Images from Holy Week:

Jan trapped in a moral dilemma.

Irena staring at events in the Ghetto.

A burning window in the Ghetto. A man jumps to his death. A child shot by a sniper. Children fall to their deaths trying to escape.

Irena on the roof sees the Ghetto in flames.

Irena walks towards the burning Ghetto.

Anna (Magdalena Warzecha) kisses the statue of Christ.

Images from Landscape After Battle:

Tadeusz (Daniel Olbrychski) rescues books from the camp.

Nina takes mass…

…but wears a missal containing ‘the tablets of Moses which is supposed to link me with the Jews.’



Jerzy Andrzejewski’s short novel Holy Week is a near contemporaneous account, from outside the Warsaw ghetto walls, of the start of the uprising during Easter week in 1943.[85][open endnotes in new window] Its central protagonists are Irena Lilien, an elegant young woman from a wealthy family of assimilated Jews, part of the Polish intelligentsia, and her former Polish lover Jan Malecki.[86] The two have not met for some time and Jan is now married to Anna, a devout Catholic, who is pregnant with his child. As the Germans begin in earnest to round up and murder all Jews in Poland, including her parents, Irena escapes capture and is forced into hiding, moving from place to place. In the week before Easter, she arrives destitute and desperate in Warsaw just as the ghetto uprising begins. Jan encounters her by chance close by the ghetto walls and, somewhat uncertainly, offers her shelter in his family apartment in a nearby suburb of the city. Still not safe, she is attacked by a neighbor Piotrowski, intent on rape, and then betrayed by his malicious and jealous wife. Forced to leave the building, she curses the neighbors and heads for her tragic fate. Meanwhile, Jan is killed by Polish fascists while trying to obtain new identity papers for Irena so that she can move on to another hiding place. Anna is left to mourn.

The novel is a caustic indictment of the attitude of many Poles towards the annihilation of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. As Jan Gross remarks, it dramatizes “the abandonment of the Jews to Nazi persecution by the dominant Polish society” (Andrzejewski 2007:ix). Andrzejewski details the relentless persecution by bounty hunters, informers, and extortionists that forced the Liliens to flee their home. Trying to find shelter, they are betrayed again and again until at last Irena’s father in despair joins a band of fellow Jews going to their deaths. The novel describes the response of the majority of Warsaw residents to the ghetto uprising that ranges through indifference and lack of pity, voyeurism, racism, to positive glee. Children chase a Jewish child who has escaped from the ghetto until a German soldier shoots him. There are outbursts of anti-Semitic venom from the fascist Zalewski and the poisonous Mrs. Piotrowski. A holiday atmosphere prevails with the approach of the Easter celebrations, and people go about their ordinary lives as if no tragedy were occurring behind the wall.

These instances are only partially offset by accounts of Polish suffering: the death of most of Anna’s family at the hands of the Germans; their neighbor, Mrs Karski, whose husband and son die in the resistance; other Polish families who are killed for harboring Jews; and the vast graveyard Anna visits that commemorates Polish soldiers killed in the fight against Germany. Support for the Jews is muted: Jan equivocates, reluctant to become involved, reluctant to take any action that might cause him trouble; Marta, a clerk in Jan’s office, stands up against Zalewski, but can only resign her job; Anna piously wishes Catholics would offer help but offers merely moral support. Active help is focused on Jan’s brother, Julek, and a small number of other youngsters who smuggle arms to the ghetto fighters. Yet, as Andrzejewski notes, this was just a “demonstration of support” rather than a concerted attempt to offset the overwhelming force ranged against them (Andrzejewski 2007:68).[87]

The novel’s attempt “to confront the moral void which appeared in the collective mind of Poles” at the end of the war (Sobolewski 1995) attracted Wajda in his continuing quest to provoke an examination of Polish-Jewish relations. He made a number of attempts to adapt it for cinema all of which were stifled by the communist regime (Haltof 2011:202), (Coates 2000b:27-8). He was finally able to film Holy Week in 1996 as a co-production for Polish television and Heritage Productions.[88]

The screenplay retains the overall balance of the novel. Wajda omits some instances of Polish suffering at the hands of the Gestapo whilst highlighting the Jewish tragedy. He also retains most of the examples of support for the Jews and virtually all those of Polish complicity with or indifference to their fate. A detailed comparison of the novel and film does not really bear out Oscar Swan’s assertion that Wajda sanitized the screenplay for easier domestic consumption (Andrzejewski 2007:135-8). However, Wajda changes the focus of the film from Jan Malecki’s agonizing over his moral dilemma to Irena’s alienation and exclusion from the Polish nation to which she once felt she belonged.

