copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

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

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]

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]

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.[13]

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 Wyspia?ski 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] 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)

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—see page 12), 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 won major critical approval worldwide.

1956 Gomulka appointed Polish leader.

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

Samson (1961)

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)

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 ~ 20,000 Jews emigrate.

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

The Wedding (1973)

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)

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—wins prize at Cannes 1978.

1978 Election of Polish Pope John Paul II—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—wins prize at Cannes.

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

1983 Wajda removed from studio as it installed 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)

1939-42 Warsaw Ghetto.

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

1989 End of Soviet domination and the 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) 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) 1811-12 Polish Romanticism. Period of revolt against Russian domination. Importance of the 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.


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)).

The Holocaust

The fanatical attempt to exterminate a particular “race,” defying rational explanation, gives the Holocaust its singular intensity.[26] 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.

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.

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.

Coates claim that the film especially caricatures the Jewish section of the population does not seem at all justified:

  • Karol is as greedy for wealth as the Germans and Jews;
  • Müller a German factory owner shows as much cultural ignorance as Grünspan the Jew who has not heard of Victor Hugo;
  • all the wives and daughters at the theatre display their jewels with equal excess; and
  • Kessler the German could hardly be more markedly corrupt and sensual.

Wajda’s treatment of the Polish, Jewish and German communities in the film is reasonably even-handed. He shows how the communities were to a large degree interdependent, and though tinged with antipathy and casual anti-Semitism, society functioned as well as could be expected in this frenetic atmosphere of “predatory capitalism” (Falkowska 2007:150). I would agree with Bechtel that “one ought to see his Jewish characters within the frame of his conscious aesthetics of caricature and exaggeration” for all the nations and classes (Bechtel 2006:91).

Coates, however, is unforgiving. He maintains that after the extreme persecution of Jews in Poland, greater sensitivity is required: their representation “cannot be entirely innocent now” (Coates 1997:227). This complex criticism cannot easily be dismissed. It seems, in particular, to be directed at Wajda's portrait of Karol's Jewish mistress, Lucy Zucker, which certainly embodies an extravagant portrait of lasciviousness and abandoned sensuality. In an almost unwatchable scene, set in a private railway carriage, Lucy consumes handfuls of greasy food while engaging in fellatio with Karol.[55]

Ostrowska’s analysis (2000) takes this argument further by considering the imbalance between Wajda’s treatment of Polish and Jewish women, which is also found in some of his other films. Here, Karol’s fiancée, Anka, the daughter of impoverished nobility, is the essence of Polish female purity. First seen at her father’s idyllic country house—blonde-haired, demure, dressed generally in pastel colors—she complements the image of a “harmonious, perfect Poland” (123). In a number of sequences Wajda’s contrasting of the angelic Anka with the exotically erotic Lucy can only be deliberate. His personal imprint on the film serves to highlight only the “otherness” of the “alien Jew” in this time of multiple tensions.

Furthermore, in Wajda’s screenplay, the cause of Karol’s moral decline—and by inference the decline of the Polish nobility—is his relationship with Lucy. Her jealous husband burns down the partners’ factory forcing Karol to abandon Anka and marry Mada, Müller’s frightful daughter. In deviating from the novel, where it is Moryc’s schemes that cause Karol’s downfall, Wajda shifts the blame onto an exotic female thus amplifying “the supposedly destructive role of Jews in the history of the Polish nation” (127).

Wajda was not immune to the excessive criticism of the film and released a second, cut-down, version in 2000 which softens the portrait of Lucy in particular.[56] However, he has never acknowledged that some of the cuts may have been in response to accusations of stereotyping and instead has put forward a range of explanations: the need to shorten the film; his desire to restructure it; and his decision to reduce the role of Lucy in respect for the memory of the actress who had recently died. Stevenson is probably correct in concluding that Wajda re-edited the film because “he became aware that something of a tradition of Jewish stereotyping had entered into his imagery” (2003:92n9). In general, I would argue, though Wajda may have been guilty of an unconscious insensitivity towards the Jewish population he was not simply exploiting stereotypes to guarantee popular appeal in Poland as Mazierska claims (see footnote 12). His alterations to the novel not only toned-down its overt anti-Semitism, but created a realistic picture of the period, exposing heightened communal and class tensions, casual racism, and the onrush of modernism.

