided nation again trying but failing to liberate Poland from foreign occupation.[14] His “war films” are largely concerned with attempts at resistance to Nazi rule, and his pair of  films, Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981), attack the Soviet-imposed authoritarian regime of the post-war period.[15] In different ways, these films were an indirect critique of the political situation in Poland. Then, in the uncertain political situation following the demise of the Soviet Union, Wajda made Pan Tadeusz (1998), returning to the early nineteenth century and rebellion against Russian domination. For many Poles, this film was “a celebration of Polishness” that re-created “the Poland of their dreams ... in which all their conflicts could be resolved” (Falkowska 2007:252).

Thus Wajda campaigned, within the bounds of state censorship, to help Poland resist being “digested” by the Soviet Union and to sustain Polish national identity.[16] Importantly, this did not exclude the other major narrative of Poland—that of the Jewish community. But Wajda’s depiction of the historical treatment of Jews in Poland, the war, and the Holocaust, has not always yielded the results he might have wished for. As we shall see, though his “often proclaimed ambition has been to reconcile Poles and Jews” (Haltof 2011:187), his work raises a number of important issues of representation: distortions of facts; conscious or unconscious stereotyping; the “Christianization of Jews”; the differentiated role of women; and his partial treatment of the experience of occupation on Poles and Jews.

Content and historical context

This article sets eight of Wajda’s films in the context of debates over the Holocaust and the longer-term persecution of Jews in Poland. I argue that in these films he deliberately confronts audiences, especially Poles, with a series of questions that many have preferred to suppress or avoid. It is impossible to gauge with any accuracy the effect of Wajda’s work on Polish attitudes at home or in the diaspora towards Jews. As we shall see, the controversies surrounding the release of two of his films — Promised Land (1974), and Korczak (1990), and the eruption over Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985)[17] — provoked and stimulated debate among audiences, critics, and scholars that has been instrumental in the gradual opening up of a productive dialogue between Poles and Jews.[18] If for no other reason, Wajda’s approach to the issue deserves detailed attention.

These films were made under varying regimes of censorship and control in Poland, and cover nearly a hundred years of Polish history. Thus we may think of two “parallel histories”: one of the content of the films and one of the general conditions of their production. The histories of the films under consideration are summarised in the table below.


Film title Film content

General social and
historical context

A Generation (1954)

A Generation. Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar), a member of the Polish resistance, jumps to his death after being trapped by German soldiers – the enclosing, circular stairwell renders the inescapable fate of Poland surrounded by enemies.

1942-3 Polish resistance movement (communist).

Warsaw Ghetto uprising and help for the Jews.

1946 Kielce massacre of returning Jews spurs wave of emigration (see note 28).

State censorship of cinema. Socialist Realism “encouraged” in the arts.

Criticism of non-communist resistance (Home Army), Catholicism, and Capitalism.

1953-56 Cultural thaw at end of Stalinist regime. Despite the continued heavy political censorship a “Polish School” of filmmakers emerged. Wajda led the way with his “war trilogy”— A Generation (1954); Kanal (1957), which wins prize at Cannes; and Ashes and Diamonds (1958), which wins major critical approval worldwide.

1956 Gomulka appointed Polish leader.

Exodus of Jews, mostly to Israel as result of rise of anti-Semitism.

Samson (1961)

Samson. The Jewish student, Jakub (Serge Merlin), accosted in the University courtyard by anti-Semitic Polish nationalist supporters.

1935-43 Warsaw.

Rise of anti-Semitism and German invasion of Poland.

Fate of a Jewish student with the onset of the Nazi extermination policy.

1960s Nationalist faction led by General Moczar makes bid for power in an overtly anti-Semitic campaign.

1960s Revisionism about Holocaust in Poland.

1965 Catholic church Vatican II council repudiates past anti-Semitism.

Landscape After Battle (1970)

Landscape After Battle. Concentration camp inmates come to terms with their imminent liberation.

1945 Liberation of concentration camp at the end of the war.

Focus on a Polish and Jewish couple in the aftermath of release.

1967 Israeli-Arab Six-Day War. Poland breaks off relations with Israel.

1968 Anti-Zionist campaign. Approximately 20,000 Jews emigrate.

1968 Several filmmakers leave Poland. Film units restructured under nationalists.

The Wedding (1973)

The Wedding. The country Bride (Ewa Zietek) and the Groom (Daniel Olbrychski) in their wedding procession.

1901 Countryside: Austrian sector of partitioned Poland.

Relations between gentry and peasants.

Jewish presence in countryside.

1970s Restrictions on depiction of Polish-Jewish relations and “organized forgetting about Holocaust.”

1970 Gdansk revolt. Strikes in Lodz.

Gierek comes to power.

Promised Land (1974)

Promised Land. Business partners Moryc (Wojciech Pszoniak), Karol (Daniel Olbrychski), and Max (Andrzej Seweryn) celebrate securing a plot of land for their factory


1860s-90s Lodz.

Rapid industrialization of Poland.

Relations between German, Jewish, and Polish businesses and financiers.

1970s Film units reorganized. Greater artistic freedom.

1977 Wajda’s Man of Marble. Film wins prize at Cannes 1978.

1978 Election of Polish Pope John Paul II. He holds Mass at Auschwitz in 1979.

1980 Emergence of “Solidarity” trade union.

1981 Military coup. General Jaruzelksi comes to power. Martial law declared.

1981 Wajda’s Man of Iron. Film wins prize at Cannes.

1982 Some films made about Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations.

1983 Wajda removed from studio as it installs directors favorable to the regime. Resigns as head of Polish Film Association. Makes Danton in France and then a series of largely unsuccessful films under martial law in Poland.

