Images from A Generation:

Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki) exuberantly driving a cart to pick up lumber.

Stach’s change of mood as he sees the column of Jews.

The Jewish labor group being herded by Nazis with dogs.

Stach’s epiphany.

Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar) passes a line of Polish citizen hung by the Nazis as part of the reign of terror.

Jasio’s terrified reaction.

Abram (Zygmunt Hobot), a Jewish escapee from the Ghetto asks Jasio for help.

Jasio refuses to help Abram.

Images from Pan Tadeusz:

Adam Mickiewicz (Krzysztof Kolberger) reading from his poem to a group of Polish émigrés in Paris.

Zofia (Alicja Bachleda) pleads with Jankiel (Wladyslaw Kowalski) to play for them.

Jankiel finally begins to play.

Jankiel escorted from the house by two of the bridesmaids.

The textile factory of Karl Wilhelm Scheibler in Lodz in the 1870s. Wajda filmed scenes from The Promised Land in the factory in 1970.

Images from The Promised Land:

Inside the vast textile factory – peasant girls at the looms

Workers consumed by the factory.

Moryc, Karol, and Max size up the women of Lodz displaying their wealth in the theatre.

Moryc negotiating loans for their factory.



The Holocaust

The fanatical attempt to exterminate a particular “race,” defying rational explanation, gives the Holocaust its singular intensity.[26][open endnotes in new window] That other segments of the population of Poland, in particular the Poles, suffered large-scale savagery and massacres during WWII is also not in doubt.[27] In a tragic irony, it is the Jewish and Polish survivors of that war and their descendants who have been least able to be reconciled to what took place in Poland. Jews understandably demand recognition of the special significance of the Holocaust, and they demand acknowledgement of the part played in it by Polish anti-Semitism. From a Jewish perspective, the increasingly active anti-Semitic mood of the inter-war period and the apparent passivity of Poles during the war, were contributing factors in the virtual elimination of the Jewish population under Nazi rule. Following racially motivated attacks immediately after the war and further pogroms in 1968, finally by the beginning of the 1970s most Jews felt that they could have no place in Poland’s future.[28] Some of their deep feelings of resentment and rejection have been expressed as a demand:

“Do tell us … that what has happened to us was not our fault. We do not ask for anything else. But we do hope for such an acknowledgement." [29]

But Poles, too, want recognition of their tragedy: of the systematic destruction of their nation, the murder of the intelligentsia and the political and military leadership, and the enslavement, deportation, and massacre of a large number of the population. They ask for acknowledgement of their attempts to resist the overwhelming forces ranged against them, and of the reign of terror imposed by the Nazis. They feel doubly victimized by accusations of collusion in the Holocaust.[30]

A fractured society

The Holocaust has continued to divide the two communities and many of the conflicts that disfigure Polish-Jewish relations are rooted in mutual recrimination over lack of solidarity, betrayal, and collaboration with their enemies in that time of crisis.[31] In 1987 some focus for the seemingly unending dispute emerged from a ground-breaking paper by Jan Blonski, “The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto,” reproduced in My Brother’s Keeper? (Polonsky 1990).[32] In this he directly confronts Polish reluctance to face the problem of the relationship between the two communities. Building on a vivid metaphor from Czeslaw Milosz of a “guardian mole” which burrows into the poet’s sub-conscious, exposing the deepest fear “that one might be counted among the helpers of death,” he asks that Poles accept moral responsibility for what happened in the Holocaust.[33] Blonski insists that they have to put aside their defensiveness, their denial of blame, and their excuse of extenuating circumstances, however legitimate these may be, and he confronts them with a number of troubling questions which I have paraphrased as:

  • How did you live together with Jews in the past?
  • Have you “looked with acquiescence at the death of the Jews”?
  • Have you assisted at the death of Jews?
  • Have you helped to kill Jews?

He claims that only by considering these ethical issues in “an open and honest way,” can there be hope for reconciliation between the two communities (Blonski 1990:42). Blonski’s paper led to a series of discussions one effect of which, according to Polonsky, is that a new stage of Polish-Jewish relations could be thought possible and which moves beyond “strongly held competing and incompatible narratives of the past [to] reach some consensus” (2007:131).

Wajda seems to have anticipated this debate and Blonski’s questions which, I will argue, substantially inform an analysis of the cinematic treatment of Jewish-Polish relations throughout his career.


Suppression of memory after catastrophic events such as war, and in this case the Holocaust, is not uncommon and there is frequently a latency period during which time it is difficult, if not impossible, for people to cope with the resulting trauma. As Elsaesser argues, this often leads to the failure adequately to represent them (2001:195). However, Wajda seems to have been very aware of the necessity to broach the subject starting with his first feature, made just 10 years after the events depicted.