The period covered by the film ranges from the apogee of Polish-Jewish relations in the middle of the 19th century—the height of the “brotherhood of nations"—through its rapid decline over the next three or four decades. The film could have been expected to encourage a contemporary spectator first, to acknowledge the evidence of growing anti-Semitism and, secondly, to observe some of the fallacious generalizations on which it was grounded. However, the film aroused contrasting reactions—accused in Poland of being anti-Polish and abroad of being anti-Semitic—and became mired in the heated disputes previously described. As such, it failed in its intent to provoke serious debate on the Jewish tragedy in Poland. A plausible explanation for this put forward by Falkowska is that while such debates were common in the West in the 1970s when The Promised Land was released, they only started in Poland in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Falkowska 2007:151). It has taken several decades before the film can be judged on its merits.


Produced a year earlier than The Promised Land, Wajda’s The Wedding (1972) moves us on slightly to the beginning of the 20th century and to the countryside around Krakow which, at that time, was in the Austrian partition. The film was made in response to what Wajda called the “catastrophe” of 1968 that included the venomous anti-Semitic campaign of the Polish nationalists and the disarray following the breakdown of the Gomulka regime (Michnik 2000:151). For this purpose, he adapted an experimental verse play by Stanislaw Wyspianski, using its strong symbolism that reflects on Poland’s past, to comment on the state of the nation in the 1970s.

The play is based on an actual wedding party at which Wyspianski was present. Reduced to its essence, it is a debate about the Polish nation, illustrating the gulf between the peasant masses and the intelligentsia.[57] It recounts a not unusual story of the time when a member of the intelligentsia, in this case a poet, marries a country girl (Peterkiewicz 1998:7-9). The poet’s friends from the city attend a wild, drunken, wedding party in a farmhouse where they mingle with the locals. Over the course of the night the guests are visited by “ghosts”—symbols of Poland’s past, and for a short time it appears as if, through solidarity between the classes, they might be stirred to revolt against foreign domination. But, with the sobering dawn, they sink back into dream-like apathy.

Wajda’s film is a swirling, lively dance in which groups of figures move among three or four rooms of the farmhouse. He follows the pattern of the play with short scenes of brisk dialogue between the characters punctuated by fluid entrances and exits through doorways, all to the rhythm of the country dance music. In this respect, the adaptation is faithful to the original, though there were many contemporary criticisms of inserted scenes and changes to the order of scenes and the text.[58] Revisiting the film in the 1990s, Coates is highly critical, calling it a “grimly vulgar Marxist version of the class struggle” (Coates 1992:131). I would argue that despite the rather impoverished dialogue (and poor sub-titles) of the screenplay this is an important, if enigmatic, film and an interesting continuation of Wajda’s exploration of Polish-Jewish relations.[59] Even Coates acknowledges that the treatment of “the Jewish question” is “haunting” (ibid.).

From the outset Wajda creates an eerie, phantom world that surrounds the warmly lit farmhouse where the party is in full flow.[60] He follows the play’s stage directions that call for the interior walls to be painted a greyish-blue causing the characters at certain times to take on a ghostly pallor. Outside are misty fields and a garden where ranks of “straw-men” appear to stand guard.[61] A sinister twanging theme is repeated throughout the film whenever the camera strays outside the house or when characters look, always apprehensively, out the windows.[62]

Through Wajda’s depiction of the unnamed Jewish innkeeper and his daughter, Rachel, we see the position of Jews in Polish rural society and experience the way they were treated at this time.[63] At his first entrance the innkeeper presents an alien figure. Exotically hatted, he stoops to pass through a doorway and then seems to crouch anxiously to one side, never joining the revellers. In contrast to this dark figure, the Groom, colorfully dressed, strides easily through another doorway which frames a religious icon and a crucifix endowing him with the innate authority of the Catholic church.[64]

The dialogue accompanying this meeting is:

“Groom: Here’s Moses come to join the spree
Jew: I’m rather shy of company—
Groom: But aren’t we friends? Why should you be?
Jew: It’s just that we’re the kind of friends who don’t much care for one another.”

There follows a friendly conversation, much abbreviated in the film, in which the Jew discusses his daughter: a cultured woman, clever and generous to the peasants, who longs to dance and join in the celebrations. Thus Wajda sets up the Jew’s position as an outsider and, despite the Groom’s warm welcome, his uneasy relationship with the intelligentsia.

At last, Rachel makes her entrance across the misty fields, exotic in black dress and red shawl, again accompanied by the ethereal music. She claims she was carried there by:

“Rachel: A little cloudlet … a wisp of mist, the breath of eve.”

And here, the Jew’s bitterness comes out for the first time as he gives permission for Rachel to join the party, before exiting the scene:

“Jew: Why shouldn’t Rachel, too, carouse? A Jew, I’m used to being reviled, but her, at least, you must respect. She’s not ashamed to be my child.”

