Screen shot from Holy Week, showing the carousel set up outside the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. The fun-fair was active on the eve of the ghetto uprising.

A Generation: The Ghetto on fire.

Samson: Kasia infatuated with the sleeping Jakub

Samson: Jakub masking his identity from the Nazis.

Samson: German soldiers boarding up the Ghetto.

Korczak: Ewka (Agnieszka Krukówna) clutching her fur coat.

Korczak: Nazis filming in the Ghetto.

Korczak feeding the birds: ‘The servant said… the canary was a Jew and me a Jew as well.’

Korczak and Stefa (Ewa Dalkowska): ‘..worst of all is to be a sick old Jew with 200 dependent children.’

Korczak at night in the dormitory.


Indifference and complicity

On the eve of WWII anti-Jewish propaganda in Poland diminished, at least for a while, and, once the war started, numerous instances have been reported of Poles hiding Jews at great personal risk and giving support for those incarcerated in the ghettos. On the other hand, many Poles were either indifferent to the fate of the Jewish population or they engaged in callous and criminal activities against them which also extended beyond the end of the war.[76][open endnotes in new window] Whether or not this was motivated by anti-Semitism, it has reinforced a conviction that has prevailed among the Jewish Diaspora, that the Polish nation as a whole rejoiced to see their country cleared of Jews.

But the Nazi project for “the complete racial reconstruction of Europe” was complex, with two distinct strands: the destruction and enslavement of the conquered Slav nations, and the removal of all Jews from German lands (Mazower 1999:164-84). For non-Jewish Poles, the leadership and intellectual elites were to be systematically obliterated such that they could not be re-constituted; and the people were to become slaves serving the needs of the Reich. The case was different for the Jews; initially they were to be transported away from the German sphere of influence, but, from 1940, that policy changed to one of complete annihilation. Bauman shows how this became a bureaucratic, industrial process, with all its grotesque gradations (Bauman 2000:117-50).

  • First, there was the definition of who was a Jew and the identification of Jewish property and people with symbols;
  • this was followed by the concentration of Jews into ghettos and cutting off the ghettos from the outside world;
  • then came starvation, murder, and terrorism; and finally, transportation and massacre in the death camps.

He argues that, by “sealing off” the victims and targeting the persecution precisely, the Nazis could divide the population so that “the two sides [could not] easily find a common denominator and inspire an integrated, united action” (123). Hoffman agrees on the function of the ghetto, not just as a prison, but as a symbol. Jews became ever more definitively, “the other,” placed “beyond the pale of society or solidarity” (Hoffman 1999:220).

The Nazis reinforced this division by terror tactics designed to subdue the population and reduce the possibility of successful resistance. We have already seen this illustrated in Wajda’s first film A Generation, when Jasio is cowed into submission by the sight of Polish civilians being hung in reprisal for some act of defiance. He becomes terrified of being associated with the resistance or with his Jewish former friend Abram. Despite these extenuating circumstances, questions remain as to whether Poles could have done more to assist the Jews once the intentions of the Nazis became clear. Blonski, for example, demands that Catholic Poles not only acknowledge the failure of their historical relationship with their Jewish neighbors, but also re-examine their response to the treatment of Jews during the war and the ensuing Holocaust. It is this latter issue that Wajda addresses in particular in four films: A Generation, Samson, Holy Week, and Korczak.

A Generation illustrates a range of behavior under the pressure of war and occupation. For example, the management of “Berg” woodworking factory where Stach is apprenticed, collaborate with the Nazis. This may have been exigent but clearly the relationship is affable and the factory is earning a fortune by constructing bunks for the occupying soldiers’ barracks. Jasio’s betrayal of Abram does not just signal a personal awakening of conscience but it is also a metonym for the wider betrayal of the Jewish population. And Wajda gives it due emphasis in an intense expressionist sequence set in Jasio’s home.