A Generation is set at the time of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. Here, we encounter two very different characters, Stach and Jasio, who exemplify what Stevenson calls

“a Brechtian use of the double … that allows a stress on the contradictions of resistance to emerge …” (2003:78).

Where Stach is naïve and recklessly oblivious to the harsh reality of occupation, Jasio is complex and terrified of the extreme danger that confronts all Poles. This doubling allows Wajda to provide contrasting views of the possibilities of resistance to the Nazis and, in turn, support for the Jews. Audiences identifying with one or the other are encouraged to see the contradictions of their position.

As each undergoes an “epiphany,” they become acutely conscious of the imminent fate of the Jews in Poland. For Stach this occurs in a remarkable sequence where he is allowed to drive a cart to pick up timber for the carpentry shop where they both work.[34]

It is a bright sunny day and cheerful fairground music accompanies shots taken over the horses” shoulders interspersed with low-angle shots of Stach laughing and encouraging them with whirrs and whistles. Clearly he is exhilarated by the sense of temporary freedom from work and the power of the horses under his control.

As the cart passes under a bridge, Stach is forced to swerve sharply to avoid a column of people, men and women, old and young, carrying picks and shovels, being beaten and herded by guards with dogs and guns. We can just pick out the compulsory star of David on one or two of the figures shuffling, we infer, to their deaths.

The dramatic change of mood, the shadow literally and figuratively falling over Stach, has no commentary. The music changes sharply, becoming laden with doom, and the sound of the whip takes on a sinister meaning. We now recognize the irony of the merry-go-round music which refers to another poem by Milosz in which he contrasts the indifference of the living, enjoying a fun fair, with “those dying alone, forgotten by the world.”[35] In the space of just 15 seconds Wajda shows how Stach has been forced to confront the reality of life for Jews in Warsaw under occupation, something which quickly leads him on to join the resistance and support the Jews.

Jasio, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the German reign of terror. On his way to work he passes a line of hanging figures — Polish civilians executed and displayed as an example to a large crowd that watches in silence. He is filled with fear and refuses to help Stach and the resistance.[36] This fear persists even when he is visited by Abram, a former friend, who has escaped from the ghetto and has come to ask for shelter.

When Jasio refuses to help — blaming his “Jewish appearance” which would make it impossible for him to be safely hidden — Abram silently slips away. There is a long take of the dark street and crashing piano chords and drums, signalling Abram’s fate.[37] It is at this point that Jasio realises he can no longer remain “neutral”. Even in the face of extreme danger, his guilt over the abandonment of Abram drives him to join Stach and his compatriots.

Haltof notes that like a number of Jewish characters in Wajda’s films, “Abram tests his fellow countrymen” (2011:80). Some commentators have suggested that Wajda felt most closely attuned to Jasio since his own experiences during the war were similar.[38] Stevenson is more insightful in noting that Wajda seems to have been “troubled by a kind of nagging guilt over something not quite definable” (2003:83). The guilt that Jasio feels for having turned Abram away inflects Wajda’s work with a more generalised guilt for the way Poles forsook the Jews in their time of need.

Visual and aural motifs of fun fair and carousel are repeated in this film and later in Holy Week. Though they should crystallise the indifference of Poles to the fate of the Jews behind the ghetto walls, Wajda seems to weaken this meaning or at least to balance it with evidence of Polish support for the uprising. Stach’s growing involvement with the resistance and his attraction to Dorota, the leader of the group, occurs as they wander among the stalls of the fair. The carousel itself is the backdrop to the group’s meeting to plot their effort to provide aid to the Jews. In Holy Week, Julek, a member of the resistance, uses the swing on the carousel to spy over the ghetto wall and work out where they might break in.

But is the criticism of Wajda’s partiality just? There has been a debate about whether or not the fair in Krasinski Square was actually in operation at the time of the uprising. Haltof cites convincing evidence that indeed it was, yet the same evidence shows that it was used “by the underground fighters as an observation point that enabled them to follow the struggles in the ghetto” (2011:83-4). Thus Wajda seems to have been historically accurate while perhaps still giving too much weight to the support given by Poles rather than to their indifference.