Jan’s internal conflict is strongly expressed in the novel—his response to the Jewish tragedy was “dark, complex, and deeply disturbing,” “… his feelings of complicity became exceptionally strongly aroused,” however, “there was within him more unease and terror than actual love…” (14). His renewed encounter with Irena forces him to confront this conflict and confusion at a more direct and personal level.

Wajda encapsulates Jan’s dilemma in a single instance—a held image following a difficult series of encounters at his workplace. The fascist Zalewski has just spouted extreme anti-Semitic views and tries to elicit Jan’s support. He equivocates and is scornfully told off by Marta who denounces Zalewski. And then Jan denies Irena, pretending to his boss that he knows nothing of her whereabouts.

Wajda inserts the recurring snippet of armed and masked motorcyclists riding past to the accompaniment of doom-laden muffled drums. Perhaps they are part of the Einsatzgruppen, the motorized death squads, looking for Jewish victims. They are not seen from Jan’s point-of-view but they seem to express his fear as, morally trapped, he stares out of imprisoning window bars.

But Irena is the core of the film. In the first four scenes, before she meets Jan, we see her watch her father, from a hiding place in the woods, join a band of fellow Jews being herded to their death. Somehow escaping, she is forced by leering extortionists to hand over her last gold coin, hidden in her underwear, to avoid the Gestapo. Half dressed and humiliated, she runs off and arrives by tram in the city.

And here we see her staring, transfixed by the ghetto wall. A restless, moving camera captures the jagged events as if from her point-of-view: the burning buildings, people jumping to their deaths, a child shot in a window, children jumping or falling. But, her stillness, deliberately set against the constant camera movement, positions her as the focus of these events. She is the victim with whom we are asked to identify, personifying the community hidden behind the walls.

Some while later, in the Maleckis’ apartment, we come to the key scene that expresses Irena’s state of mind. She is volatile and emotional: first helpless—What am I supposed to do?” Then she becomes accusatory and defiant as Jan asks what happened—‘The same thing as always”—and she describes the extortionists we have seen earlier. Jan offers to fetch clothes from her previous refuge and she looks at him intently, fearful. Edgy strings describe her state:

“…when I meet someone new now, I look into their eyes and wonder whether they'd be able to turn me in. How can I live like this?  I’ll never be a normal human being.”

She collapses in tears on his shoulder—Jan is uncomfortable but tries to reassure her saying everything will be different after the war. And now Irena becomes cynical and bitter as she snaps out the truth:

“People won't be different. Except then they won't have the right to kill me.  But they'll still regret not being able to make five rubles off me. You'll see how it'll be. We'll be even more despised when we get our rights back and can return to our homes and feel free to walk down the street. Now only shame keeps people from siding against us. People help us out of a sense of obligation, but then they won't have to.”

Wajda compresses the dialogue from the novel and his scenario specifically highlights Irena’s instability.

Given the events in Poland after the war when a number of shameful attacks took place on Jews returning from the camps or from forced exile in Russia, this scene showed remarkable foresight. Of course, we do not know how Andrzejewski changed the novel as a result of such events, but certainly Wajda would have been aware of the impact of these words on his audience. Subsequent stark images show Irena’s descent into a kind of madness, interspersed with her attempts to lead a life of some normality.

The Gestapo arrive at the Malecki’s apartment block and Irena is hidden in the attic. She crawls onto the roof where she stares in horror and disbelief at the burning ghetto. Wajda intensifies the emotion by a shimmer of fear from over-stretched violin strings

The next evening when Jan and Anna are in bed, the sound of gunfire reaches them from the ghetto. Screeching strings represent the sound of screaming. Irena is discovered in a corner, terrified, hands covering her ears.

The next day, as Julek and his fellows suicidally break into the ghetto to supply arms, Wajda intercuts Anna crying as she knows what is happening with Irena in the dark smoking his tobacco. Irena is illuminated in an unsettling profile.