And specific evidence of Polish anti-Semitism is heaped on the shoulders of Ziarno, the workshop foreman. In a scene following a long take of the burning Ghetto where thick wreaths of smoke and forlorn flag are accompanied by a chilling lamentation of discordant piano and strings on the soundtrack. In a dissolve to the workshop, Ziarno rushes in excitedly, and, with a mocking anti-Semitic gesture, declares that “the Yids have actually started fighting.” Wajda’s montage strikingly contrasts the tragedy of the Ghetto uprising with Ziarno’s callousness.

A Generation: Ziarno’s (Zygmunt Zintel) anti-Semitic gesture. A Generation: Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz) goes off to help the Jews in the Ghetto.

The demands of the censors contrasted these instances of negative behaviour with the heroic efforts of the resistance. In particular, this resulted in the foregrounding of the communist resistance movement led by the avuncular Sekula, and the demonization of the Home Army.[77] With his cell taking refuge under a bridge, Sekula appears and solemnly announces that “the ghetto rose up today … we must help our Jewish comrades.” Then, as the music swells, he turns and gives an almost parodic farewell salute before heading off towards the distant burning ghetto.

The distortion of history imposed on Wajda seriously weakens the impact of his representation of Polish-Jewish relations at this time. Nonetheless, A Generation still manages to raise important questions about that relationship in a popular film which reached a wide audience in Poland and internationally.


I have already discussed the opening of Samson with respect to the treatment of Jews in the period leading up to the war. I now want to consider some of the deeper issues raised by the main body of the film: how Samson/Jakub is represented; who helps him and other Jews, and who doesn’t; and what roles women play in his story.

After Jakub emerges from prison he and his mother are incarcerated in the ghetto by the Gestapo. His mother dies and is buried. From the graveyard, Jakub escapes over the wall with the help of an acquaintance, Genio. Jakub follows Genio to his girlfriend’s place but they refuse to hide him and he is left to roam the darkened streets trying to avoid capture. By chance, he arrives at the grand apartment of Lucyna, an actress, who allows him to stay. They quickly become lovers, but he is afraid her friends will expose him and place her in danger. She reveals that she is also Jewish, but plays her role as a non-Jew sucessfully. He leaves anyway, and makes his way to the house of Molina, a non-Jewish former cellmate, who happily takes him in. Molina’s niece, Kasia, becomes infatuated with Jakub. He is spotted by a neighbor and has to hide in Molina’s cellar where he is guarded by Kasia who becomes increasingly possessive. He becomes more and more torpid until he has a vision of his mother who tells him he must be strong. Kasia cuts his hair while he is asleep and he regains his strength, breaks out, and meets up with a communist resistance group. In an act of self-sacrifice, he blows up a German patrol and dies as a building collapses on him.

Omer Bartov, while acknowledging that Wajda attempts, with Samson, “to confront the question of Polish attitudes toward Jews,”claims he fails because he exhibits “some of the prejudices his film is intended to negate” (Bartov 2005:149). The first of his arguments concerns the representation of Jakub and his identity as a Jew as opposed to being a Pole. He claims that Jakub’s Jewishness is “merely encapsulated in his victimhood—he has no other Jewish traits, links, or language” (152). Ewa Mazierska, pursuing her thesis that in Wajda’s films Jews are represented as non-Jewish, rather strangely complains that Jakub does not look Jewish because he has neither sidelocks nor a beard (Mazierska 2000:215). It is true that Jakub is a secular Jew—he has no trappings of the religion; he speaks unaccented Polish (dubbed, as the French actor spoke no Polish); and he has no apparent links to the Jewish community, except for his mother. However, as Brandys emphasises in the novel and Wajda again emphasises in the film, it is his appearance as a Jew that is of crucial importance to his identity.

Jakub is clearly established as Jewish in the opening sequence of the film: the porter warns him the meeting is not for “your kind”; the bullies in the lecture theatre immediately see him as a Jew; and the thugs in the courtyard taunt him as a Jew. Later, after Jakub escapes from the ghetto, his appearance remains “a virtual curse” upon him (Coates 2005:163).