A Generation was severely treated by the censor on a number of counts. As it was to be released on the 10th anniversary of birth of the Polish Communist Party it was required to show the party in a good light. In practice, the Home Army or Armia Krajowa (AK) was the main resistance movement in Poland during the war and had been more active than the communists in helping the Jews. However, after the war they were considered the enemies of socialist Poland and the much smaller and less effective communist People’s Guard was credited with a greater role than the AK. Thus, this history is reversed in the film.[39] Stevenson also cites a particular scene, cut from the release, that refers to the Holocaust and Polish relations to it as being too negative for the censors (2003:75). Despite these, and other, distortions of history — Haltof calls it “a work tainted by political compromise” (2011:78) — I would argue that the film marks the beginning of Wajda’s quest to awaken a moral conscience in his audience and to break the silence in Poland about the Holocaust. In so doing he laid the foundations for pursuing Blonski’s questions.

Living together

Wajda’s examination of how Poles and Jews lived together in the past may be seen in a number of his films set at critical points of Polish history. Pan Tadeusz takes place in 1811-12 when many Poles still hoped the alliance with Napoleon would lead to the overthrow of Russian domination; The Promised Land is set during the second half of the 19th century, after another failed uprising in 1863, and during the rapid growth of industrialization in Poland; The Wedding moves on to the turn of the century when quixotic elements of the Polish gentry tried to form an alliance with the peasants; and, finally, Samson and Korczak chart the increasing internal strife of the 1930s in the run up to the Nazi invasion. Each of these films, to a greater or lesser extent, contain elements of the intertwined Polish Catholic and Jewish communities and, taken together, trace the arc of a significant stretch of Jewish history in Poland.

The most recent of these films goes back the furthest in time. Pan Tadeusz (1999) is based on an epic poem written around 1833-34 by Poland’s eminent Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz.[40] Written while he was in exile in Paris, the purpose of the work was to try and restore a sense of unity and hope among Poles at a time of great turbulence following the partitions of 1795 and the failed uprising of 1831 (Segel 1996:164). Set two decades earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars, it tells of two feuding Polish-Lithuanian clans united eventually through marriage in a common cause against the Russian occupiers.

The main themes of the poem are designed to induce patriotic fervour among Poles: the evocation of the homeland and nature; the recounting of past victories in battles; a nostalgic vision of life lived by the gentry; and a story of love between the beautiful Zofia and the handsome noble Tadeusz. On close study, however, it is evident that the “seemingly peripheral character of the Jewish musician and innkeeper, Jankiel” has an important, if not central, position in the story (Shallcross 1995:523). He is a man trusted by the Polish gentry, at the centre of communal life, deeply involved in plotting an insurrection, and dedicated to the preservation of Polish national traditions (Hertz and Dobroszycki 1988:243).

Jankiel appears at various critical points throughout the poem.[41] In Book IV there is a description of the inn and a characterization of Jankiel himself (Mickiewicz 1986:164-66):

“The Jew was old, and through the years had gained
A name for honesty …
He kept a strict account, nor cheated ever …
As a musician Jankiel was renowned …
And especially loved the ballads of the nation …
He was a welcome guest and counsel giver …
And was a loyal Pole by reputation …”

Later, in Book VII, Jankiel (‘whom all loved’) intervenes in an argument between representatives of the two factions. He uses his eloquence to prevent a fight breaking out among the gentry, though he describes himself as “nought but a Jew.”

Most significant, however, is a long section near the end of the poem (Book XII), when Jankiel plays the dulcimer at the wedding of Tadeusz and Zofia (Mickiewicz 1986:562-68). Though at first:

“They urged him on to play, but he refused;
His hands were stiff, he said, and little used …”

Zofia brings him the hammers and again pleads with him to play for her wedding day:

“She curtsied: ‘Jankiel, play for me,’ she pressed,
‘It’s my betrothal, Jankiel, won’t you play,
You said you’d play upon my wedding day!’”

He finally agrees for her sake and after some preliminary music, plays a patriotic polonaise they all recognise. The “girls long to dance and the boys can scarce keep still,” but he moves on:

“Then all the strings like trumpets blared,
And from the trumpets to the heavens sped
That march of triumph: Poland is not dead!”

Jankiel is overwhelmed by the music and his audience’s response:

“… He sobbed the honest Jew
He loved our country like a patriot true”

Though Jankiel appears and disappears throughout the text, this final section completes his transformation from outsider. He has become, most clearly, “an integral part of the Polish community” (Segel 1996:29) or as Schama puts it a “natural .. figure in the landscape” (1992). He remains a Jew in dress, religious practice, and association, but above all he is a Polish patriot. Mickiewicz creates a vision of Jewish life in Poland — of separateness but not alienation — of two communities finding aspects of life that are mutually compatible and beneficial (Opalski and Bartal 1992:18-20).