The Jew later on has another important scene with the Priest who is the landlord of his tavern. He explains that he cannot pay the Priest until he, in turn, is paid by Czepiec, the headman of the village. Czepiec, in a drunken rant, blames the Jew for his debt, curses him, and tries to assault him. Wajda cuts from the ensuing brawl to a corner of the house where the intelligentsia shift awkwardly in their chairs, not sure how to deal with this embarrassing situation.

For the villagers at least, the Jew is not only alien but also an object of suspicion—hated as a trader/innkeeper who they believe will cheat them. Like Jankiel in Pan Tadeusz, he is easily accepted by the gentry but here is not a welcome guest among the country folk—never an integral part of the community.

However, in his characterization of Rachel, Wajda reveals a different perspective on Polish-Jewish relations. Like her father, she is liminal in this society, but in a different way. In her conversations with the visiting Poet, she is poetical, mystical, and prophetic: likening the dancing guests to moths who circle a flame that will surely “incinerate their wings.”

In one scene fashioned by Wajda, she stands flattened against a wall trying to join the dance, but as each prospective partner approaches, he turns aside to pick someone else. Finally, the Poet dances with her and as they swirl around the floor, the other dancers stand back and look on silently disapproving. Then Rachel dances alone as the music fades to a stop, and only the Poet applauds. She is also alien and shunned—yet she is nonetheless regarded with awe or superstitious fear rather than hatred.

Rachel appears at intervals through the film, always with the Poet who may be taken as Wyspianski’s alter ego. At first, their relationship is playful, as they flirt with words, but then their exchanges become more caustic as she disdains his poetry and his professions of love. But, finally, she relents, confessing that she has “imbibed” his love. She tells him that if he is to create his great work he must invite the strawman to the party. This initiates the subsequent appearance of various heroes and villains from Poland’s past. Thus, as Wisse notes, by personifying “the magic power of poetry,” Rachel initiates “a confrontation between Poland’s past and present” (Wisse 2003:110). In this she presents a constructive role in the play/film as opposed to the representation of Jewish women as overly sensual and erotic in many other works.

In the urban environment of Lodz in Promised Land Polish-Jewish relations can be seen to have deteriorated markedly by the end of the 19th century. So also in the countryside of The Wedding Jews have become outsiders, either reviled or feared. Wajda’s films ask his audience to reflect on these changes and to consider the loss to Polish culture from the absence of Jews.


When Poland finally regained full statehood two decades later (1921—see footnote 7), friction between the two communities intensified. Even though the official stance towards the Jewish population became more liberal when Jozef Pilsudski came to power, Eva Hoffman theorises that, in the inter-war period, “Jewishness” took on a political and ideological tinge. It became distinct from a Polish identity, such that Jews could be “mentally detached or expelled from the symbolic universe of a self-contained Polish state” (Hoffman 1999:169). This perhaps encouraged the right-wing Endecja movement, especially after the death of Pilsudski in 1935, to push demands on the Jewish population for either total cultural assimilation or emigration.[65] Though economic and political factors—such as the high proportion of Jewish ownership of major industries, their prominence in the professions, and their links with Communism—could easily be exploited, especially during the Depression, the movement essentially was racially motivated.[66] It resulted in sections of Polish society trying to correct what they characterized as an imbalance of wealth and influence, by boycotts and by forcing Jews to accept a quota system in the universities and professions.

Wajda made two films—Samson (1961) and Korczak (1990)—that are primarily about life in Warsaw, especially in the ghetto, during the war. In each film the protagonist is a Jewish Pole and, as we shall see later, there is much critical and academic discussion about Wajda’s representation of these characters—for example, Baron notes “Korczak’s bifurcated Polish-Jewish identity” (Baron 2007:45)—and the competing Jewish and Catholic martyrologies of the films. For now, we will concentrate on the short pre-war sequences in these films which reveal even more clearly Wajda’s understanding of the complexities of the relationships between Poles and Jews at that time.

Novelist Kazimierz Brandys, a law student at the University of Warsaw from 1934 to 1938, reflects this stage of Polish-Jewish history in his novella, Samson (1948).[67] This tells the story of Jakub Gold, a new student at the University, who arrives in the middle of an anti-Jewish demonstration. He is taunted and attacked by the other students. During the ensuing brawl he accidentally kills one of them and is sentenced to prison. At the beginning of the war, the prison is bombed and Jakub escapes along with the other prisoners. The remainder of the story follows his downward trajectory from one form of incarceration to another, each more confining than the last. He retreats into increasing passivity and torpor until, like the Biblical Samson, he at last gathers his strength and attacks his oppressors, killing himself in the process.