He has to hide his face as he wanders the streets, searching for refuge. When a Gestapo patrol nearly stumbles upon him, he is rescued by a group of “mummers” who give him a mask to hide behind. Lucyna’s friends clearly know he is Jewish and when he goes into hiding in Molina’s house he is soon recognized as a Jew by a woman neighbor. Jakub never denies his Jewishness, but, as he tells a vision of his mother, he “will not die just because of [his] face.”

Thus, hiding, wearing a mask, and role-playing are not a rejection of Jewishness but are necessary for survival under Nazi occupation. Bartov, in a muddled argument, claims it is only when Jakub is transformed into a non-Jew that he can become an active hero (Bartov 2005:148). He goes on to say, first, that Kasia’s adoration of Jakub transforms him into a Christ figure and then, when she cuts Jakub’s hair, he is transformed into Samson. But it is Samson, who Bartov calls “the Jewish hero par excellence,” who performs the heroic self-sacrifical action agaist the Germans.

Over the course of his journey to death Jakub encounters a number of Poles who help him. The first is the student who tries to stop the fascists persecuting him in the University and whom Jakub accidentally kills. The communist, Pankrat, in a neighboring cell in prison, supports him in his despair. Genio helps him escape the ghetto and tries to find him a hiding place in the city. Lucyna’s friends welcome him to her apartment and do not seem as if they would betray him. The buskers give him a disguise when the Gestapo are about to discover him. His former cell-mate Molina takes him into his house and hides him. When Molina is accidentally killed by a bus, Kasia takes on the role of protector. Bartov’s second criticism of Wajda’s work is that he follows a traditional line of thought that all those who provided assistance to the Jews end up badly (Bartov 2005:150). That is, it was not only Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis but also Poles and that those who helped Jews were subject to tragedy. Thus, while Jews remained passive shelter-seekers, Poles were both victims and heroes. Evidence for this argument, however, is slim in Samson.

Furthermore, Wajda’s film shows not only those who helped in one way or another but also those who denied help. Genio’s girlfriend refuses him shelter, Molina’s neighbors try to discover where Jakub is hidden so that they can either blackmail Molina or obtain a reward for revealing his whereabouts to the Gestapo. A street gang tries to capture him and hand him over to the Germans.

And a more general interrogation of the lack of support for the Jews occurs in a much-quoted key scene. A long take shows German soldiers nailing in the final planks of the ghetto fence while the inmates look directly out, before they are gradually hidden. This scene directly challenges the audience—what did you do, what could you have done to stop the obliteration?

Leonard Quart is, I believe, more accurate in his assessment of Samson when he argues that, contrary to the official account of the time that “marginalized Jewish victimization by emphasising how Poles and other nationalities were victimized and martyred during the War,” Wajda accented the “special quality of Jewish victimization” in the figure of Jakub (2009:1-2). This “special quality” is further refined and elaborated in Holy Week, as we shall see.


I have already discussed some sequences in the opening of Korczak showing victimization of the Polish-Jewish population in the lead up to German occupation of Warsaw in September 1939. After the defeat of the Polish army, the film jumps to late 1940 and thereafter concentrates on the personal story of Korczak, Stefa, and the children after they are forced into the ghetto. It also illustrates with great verisimilitude the fight for survival among the inmates and the continuation of life in the ghetto in all its complexity.[78]

Initially well received at the Cannes Film Festival, Korczak suffered a scathing attack in an emotional review by critic Danièle Heymann:

“What do we see? Germans (brutal, they must be brutal) and Jews, in collaboration. Poles—none. The Warsaw Ghetto? A matter between the Germans and the Jews. This is what a Pole is telling us.” (1990)

This, in turn, was used by Claude Lanzmann, director of the Holocaust film Shoah, to level accusations of anti-Semitism against Wajda and his supporters. These criticisms have been extensively dealt with elsewhere. Though they are misdirected and problematic, they raise issues that directly concern Wajda’s representation of Polish-Jewish relations.[79]