Wajda, by his own account, had wanted for a long time to make a film of Pan Tadeusz.[42] The opportunity came finally in the late 1990s when finance became available to approach such an epic subject. At the same time, Poland was beset with financial and political scandals that threatened to destroy its fragile democracy. Wajda’s treatment of this masterpiece of Polish poetry concentrated on creating a tale of resolved disputes and restored unity.[43]

While it is possible to analyze Pan Tadeusz giving hardly a mention to Jankiel,[44] I would argue that this film continued Wajda’s examination of how Poles and Jews lived together in the past—in this case going back to a period of general accord. Though his handling of Jankiel is less defined than in the source poem, he retains three key registers: Jankiel as “elder statesman” in the tavern where the gentry come to drink; Jankiel as “honest advisor” helping to resolve disputes; and above all at the wedding concert where Jankiel is clearly a beloved part of the Polish community.

Mazierska is right to lament Wajda’s truncated treatment of Mickiewicz’s long and elegaic description of Jankiel’s playing of the dulcimer (2001:175). However, it is difficult to envision how the meaning of the different phases of the music could be expressed in the absence of words, even if it could be reconstructed. And though Wajda does not attempt this, nonetheless important elements remain in this final scene: the tuning of the instruments to raise expectations; the central position of Jankiel as he emerges from the mansion, flanked by two bridesmaids and their escorts; Zofia’s impassioned plea to Jankiel to play; his initial hesitation that suggests modesty; his moment of preparatory concentration that stresses the importance of the scene; and the final dance inspired by his music that brings the community together.[45] As Stevenson rightly concludes, Pan Tadeusz speaks of “the continuing and necessary affinity [of Poles] to their past, to Polish history, and, in Jankiel, directly to a shared Polish-Jewish history” (2003:91).


Pan Tadeusz looks, it must be admitted with some rural nostalgia, at a time of relative concord between different elements of Polish society — this is the start of the period when Poles and Jews would be considered truly a “brotherhood of nations.” In contrast, the next film to be considered is a meticulous evocation of the turmoil that followed rapid urbanization and industrialization in various Central and Eastern European regions. Wajda also turned to a literary text, this time to the relatively unknown realist novel The Promised Land (1898) by Wladyslaw Reymont.[46] Set in Lodz during the decades after 1870, this covers the most intense period of industrialization that saw the small town transformed into the main textile production centre of the Russian Empire.[47] Skilled German weavers, entrepreneurs and mill owners, Polish peasants, and Jewish artisans, entrepreneurs, and petty merchants flocked to the town and were encouraged to settle in this “promised land” (Bechtel 2006:80).

The city that grew out of this development was ethnically diverse and “noted for its relative tolerance” (Young and Kaczmarek 2008:58). But it also boasted gross inequalities. Bloated German, Polish, and Jewish industrialists displayed their immense wealth with elaborate mansions that jostled the tenements of the impoverished middle class and the slums of the desperate peasant laborers. These inequalities led to labor unrest and eventually to a violently suppressed general strike.[48]

The Polish gentry, living in their landed estates, seem to have been taken unawares and were by-passed by the headlong rush into modernity happening on their doorstep. These changes in circumstance and the nationalist ideas that were taking hold at the time provoked increasing antipathies. Rather than being seen as beneficial to Polish society and prosperity, Germans and Jews began to be resented for their newly acquired status and economic strength. In particular, the euphoric communalism of the Warsaw demonstrations in 1861 gave way to the anti-Jewish riots of 1881 (Opalski and Bartal 1992:100).[49] The right-wing Polish nationalist political party, the Endecja, was founded shortly after, eventually to be led by the anti-Semitic Roman Dmowski.

Such is the political context of Reymont’s novel. Though Reymont had a fascination for the city and the “joyous cacophony” of modernization he was undoubtedly influenced by the views of Dmowski and “unquestionably does make use of the clichés and phrases of anti-Semitic discourse” (Bechtel 2006:89).

The context of production of Wajda’s film version, Promised Land (1974), has some parallels: recently there had been a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment leading to a large-scale purge of Jews from the ranks of the Communist party; a workers' rebellion in 1970 had been brutally put down; and the early years of the subsequent Gierek government had seen significant industrial expansion and modernization.[50] By his own account, Wajda was captivated by the realism and precision of the novel’s description of the city and its industrial life and processes. He saw the energy and enterprise of the three central characters as an antidote to the growing disappointment of the Gierek era. And he was intent on showing his view of the realities of industrial capitalism: the inter-dependency of different sections and strata of the community, and the contrast between excessive wealth and the poverty, misfortune and the abuse of individuals that accompanied it (Fogler 1996a).