Constrained by the “schematic ideological determinism” of the Socialist Realist literature of the time (Rogerson 1987:367), important themes emerge nonetheless. First is the fundamental importance of Jakub’s appearance—it governs the course of his life as he comes to realise that people find his looks “suggestive of the characteristics they hate in Jews” (Adamczyk-Garbowska 2003:182). Secondly, the novel openly records the racism that characterized Polish-Jewish relations in the lead up to the war, and the active participation of some Poles in the persecution of Jews during the war.

Wajda is faithful to these aspects of the novel in his film, Samson. In the opening section, without resorting to stereotypes, he emphasises the importance to Jakub of his appearance.[68] For the first four minutes the camera tracks Jakub from behind as he hesitantly enters the University courtyard on his first day. Ignorant of the nature of a demonstration that is taking place there, he bypasses the crowd and enters a lecture theatre. Here he witnesses three bullies who throw a Jewish student out of the main area reserved for non-Jews. When the bullies confront him, he retreats to the courtyard where he is surrounded by a hate-spewing mob, taunted, punched and finally pinned against a wall by their nationalist banners.

Wajda has withheld this moment dramatically to increase the impact of Jakub’s appearance when, at last, we see his dark, gaunt face. We perceive he is Jewish by the reaction of the others to him and we now know his appearance is crucial to his survival.

In this opening sequence, Wajda illustrates the passive acceptance by some Poles of the racist treatment of the Jews in this period. When Jakub enters the University for the first time, the doorman warns him that the meeting going on is not for his “kind” but does nothing about the fascist demonstration in the courtyard. In the lecture theatre, most of the students watch inertly while the bullies force two Jews into a segregated area. When the professor enters, he does nothing about the obvious segregation in his class. And, in the courtyard again, just one student attempts, ineffectually, to prevent Jakub being attacked. Wajda has been quite clear up to this point about the anti-Semitism prevailing among students of the University. As we shall see later, more complex issues of identity and representation—how people are viewed by others, including the audience—and the Polish-Jewish relationship during the war, emerge in the course of the film.


Janusz Korczak (the pen name of Dr Henryk Goldszmit)—a paediatrician, author of children’s books, broadcaster, and advocate of children’s rights—was a much-loved figure in Poland before the war and remains important to both Polish Catholic and Jewish cultures.[69] From a family of acculturated Jews, he was heavily influenced by his father who long advocated the belief that it was possible to be “both a loyal Jew and a loyal citizen of one’s country” (Lifton 2005:section 3).

In 1910 he met Stefa Wilczynska with whom he established and co-directed a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw.[70] A few years later he also set up a Polish orphanage called “Our Home” which was directed by Maryna (or Maria) Falska. During the 1930s he broadcast a popular radio program under the deliberately secular name “The Old Doctor,” dispensing advice on the upbringing of children irrespective of faith. When Warsaw was occupied by the Germans at the start of the war, Korczak was forced to relocate his Jewish orphanage into the ghetto. After two years of terrible hardship and deprivation, the surviving children, some 200, Korczak and Stefa were transported by rail to Treblinka where they were killed in the gas chambers.

Several attempts were made in Poland after the war to produce a film based on Korczak’s life, but the various treatments were stifled by censorship.[71] The usual grounds for refusal were because of their “negative representation of wartime Polish behavior, attitudes of Poles toward Jews, and the explicit, accusatory portrayal of the perpetrators—the Germans” (Haltof 2011:190). Aleksander Ford, head of Poland’s national film institute, strongly supported the project, but when he was purged from the communist party in 1968 because of his Jewish roots, proposals to make the film in Poland were dropped.[72] Wajda had considered making a film about Korczak in the early 1980s and commissioned a script from film-maker Agnieszka Holland in 1983.[73] The events of 1989, among which were the anti-Jewish slurs included in a widely-published homily by Cardinal Glemp, Roman Catholic Primate of Poland, and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Poland, spurred Wajda to return to this project with some urgency. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the election of Poland’s first post-war democratic government provided the freedom he needed to fulfil his vision in the film Korczak (1990).

Wajda wanted to focus specifically on the martyrdom of Korczak and most of the action of the film takes place within the Warsaw Ghetto in the two years leading up to the final journey to Treblinka. But the opening sequence of scenes set before the war form a prologue which, as Stevenson remarks, “demonstrates [Wajda’s] developing need to open up the Blonskian stricture to describe how Poles lived with Jews in the past in ways that allowed acquiescence with the Holocaust” (Stevenson 2003:89).