The first serious issue is that Wajda “balances” the instances we have seen of Polish ill-treatment of the Jewish population with instances where Poles try to provide support. Maryna Falska hides one of the young girls to prevent her entering the ghetto; later on, she obtains false papers for Korczak and tries to persuade him to escape; the Polish janitor from the orphanage tries to go with the children into the ghetto and is beaten by the Gestapo; and a tram-driver distributing loaves of bread to the ghetto is shot by a guard. As Insdorf remarks, “the preponderance of philo-semitic characters” in the film elicited heated criticism in the light of apparent indifference among many Poles to the plight of those in the ghetto (2003:271).[80]

Though many of these incidents occurred as Wajda portrays them, and his subsequent film, Holy Week, more than tips the balance the other way, this treatment lends a certain “softness” to the portrayal of Polish-Jewish relations at the time. The manifestly allegorical sub-plot of the love story between the Polish Catholic girl Ewka and Josek, one of the Jewish orphans, only compounds this failure. Even her ultimate rejection of Josek while clutching a fur coat bought cheaply, presumably from a Jewish inmate of the ghetto, cannot adequately express the bitterness felt by Jews about the lack of support from Poles.[81]

The second point raised by critics applies to the issue of representation. This is part of a more general problem that affected many film-makers who set out to reconstruct the horrors of starvation and brutalization in the ghetto in a laudable attempt to condemn the German treatment of Jews. The incorporation of footage shot by Nazi propaganda units of passive submission and despair on the one hand and gangsterism and exploitation on the other, inevitably created powerful impressions of the ghetto that became the accepted norm. They showed nothing of the schools, cultural activities, and underground organizations that tried to resist the oppression (Insdorf 2003:140).

Wajda in making Korczak also includes scenes that Korczak witnessed of sick, starving, and dying people; his fight with the ruling Jewish Council to give priority to saving the children; and his continuous struggle to raise money to buy food, including a visit to the Jewish cabaret.[82] His depiction of life in the ghetto, in particular of dissolute wealthy Jews, was viciously attacked by Lanzmann who claimed that the film does nothing less than “imitate scenes shot by the Wehrmacht Propaganda Units” (Michnik 2000:172).

From a longer perspective we can see that Wajda does quite the opposite. He not only shows us propaganda cameramen at work and the sort of images they were producing, he counters these with his own—the careful organization of the orphanage; the measures taken by Korczak and Stefa to enable the children to lead a “normal” life of education and discipline; the bright and active students, especially the rebellious Shlomo; and the continual struggle against the harsh conditions imposed by the Nazis.

But perhaps the most fundamental problem raised by critics with respect to Korczak concerns the representation of Dr. Korczak himself. Falkowska, for example, remarks, “Wajda makes the character a doubly heroic figure: both Jewish and Polish patriot” (2007:225). Mazierska argues that in Wajda’s depiction, Korczak “not so much lives on the border between Jewishness and Polishness as crosses it to be “a good Pole”” (2000:215). Bartov goes even further to claim that for Wajda, “Korczak is Polish [that is non-Jewish] through and through” (2005:156). Is Wajda guilty, as these critics suggest, of claiming Korczak as a Polish Christian martyr, thereby over-emphasising the heroic nature of Polish support for the Jews and diminishing the power of Blonski’s questions?

Here, we must address the issue of fact versus interpretation.[83] Henryk Goldszmit (Korczak) came from a family of acculturated Jews. His grandfather was a member of the Jewish Enlightenment movement, Haskalah, that encouraged Jews to become part of the secular world. His father moved freely in the Jewish and Polish liberal intelligentsia in Warsaw but both always retained their spiritual values. Henryk himself seems to have been avowedly secular with little interest in religion of any sort. In 1919 he was conscripted into the Polish Army and fought in the Polish-Soviet war. He gave up medicine to dedicate his life to teaching, writing, and the education and support of destitute children and orphans, irrespective of faith. For his writing, Henryk chose as pen name the Polish Janusz Korczak instead of the unmistakably Jewish Goldszmit, which, Lifton speculates, allowed him to “re-create himself as an insider, linked to a heroic Polish past” (2005:section 5). As the tide of anti-Semitism rose in Poland in the 1930s he explored the possibility of migrating to Palestine to join Stefa. However, he was deeply ambivalent about such a move and vacillated until it was too late. Once the war started he turned down further opportunities to leave in order to remain with “his” children.