Wajda’s screenplay had to negotiate a fine line between the communist censors’ resistance to acknowledging Poland’s pre-war multiculturalism, their insistence on displaying the failures of capitalism, and yet their promotion of a “get rich now” ethos (Michnik 2000:154). He succeeded, Wajda notes, perhaps with tongue in cheek, because after all, the film was “progressive.”[51]

Wajda filmed on site in the factories and mansions of Lodz, many of which remained largely in their 19th century state, constructing a masterly portrait of the brutal milieu of raw capitalism unfettered by the rule of law. Using distorting wide angle lenses for the factory buildings, spewing smoke from their towering stacks and consuming lines of submissive workers in their enormous maws, he captures the grand scale of the industrial world. Endless rows of mechanized looms, retreating into the distance, are served by young peasant girls fresh from their farms. Movement is rapid and constant, and the music of clattering machines and pounding pistons drive the action forward to an irresistible rhythm. Accidents happen—a limb is torn off here, a man killed elsewhere—and widows left to pawn their meagre possessions or beg for food. Factories fail, the owners burn them down for the insurance money, or, in one instance, commit suicide. Meanwhile the successful factory owners and financiers are wealthy beyond their needs.

Against this background, the central plot concerns three main characters: Moryc Welt, a small-time Polish Jewish entrepreneur with partial access to the Jewish financial community; Karol Borowiecki, scion of a family of the Polish Catholic szlachta and manager of a large textile mill; and Max Baum, son of a small-time German mill owner. The three close friends, sharing an apartment, constantly conspire and deal to make enough money to start up their own factory. They argue and fight—it seems they will do anything to achieve their ends—but they are also forever watchful as each is subject to temptation to cut out the other two.

Moryc with a bloody nose after a fight with Max. Max laughing at their common plight.

Thus the elements of greedy capitalism are all present, and to some extent the film may be seen simply as an “apocalyptic spectacle of capitalism’s failures” as Coates has it (1997:224). In this respect, it looks back to Dickens in the quirky, downtrodden clerks and servants; Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) in the ever-present and rapacious machinery; and realist works such as Zola’s Germinal (1885) in the plight of the working masses. But Coates finds other, more disturbing, elements. He argues that, while Wajda “consciously espous[es] the liberal intellectual commitment to do justice to the Jews,” he is loath to relinquish the use of stereotypes (222). Though Wajda recuperates the character of Moryc, who, in contrast to the novel, ultimately remains loyal to his Polish and German partners, Coates maintains that he caricatures the Jewish industrialists as greedy and ignorant, and their wives as showy, bejewelled and excessively sensual.[52]

This is an important comment especially given the damaging criticism of the film, from some sources, as anti-Semitic.[53] So, was Wajda, inadvertently or not, exhibiting a lack of sensitivity to the Polish-Jewish community in his film? Or was he illustrating the anti-Semitism of the time in such a way as to provoke discussion—to force his audience to reflect on Blonski’s question about how Poles and Jews lived together in the past? I think this question can be approached through a number of key scenes.

The first is set in a restaurant where Moryc sweeps in, gathering information left and right, busily darting from his table and back, trying to set up deals. The background is a hubbub of Jewish businessmen, dealing, arguing, bobbing and bowing. The language is a mix of German, Russian, Yiddish, and Polish. Moryc himself, concerned with trying to raise money for the factory venture, boasts (optimistically) that they have a loan.[54] It is possible to read this scene as stereotyping Moryc and the Jewish entrepreneurs, in contrast to other scenes that individuate the Polish gentry and German mill-owners. However, Moryc is a fully rounded character and a clearly delineated part of the financial community. It is at least arguable that this is a realistic depiction of the energy and dynamism of the financial system at the time that was essential to the rapidly expanding economy.

Müller’s dreadful daughter Mada (Bozena Dykiel) displays her jewels. The opulent Lucy Zucker (Kalina Jedrusik) flaunts her husband’s wealth.

The second scene is set in the Theatre at a variety show. All the rich and famous of Lodz are present—factory owners, financiers, and the three striving friends. The theatre, like the restaurant, is a place of business and here we see each section of society only interested in flaunting wealth and success—the stage performances are incidental. When news arrives of a change in tariff that will affect the mill owners there is no more of a Jewish reaction than there is a Polish or German reaction — some will gain others lose. In general the film is more balanced than the original novel in that it shows the greed of capitalism is all its forms: ruthless mill owners; lack of communal values; exploitation of position; and the self-interest and separatism of the different parts of society.

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