Later, Wajda interposes scenes of the burning ghetto and the Einsatzgruppen with a piece of burning paper silently floating in the air. It drifts across the screen, and we see Irena in the background, behind the flame, staring, transfixed as she sees herself “consumed” by the fire.

This is followed immediately by Irena in bed, one enormous eye, staring into darkness before the final day.

Irena cowers from the sound of screams in the Ghetto, waits in the dark, sees a burning paper from the Ghetto float into the room, and foresees her fate.

This series of striking, painterly images links us, through Irena, to the anonymous, hidden occupants of the ghetto, and we follow her as she is drawn inexorably to the fate of her fellow Jews. Finally, after Piotrowski’s attempted rape and his wife’s denunciation of Irena, Irena venomously curses them all and returns to the city where she disappears into the smoke and flames to her certain death.

In her critique of the novel Joanna Rostropowicz Clark describes the transformation of Irena from “a free-spirited and cosmopolitan, charming member of the privileged class of assimilated Polish Jews” as typical of the extremity of the situation. In such situations, she argues, “People tend to shed their particularity and behave as members of their primary community” (2007:1)—people are moved to the extremes by adversity. In the film Irena is already at the extreme having experienced the loss of her father, blackmail, and extortion, and, her fear at the sights and sounds of the ghetto. But she is not, as Bartov claims, “a passive shelter-seeker” (2005:152). Rather she is bitter, aggressive and, ultimately, vengeful—the fragile relationship of “human brotherhood” between Pole and Jew irrevocably fractured.

If Wajda brings to the foreground the desperate situation of Jews in Poland by focusing on Irena, his treatment of Anna somewhat dilutes this message. She is the still, calm centre of the household—the archetypical Polish Catholic Mother embodying a specific patriotic connotation (Oleksy 2000:117). While Jan and Julek go to their ultimately pointless deaths, Anna carries her child—a symbolic representation of the eternal regeneration of the nation. She is tolerant of Irena, and would help her if she could, but Irena remains an outsider—not a Pole. Despite this further example of the imbalance in Wajda’s treatment of women, Holy Week nonetheless powerfully exposes the rupture of relations between Catholics and Jews in Poland which persists into the 21st century.


The final film to be discussed in this paper, Landscape After Battle (1970), is an amalgam of incidents taken from some of the short stories by Tadeusz Borowski—in particular “The Battle of Grunwald.”[89] These stories are set in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the Nazis and concern the effects of liberation on the occupants of a concentration camp and subsequently a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany.

Wajda’s representations of rejection and inhumanity contain threads from Borowski’s stories, illustrating how “ordinary people” were induced to act in the way they did, how the extreme conditions of war made almost any behavior possible. This behavior could be applied to the wider community in Poland during the war. As people’s humanity is stripped away—as it was for the Jews in Poland—they become potential objects of victimization.

A major strand of the film, though, is the effect the war has had on Tadeusz, a Polish intellectual and long-time resident of the camp, and Nina, a Jewish refugee from Poland. In Wajda’s adaptation, Tadeusz is unable to accept his freedom—he is institutionalized, happiest in a cell away from his fellows, reading the books he has greedily gathered from the debris of the camp. We see camp life through his eyes—the chaos, the never-satisfied hunger for food and sex, the vengeance towards Germans in general. But we also see his contempt for the Catholic church—the way the priests shut their eyes to the brutality of the released prisoners—and the myths of Polishness reveling in past glories. Tadeusz cannot sing the patriotic songs belted out by the former Polish soldiers; he watches their ragged marching—avoiding puddles in the courtyard; and he sees the re-enactment of the historical battle of Grunwald dissolve into farce.[90] Tadeusz, it seems, cannot accept the post-war Poland as a place to which he wishes to return.

With the arrival of Nina at the DP camp, Tadeusz is forced to re-evaluate his position. She leads him out of the monochromatic, bleak camp, across mounds of dirt, into sunlit, colorful autumn woods where they uncertainly make love before Tadeusz insists they return to camp. It is during this pastoral interlude that Wajda once again explores the issues of national identity, the Polish-Jewish relationship, and its prospects following the Holocaust.

Nina (Stanislawa Celinska) leads Tadeusz out of the desolate camp... ... into the autumnal countryside, where they make love.