Korczak is introduced in an intimate shot in the broadcasting studio—we can practically read the script over his shoulder—a clear indication that this is his personal story.[74] What follows is a series of scenes that illustrate multiple levels of anti-Semitism—institutional, personal, and banal—prevalent at the time.

In the next scene he enters the anteroom of the director of the government-controlled radio station. He is greeted warmly by the receptionist as the Old Doctor until she realises he is a Jew. This is followed by a confrontation between Korczak and the director. The elegant director, clearly from the Polish nobility, nervously equivocates, telling Korczak his broadcasts are to be cancelled, due to “outside pressures,” reflecting the attempt by Polish intelligentsia to appease right-wing anti-Semitic forces.

The action then moves to a summer camp for both of the orphanages. Again the outside world intrudes into this idyllic setting as the coming fate of the Jews is foreshadowed. A group of older students, intelligent and active, recount everyday incidents of beatings and other violence. They want to reject Korczak’s passive humanism, and take up resistance against those Poles who have attacked them. This is followed by a little cameo of the washerwoman at the camp who refuses to wash a Jewish child’s dirty clothes. Korczak shames her by washing them himself.

Wajda introduces the seemingly simple story of burgeoning love between two of the teenaged orphans: a young blonde Catholic girl Ewka, and the Jewish boy, Jozek. On each of their meetings, there is a brief cut to the dark Jewish girl, Natka, who seems to anticipate Ewka’s forthcoming betrayal of Jozek.

The gathering storm of persecution is symbolically evoked with an actual storm. Korczak protectively gathers the children around him, trying to raise their spirits by telling them how beautiful though frightening it is. He then “magically” disperses the thunder and lightning—illustrating his abiding but mistaken belief that he will be able to overcome the forces ranged against them.

It can be argued that these incidents illustrate only minor forms of prejudice which pale into insignificance against the victimization experienced every day by Jews in Poland. But, in the context of the overall film, which shows the gradual isolation of the Jews and their struggle for survival in the Ghetto, they provide a distinctive account of the complexity of the relationships between Poles and Jews in this period. Anti-Semitism among Poles was not universal, nor was it simple.[75] As with Samson, the depiction of the wartime years raises issues of identity—who is a Pole?—and the representation of the Jewish community.


This discussion, using a historical framework, shows Wajda’s long engagement with the issue of Polish-Jewish relations. By focusing on key moments, he traces the arc of this relationship: from the relative accord at the start of the 19th century; through the growth of the notion of a “brotherhood” in the common resistance to external forces and increasing economic interdependence; to mutual suspicion, distrust, and antipathy in the lead-up to the second World War. With cinematic means of performance, casting, shooting, editing and mise-en-scène, these films challenge audiences to recall and try to understand how Poles and Jews lived together in the past.

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] 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 earing 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.

The demands of the censors contrasted these instances of negative behavior 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 behavior, 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.”


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] 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.”

[Note: ellipses here mean words left out. Do not use them to indicate pause. That is not necessary when transcribing dialogue, since that is up to the director and actor, not the script. Change ellipses to simple punctuation if no words are left out in this quoted dialogue in the sections you quote.]

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.

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, 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.



1. In the nineteenth century, according to Davies, “the lands of partitioned Poland … contained four-fifths of world Jewry” (2005:176). By 1930, even after the mass migration of Jews to the USA, the world Jewish population was estimated to be 12-13 million of which about 3.5 million lived in Poland and a further 2.7 million in neighboring lands (that is, about 50% of the world’s total).

2. For a summary of the three partitions leading to the dissolution of Poland see the Wikipedia article at

3. Assimilation was usually an individual choice though there were some assimilationist mass movements, such as the Frankists in the 1760s (Davies 2005:181).

4. For example, Cherry refers to the Jewish “elder” brother and the Christian “younger” brother in a common faith (Cherry and Orla-Bukowska 2007:xi).

5. See, for example, Mendelsohn (2002) on Jewish and Polish art, Cizmic (2011) and Trochimczyk (2007) on music, Wisse (2003), Steinlauf (1989) on theatre, and Segel (1996) on poetry and literature.

6. See, in particular, Baron (2007), Bartov (2005), Coates (2000a, 2000b, 2003, 2005), Falkowska (2007), Haltof (2002, 2007, 2011), Mazierska (2000), Ostrowska (2000), and Stevenson (2003).

7. Though the Republic was founded in 1918, it was not until 1921 that its boundaries were settled. See Davies (2001:100-106).

8. More than 25,000 Polish prisoners of war were executed at Katyn in 1940 in a deliberate policy, authorized by Stalin, to eliminate much of the Polish military and intelligentsia. The Russians only belatedly acknowledged this event in 1990 (Davies 2001:422). Until then, Wajda believed the Germans had killed his father.