1984 Oxford conference on Polish-Jewish relations.

1985 Shoah (Claude Lanzmann) shown on Polish TV.

1987 Jan Blonski article, "Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto."

Korczak (1990)

Korczak. Dr Korczak (Wojciech Pszoniak) enters the walled off Warsaw Ghetto.

1939-42 Warsaw Ghetto.

Inside a Jewish children’s orphanage run by Dr Korczak.

1989 End of Soviet domination. Formation of the new Republic of Poland.

1989 Wajda elected as Senator of the new Republic.

1990 Heymann and Lanzmann viciously criticize Korczak and Wajda.

Holy Week (1995)

Holy Week. Jan (Wojciech Malajkat) hurries his former lover Irena (Beata Fudalej) away from the vicinity of the Ghetto to hide in his home.

1942-3 Warsaw.

Fate of a Jewish woman seeking shelter with a Polish Catholic family during the Ghetto uprising.

1996 Holy Week wins award at Berlin 1996.

Pan Tadeusz (1998)

Pan Tadeusz. The Polish army joining forces with Napoleon against the Russians – scene from the film.

Polish Romanticism.

Period of revolt against Russian domination.

Importance of position of Jews in society.

2000 Neighbors book, Jan Gross—on Jedwabne massacre (see note 92).

2000 Wajda wins honorary Oscar for lifetime’s work.

Polish Light Cavalry (Uhlans) took part in the Battle of Grunwald (1410) – a celebrated victory against German-Prussian forces – and in many other battles up to 1939. This potent image of Romantic nationalism is from the 1830s uprising.

Marshal Jozef Pilsudski by Wojciech Kossak, 1928.


Before examining Wajda’s sustained exploration of Polish-Jewish relations, we should, at least in outline, consider the context that led to the two communities living side by side and the frictions that ensued.[19]

Jews in Poland

Jewish settlement in Central and Eastern Europe was actively encouraged for much of the 14th to 18th centuries. In the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Jewish population was granted generous charters of privileges and virtual religious and cultural autonomy under a succession of kings.[20] Though always liable to the imposition of restrictions and expulsion from various towns and cities, their contribution to the culture and economic life of the Commonwealth were important to its development in the period up to the middle of the 17th century.[21] The subsequent decay of governance that led to the partitions of 1772-95 ruptured this mutually beneficial relationship, and Jewish communities had mixed fortunes in the different sectors.[22]

In the East, Jews, in order to maintain their integrity as a people, or indeed to ensure their survival, reinforced their rigid social and religious structures, and increased their tendencies to be inward-looking. Especially in the rural areas they were “deeply conservative and resistant to assimilation” (Hoffman 1999:90-91). But there was also a minority of more western-oriented Jews who began to establish cultural contacts with their Polish neighbors. As the 19th century progressed a number of prominent Jewish reformers supported assimilation and the full participation of Jews in the Polish civic sphere. Jewish militias took part in uprisings against the Russians in 1830-31 and again in the 1850s and 60s, and there were even calls for the “total integration of Jews into Polish life” (Davies 2005:180-82).

Romantic nationalism

At the same time Poles professed a form of Romantic nationalism that looked backwards to distant historical events in which they heroically fought off invaders in defence of their state (Glenny 1993:50-51). Yet a minority of Poles also realised the practicalities of a kind of “messianic alliance” in the struggle for freedom (Steinlauf 1997:10). In the 1830s the national poet Adam Mickiewicz created his most famous work, Pan Tadeusz, which calls for solidarity between Poles and Jews in the fight against oppression (Segel 1996:71). This work is still seen as an important pillar of modern Polish cultural identity.

But the moment passed with the failure of the 1863 uprising, and though Poles and Jews continued to live alongside each other, there was far less harmony. As the concept “brotherhood of nations” reveals, this was not one, integrated people but rather two different ethno-religious groups inhabiting the same lands. Tensions were inevitably magnified during the latter half of the 19th century when increasing industrialization and urbanization changed the balance of power. An additional factor was the influx of a large number of German industrialists who began to contest the place of the historical Polish ruling class (the szlachta) and challenge the key economic position held by Jews for centuries. Furthermore, Jewish refugees fleeing Russia after the pogroms of the 1880s became a “conduit of socialist ideology” (Opalski and Bartal 1992:142).[23] As a result, society became more stratified on religious, ethnic, economic, and class lines (Davies 2005:186-89). New forms of Polish and Jewish nationalism arose which were mutually exclusive and antagonistic.

Poland between the wars

The acute flux during the First World War and the subsequent rebuilding of the new state in the inter-war period in Poland presents an extremely complex picture. On the Polish side there was competition between the pluralist ideas of Jozef Pilsudski,[24] and the “exclusivist” ideas of the Endecja party of Roman Dmowski.[25] On the Jewish side there was a plethora of views: the Zionists who espoused a homeland for Jews in Palestine as well as national rights within Poland; the Agudah who wanted alliance with Pilsudski; and the socialist Bund. For some, this period is an unremitting tale of growing anti-Semitism — of increased restrictions, violence, and pogroms inflicted on the Jewish community — that has been used to explain how the ensuing Holocaust could take place largely on Polish soil. Other historians present a broader picture that also takes account of economic and international pressures (see, for example, Davies (2005:Chapter 9)).


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