Thus Goldszmit/Korczak was a cosmopolitan figure, both Polish and Jewish. Does Wajda, then, distort the image of Korczak he produces—emphasising his Polishness more than his Jewishness? There are many assertions of his Jewishness in the film: the opening sequence and his argument with the radio station director; the sequence in the window of his study, feeding the birds, when he tells the story of his pet canary that died:

“The servant said… the canary was a Jew and me a Jew as well. He—a Pole and a Catholic would go to heaven, but as for me I would end up when I died in a place which, though not hell, was nevertheless dark” (Lifton 2005:section 2).

And the scene with Stefa in the stair-well where he recites something he had written before the war when trying to get support for the orphanage:

“It’s not good to be a Jew and worse to be an old Jew and worse yet to be a sick old Jew. But the worst of all is to be a sick old Jew with 200 dependent children” (Lifton 2005: section 28)

Furthermore, he never denies his Jewishness, even when to do so would have been expedient.

There are also signs of his Polishness: not least the Polish name he assumed for his writing and broadcasting, and once in the ghetto when he refuses to take off his officer’s uniform. Bartov asserts that “he acts as a proud Pole and rejects the idea that anyone can dictate his identity” (2005:156) as if this is a negation of his Jewishness. Some critics have taken the argument further and scoured the film to find evidence that Korczak is being represented not just as a Pole but as a Christian martyr.

Mazierska, pursuing her thesis that Wajda consistently depicts “non-Jewish Jews” seems to suggest that he should not have made a film about Korczak at all:

“Wajda conveys the Polishness of Korczak much more strongly than his Jewishness. This does not result from the director’s desire to subvert the truth about the hero’s identity, but the very choice of his character …” (Mazierska 2000:216)

Bartov, while he concedes that to have given Korczak specifically Jewish cultural traits would have been completely false, nonetheless argues:

“He is clearly presented in the film—and remembered by the Poles—as a Pole who chose to share the fate of the Jews in the heroic manner befitting his nation” (Bartov 2005:156)

He cites as evidence for this Christianization of the narrative of Korczak a scene in which the doctor tries to soothe the child Shlomo who feels guilt about leaving his mother to die alone. For a brief instant a ring of light appears above the boy’s head and Bartov likens the scene to a Pietà. However this scene is taken from the writings of Korczak from before the war about a similar incident:

“‘He fell asleep,’ Korczak noted. ‘It was strange, but for a brief moment I definitely saw an aura of light around his tired eight-year-old head. I had seen such a phenomenon only once before.’ And he added: ‘Even as I write this, I know that no one will understand. It is impossible unless one has been in a large orphanage dormitory in the still of night.’” (Lifton 2005:section 10)

The incident does not seem to have had any religious significance for Korczak, but did Wajda include it to sanctify him or the boy in some way or to turn him into a non-Jewish Pole? Ginsberg, in her detailed analysis of the film, agrees with those critics who claim a Christian martyr element to Wajda’s portrait of Korczak. She notes that he is made to look like Francis of Assisi; citing his appearance, dress, monastic behaviour, and the window scene feeding sparrows on the sill—‘a classic Franciscan motif” (2007:117). Each of these aspects is arguable, especially the last since that is the scene when he recalls the first occasion he became aware of his Jewishness.

However, Ginsberg goes on to show that the film “draws out those aspects [of the orphanage] that are easily associable to Christianity” (118). Yet she concludes that the film does offer “a crucial insight into what we may call the film’s allegorical elegy to a Polish national history that is contemporaneous with Eastern Jewish development ..” (119). Thus, in the end, she seems to accept that the film is a continuation of Wajda’s examination of Polish-Jewish relations, while noting that some, especially Zionists, choose not to acknowledge “this crucial insight.”

If Korczak is not strongly represented as a Jew neither is he strongly represented as a Christian. If anything, he is overdetermined in the film as a cosmopolitan Jewish-Pole.[84] Thus, Wajda insists on his audience acknowledging what could be said to embody the “brotherhood of nations.”

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