9. See Wajda’s official website (Lezenska 2000–2011), and the extensive recorded interviews at
http://www.webofstories.com/play/13542 [accessed March 2014].

10. The films concern the Polish resistance movements (communists and the Home Army) first at the time of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, then during the general Warsaw uprising, and finally at the end of the war.

11. For useful insights into the influence of Wajda’s films in Poland see Falkowska (2007), Stevenson (2003), and Mazierska (2000).

12; See, for example, Fabian Schuppert for a description of state control of Polish cinema (2006) and John Bates’ wider discussion of censorship (2001)

13. Despite acknowledging the conditions under which his films had to be produced, Mazierska, rather unjustly, accuses Wajda of opportunism, of attempting always to “please his audiences” at the expense of truth and avoiding anything that would “seriously offend… anyone” (2000:225). Clearly Wajda was forced to compromise in some respects but his commitment to an examination of Polish identity and the Polish-Jewish relationship is not in doubt (see also Haltof (2011:87).

14. The film is set in the Austrian-controlled zone of Poland, which at this time was partitioned into three areas occupied by Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

15. Man of Marble seems to anticipate the workers’ movement that led to the formation of the Solidarity Trade Union that is the subject of Man of Iron, and which was critical to the ending of communist rule in Poland. Wajda has since made a third film, Man of Hope (2013), which tells the story of Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity movement who became the first President of the Polish Republic.

16. In his interviews Wajda quotes French poet Alfred de Musset (1810-57)—“Poles, if there is nothing you can do to stop them from swallowing you, and you have been swallowed already, then do everything to stop them from digesting you.”See
http://www.webofstories.com/play/13542 [accessed Aug 2013]

17. Shoah is a painstakingly made documentary commissioned to reflect on the Holocaust from the Jewish perspective. It materialized as an indictment of Polish complicity in the murder of Jews and caused much controversy in Poland and the United States both for its methods and its partial account—see, for example Cherry (2007:35-37).

18. While Wajda’s films caused storms of criticism among Jews, Lanzmann’s film caused an equal storm among Poles. But, as Polonsky notes, the results of the uproar were not entirely negative as it opened up the subsequent dialogue (2007:124-26). See also Zborowski’s brief foreword on the contemporary relevance of this dialogue (2007:x).

19. These notes draw principally on the work of Norman Davies (2001), Eva Hoffman (1999), Mark Mazower (1999), Misha Glenny (1993), and Neal Ascherson (1987).

20. In the period 1500-1650 the Commonwealth was remarkably diverse both ethnically and in religious practice (Steinlauf 1997:5).

21. Jewish presence in Poland was welcomed, at least by the monarchy and nobility, because of the benefits that Jewish artisans and traders brought in terms of economic development (Hoffman 1999:80-84). Though the welcome was not uniform—there was considerable resentment amongst the peasant population at what they perceived as the unfair privileges accorded to many Jews, and there was visible economic disparity—the conditions at this time were so favorable that it is estimated the Commonwealth was home to about three-quarters of the world’s Jewry.

22. In Prussia, Jews migrated to the cities in great numbers and became increasingly “Westernized”; the position in Austria was more mixed between urban success and rural poverty; and in Russia, the Jews were confined to the Pale of Settlement and subject to ever-increasing restrictions, expulsions and pogroms.

23. The assassination of the Russian Tsar in 1881 caused riots in Warsaw as the result of rumors of Jewish responsibility. In addition, pogroms in the Pale caused a destabilising influx of Jews to the Austrian controlled partition (Davies 2005:182-84).

24. Pilsudski was Head of State and then Prime Minister of the Second Polish Republic (between 1918-35).

25. Dmowski was a right-wing nationalist ideologue with significant influence in Poland between the wars. He openly espoused strong anti-Semitic views.

26. Jews were regarded as a “race” under the Nazi classification rules.

27. It is estimated there were over 18 million non-combatant victims of Nazi Germany, of which 11 million were killed in Poland. Between five and six million European Jews were killed, almost half of the total estimated in 1941. Over six million Polish citizens were killed including almost the entire Jewish population of about three million. See, for example, Mazower (1999:173-75).

28. After the war, some 300,000 Jews returned to Poland from territory ceded to the USSR causing serious conflict with Poles. In one notorious incident in 1946, forty-two Jews were massacred in the town of Kielce. Subsequently, other incidents of this type led to a wave of emigration. The reinstatement of Gomulka to the leadership in 1956 and the anti-Semitic campaign by General Moczar in the 1960s to cleanse public life of “alien elements” resulted in the purging of Jews from the communist party and caused most of the remaining Jews to leave (Davies 2001:323).