Nina, who according to Tadeusz, looks Aryan, escaped persecution in Poland during the war by pretending to be a Catholic Pole. For six years she went to Mass every Sunday, and was in love with—maybe lived with—a Pole. But she carries with her everywhere a missal given her by her mother, which contains the tablets of Moses in Hebrew.[91] At the end of the war she confesses in a letter to her lover that she is Jewish and leaves Poland before he can reply.

In the debate between Nina and Tadeusz, she rejects the idea of a Jewish identity being forced on her—she wants neither to be a Jew nor a Pole—she says she “thought there were still other people,” and she wants to escape being confined by race and by a notional “homeland” (Coates 2005:140). Tadeusz on the other hand will “always think and feel in Polish” … “everything that made me what I am is Polish.” He suddenly begins to identify with the homeland, traditions, language, community and history of Poland. It is as if Nina, by her rejection of identity, has made him more aware of his own identity, of the meaning of home—the Jewish absence confirms the meaning of Polishness. Thus, again, as in Irena’s speech in Holy Week, Wajda has a Jew acknowledging and asserting that there is no place for her in post-war Poland.

A major criticism of this work is that it focuses on the deprivation and suffering of the Pole, Tadeusz. His trauma, his obsessive behavior, his uncertainty about his identity, his bitterness towards Germans, obscures the suffering of the Jews such as Nina (Coates 2005:112). While this is true, Wajda’s anger at the treatment in 1968 of the remaining Jews in Poland spills over into his indictment in this film of Polish nationalism and the lack of room it gives to other sections of society.

The legacy

The relation between Jews and Poles is a treacherous subject, not least because of the continuing sensitivities of both parties. Divisions persist between the Jewish and Polish communities, as exemplified by conflicts over the Jewish and Christian memorials at Auschwitz; the furore over the publication of Neighbors (Gross 2001) an account that indicts Poles for the massacre of Jews at Jedwabne; and responses to that publication (Polonsky and Michlic 2009).[92] Extreme Polish nationalists periodically deface Jewish memorials, demonstrating that anti-Semitism persists even where there is no obvious target.[93] Many Jews continue to label all Poles as anti-Semitic, and Polish reaction continues to be defensive. As Salmonowicz notes of the relationship between Poles and Jews:

“It is a subject so full of all sorts of taboos, so packed with distortions and at the same time full of all sorts of emotions, true, false, or fabricated, that any lucid pronouncement is unpopular … in both camps” (Salmonowicz 1997:53).

It seems there will always be people prepared to listen to myths, and racists prepared to foment hatred, just as there will always be those who hide from unpalatable truths and retreat into silence. Jan Blonski was perhaps the first to point the way towards reconciliation by confronting the terrible events that took place in Poland and calling for an honest reappraisal.

The representation of Polish-Jewish relations—sometimes peripherally, sometimes centrally—has been an essential element of Wajda’s engagement with Polish national identity. As Michael Stevenson remarks, this theme is “a gnawing undercurrent filled with an anxious and uneasy doubt” throughout his work (2003:84).

In the first part of this paper, I have shown how Wajda traces the trajectory of the Polish-Jewish relationship at critical points in Poland’s history. In Pan Tadeusz, set in 1812, the Jewish segment of the population, though not integrated or assimilated, is clearly an important part of Polish life. Through the 19th century, a period of rapid industrial growth and widespread assimilation movements, the idea of a brotherhood of nations flourished. Land of Promise, set in the latter part of the century, demonstrates the edgy nature of that brotherhood and its eventual failure amid growing tensions between the different communities. The Wedding, set at the turn of the century, exposes the growing unease in the relationship—“friends who do not like each other much.” And the pre-war sections of Samson and Korczak illustrate the rising tide of anti-Semitism that marks the final failure of the brotherhood. Though obviously not directly addressing Blonski’s first question— “how did you live together in the past?”—Wajda has nonetheless pursued that issue in this series of films.