29. From a speech made by Rafael Scharf at a conference in Oxford in 1984 - see Polonsky (1990:196). This segment is quoted in Blonski (1990:45).

30. See, for example, Onecki (1987:12-23, 51-53, and 114-116), Mazower (1999:164-69), and Goska (2001).

31. For a reasonably balanced view of the arguments see Sinnreich (2007).

32. The article was originally published in a Catholic weekly journal, Tygodnik Powszechny January 1987.

33. This appears in the poem, “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto”, written by Czeslaw Milosz in Warsaw, at the time of the Ghetto Uprising in 1943. His own translation is reproduced in Polonsky (1990:51).

34. The sequence can be seen on YouTube at:

35. The poem “Campo di Fiori” (1943) by Milosz refers to the carousel erected by the Germans directly next to the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. He notes how the “vivacious music” of the merry-go-round drowns out the sound of gunfire and explosions from the Ghetto and how:

“Sometimes the wind from burning houses
would bring the kites along,
and people on the merry-go-round
caught the flying charred bits.”
(also reproduced in Blonski (1990:49-50)).

36. The sequence can be seen on YouTube at:

37. The sequence can be seen on YouTube at:

38. See, for example, Michalek (1973) and Mazierska (2005).

39. See Haltof (2011:81, n10).

40. Mickiewicz, often compared to Byron and Goethe in the pantheon of Romantic poets, was active in the movement for Polish independence. He was exiled to Russia in 1824 at the age of 26 and five years later was permitted to travel abroad. He travelled through Germany and Italy before settling in France. He died of cholera, contracted in the Crimea, at the age of 56. For a brief description of the genesis of Pan Tadeusz see Di Bartolomeo (2003:172-76).

41. All quotations from the poem are taken from the translation by Kenneth R. Mackenzie.

42. According to Falkowska, Wajda was meticulous in his preparation and research before making the film. He consulted critics and audiences alike to ensure his screenplay adhered to the spirit of the original (2007:249-52).

43. The film was an instant success with audiences in Poland and continues to be viewed frequently on DVD and on YouTube where it has had over 120,000 views in the last 12 months (as of January 2014).

44. See, for example Di Bartolomeo (2003) or Mazierska for her dismissive review of the film as merely a “heritage” piece (2001).

45. Jankiel’s playing slides into a polonaise composed by Wojciech Kilar for the film. This became an instant hit in Poland. The sequence can been seen on YouTube at:

46. Reymont went on to become the first Polish winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature for his 1924 novel Chlopi (The Peasants).

47. The population of Lodz, a small town near Warsaw, grew from a base of less than 1000 in 1820, to over 300,000 by 1890 (Young and Kaczmarek 2008:58).

48. Lodz became known for labor troubles, culminating in a general strike in 1892 (Young and Kaczmarek 2008:58).

49. Further turmoil resulted from the migration of considerable numbers of Jews from the Russian area of the Pale (known as the Litvak invasion) who brought with them Marxist and Communist ideologies (Davies 2005:184).

50. Edward Gierek came to power in 1970.

51. For Wajda’s account of the making of The Promised Land see the interviews at
http://www.webofstories.com/play/13662?o=MS and related videos.

52. See Nurczynska-Fidelska (2003) for a comparison of elements of the novel with the film, and Falkowska for a discussion of some analyses of both forms (2007:148-50).

53. Promised Land received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film in 1976 and Wajda had high hopes for a successful distribution in America for what he called his “most American film.” However, Danièle Heymann, a reviewer in Le Monde labelled the film anti-Semitic and as a result distribution in the US (and some other countries) was blocked—see (Michalek and Turaj 1988:154). Wajda was extremely bitter about this criticism—see, for example, the interview at

54. The sequence, without subtitles, can be seen on YouTube at

55. The sequence, without subtitles, can be seen on YouTube at

56. This is the version generally available on DVD.

57. References to the original text are based on the translation by Noel Clark (Wyspianski 1998).

58. One of the penalties of adapting a literary classic is that it becomes subject to close textual comparison (Falkowska 2007:140-41).

59. Falkowska suggests the film is “virtually inexplicable” to audiences whose knowledge of Polish history is limited (2007:135), and even Adam Michnik finds obscure a number of the allusions to the past (2000:152).

60. Wajda inserts a sequence behind the credits that follows the guests from the wedding in the town to the farmhouse.

61. The strawmen, or chochol, are rose bushes covered in straw to protect them against frost.

62. Coates notes that this theme, that sounds like a Jew’s harp, implies a link between Jewishness and the ghostly exterior (1992:132).