Blonski’s other questions concern the way Poles responded to the onslaught of Nazism. In the second part of this paper I have argued that Wajda pursues this issue very directly, though often constrained by the regime under which his films were produced. His first film, A Generation, despite the fact that it distorts history, balances complicity with support for the Jews. Korczak, while largely set inside the Warsaw ghetto and therefore separated from the outside world, does ask how it could have happened that a secular, much loved figure in Poland and his orphans be imprisoned and slaughtered with little in the way of objection. Samson and Holy Week are very powerful portraits of the exploitation of Jews and their rejection by fellow citizens. Finally, Landscape After Battle reveals how Polish nationalism leaves no place for Jews in post-war Poland. Wajda’s representation of Polish anti-Semitism and acts of acquiescence with the de-humanization of the Jews, urges Poles to understand that while of course they were not to blame for the Holocaust, they nonetheless have a moral responsibility for failing to see the Jews as an essential part of the Polish people.

Yet, a critical examination of Wajda’s films reveals serious difficulties, some of which have already been discussed in this paper. Though Wajda is not alone in his apparent reticence about explicitly illustrating the worst of the persecution of Jews by Poles, it is true that there is little in his work to compare with such damning documentaries as those of Lanzmann (Shoah, 1985), and Marzynski (Small Town in Poland or Shtetl, 1996), or the descriptions of the post-war Kielce massacre, or the events described in Jan Gross’s history of the Jedwabne massacre, or even in the recent feature film, Ida (2013), by Pawel Pawlikowski. Yet this reticence does not justify the accusations of anti-Semitism made against Wajda, most prominently by Lanzmann and the French critic Danièle Heymann,[94] which cannot stand up to close examination of the film texts. The absurdity of these attacks has been pointed out by, among others, such critics as Adam Michnik (1996a:16) and Paul Coates, even though the latter disapproved of the insensitivity in Promised Land.

Nonetheless, the lacunae in Wajda’s work need an explanation beyond the purely instrumental one that Polish films about Poles acting brutally would have been poorly received in Poland. I would argue that Wajda attempts something different, and perhaps more difficult, than a re-presentation of the horrors of the war in Poland. He tries to show the more subtle effects of dehumanization and of people driven to extremes of behavior by fear and deprivation.

The political distortions that mar some of Wajda’s films have already been discussed. That these occurred under duress is not disputed. However for a contemporary viewer they weaken his position as a transmitter of historical events and attitudes. This analysis of his films, though, has shown that like many artists working under totalitarian regimes, censorship can be by-passed to a certain extent by allegory and the deployment of images in a way that defies suppression. Wajda’s battles against the constraints of his times are well documented and attest to the sincerity of his project.

Michael Stevenson most accurately and succinctly sums up his achievement when he describes Wajda’s

“prolonged engagement with the centuries-old Polish-Jewish relationship and also with the finalities of the Holocaust. This narrative process across many texts is by no means certain and secure. It wavers; it trembles with uncertainty and anxiety, yet with passion in its moral commitments” (Stevenson 2003:87).

There is uncertainty in Wajda’s work. In particular it is difficult to dismiss the charge that he was guilty of stereotyping, and there is evidence of an unconscious set of attitudes about identity that creep into his work—perhaps most particularly in Promised Land. It is also clear that Wajda strove against this tendency and tried to correct it where possible. However, I would agree with Ostrowska in her analysis of the distinct treatment of Polish Catholic and Jewish women in his films (2000). Not only do we have the pure blondes of Ewka, Anka, the Bride in The Wedding, and Anna, contrasted with the dark sensuality of their Jewish counterparts, in addition we have Anna—and potentially Anka and the Bride—as the preserver of the Polish nation set against the disruptive power of the Jewish woman. Jewish Otherness is quite clearly “doubled” by these representations.

Finally, there is the criticism that Wajda shows a greater concern with Polish identity than with the position of Jews in Poland. There is some evidence for this though I have argued against Bartov’s specific claim that Wajda’s Jewish heroes are Christianized and Mazierska’s that his Jews are non-Jewish. Rather, I maintain that Wajda has explicitly voiced the charge that, even those Jews who have fully assimilated cannot be fully accepted as part of the Polish nation. Through his work we can see that a multicultural, polyglot society has chosen to become an ethnic and religious monolith.

I have discussed how, in over 50 years of filmmaking, Wajda pursued his project to expose and condemn anti-Semitism, to reveal the insidious way Jews were placed outside Polish society, and to show how some Poles acquiesced or were complicit with active persecution of the Jews. Though not always successful in achieving his aim to provoke the conscience of his fellow citizens—and of all of us—his efforts deserve widespread recognition.

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