63. In a couple of places the innkeeper is referred to as Moishe or Moses, but this seems to be a generic reference. In the poem he is simply called the Jew.

64. Stage directions call for the icon to depict Our Lady of Czestochowa, one of the most revered Catholic symbols (Wyspianski 1998).

65. According to Vinecour, not just the Endecja was commited to anti-Semitism, but “Every Polish political party with the exception of the Socialists” (Vinecour and Fishman 1977:5). For a more detailed discussion of this period and the ideological and political battles between Pilsudski, who provided some support for the Jews, and Roman Dmowski, leader of the strongly nationalist and anti-Semitic movement, see Davies (2001:113-128).

66. Hoffman notes that, on the eve of World War II, Jewish entrepreneurs controlled many major industries; Jewish firms employed more than 40% of the Polish labor force; and Jews were seen as disproportionately represented in the professions (1999:88-89).

67. For a summary of Brandys’ life and works, see (Adamczyk-Garbowska 2003: 181-83)

68. Much has been made of the casting of French actor Serge Merlin as Jakub. For example, both Quart and Haltof argue unconvincingly that the choice of a “scrawny” or “slender” intellectual as opposed to a powerful, physical actor changes the nature of the character and the film (Haltof 2011:87) and (Quart 2009). Coates is more perceptive, noting that by reducing the emphasis on physical strength, the casting positions the film as an allegorical rendering of “human isolation” (2005:163).

69. See, for example Eva Hoffman (2011).

70. Stefa was enormously important to the work of the orphanage. For more details of her life and work see Lifton (2005).

71. See Coates (2005:96-99) and Haltof (2011:189-91) for a discussion of the previous attempts at this project.

72. Ford went on to make his version of the film, Dr Korczak, the Martyr, an Israeli-West German co-production, released in 1974. This was a failure both critically and commercially, and apparently was criticized for largely suppressing Dr Korczak’s Jewish roots (Haltof 2011:191).

73. Holland had been living in exile in France since the establishment of martial law in 1981. Unable to make her own films, she worked with Wajda on Danton (1983) and he offered her the chance to write the screenplay for Korczak. See
(accessed March 2014).

74. Holland used the diaries kept by Dr. Korczak in the Ghetto as the basis for much of the screenplay (Haltof 2011:192).

75. See, for example the discussion in Polonsky (1990:19-21).

76. There are many accounts of both positive and negative Polish behavior during the war: see for example Bartoszewski (1988), Goska (2001), Onecki (1987), Sliwinski (1997), and Joseph Kermish’s introduction in Ringelblum (1976).

77. Ziarno is a member of the Home Army hated by the communist censors. See Haltof (2011:28).

78. Wajda’s picture of the ghetto is faithful to accounts of eyewitnesses. See, for example, Ainsztein (1979:16-17) and Zuckerman (1993).

79 See, for example, Colombat (1993:113-16), Michnik (2000:170-73), Haltof (2011:195-99), Ginsberg (2007), Insdorf (2003:271-72), and Baron (2007:44-48).

80. Claude Lanzmann was particularly incensed by this imbalance in the film, see Michnik (2000:171-72).

81. In the winter of 1941 the Jews were ordered to turn over to the Nazis via the Judenrat all the furs they possessed (Lifton 2005:section 32).

82. Wajda’s picture of the way the Jewish Council were led into the process of trying to save what they could from the ghetto is accurate and sympathetic—see Bauman (2000:129-42). The other events are much as described by Lifton (2005).

83. These notes rely extensively on the excellently researched biography of Henryk Goldszmit alias Janusz Korczak by Betty Jean Lifton (2005).

84. As Lifton remarks: “Perhaps because Korczak was determined to live as both a Pole and a Jew in prewar Poland, he was not above criticism in his lifetime: many Jews saw him as a renegade who wrote in Polish rather than Yiddish or Hebrew, while no amount of acculturation could make the right-wing Poles forget that he was a Jew.” (2005:Introduction).

85. Andrzejewski lived close to the ghetto walls in 1943 when he wrote the original version of the novel, which has several autobiographical elements. It was not immediately published and appeared in a much-revised edition in 1946. See Coates (2000b:25-26), Rostropowicz Clark (2007), Swan (2007), and Haltof (2011:201) for a discussion of the origins of and changes to the novel.

86. All references in this paper to the novel Holy Week refer to the English translation by Oscar Swan (Andrzejewski 2007).

87. Davies convincingly argues that the Polish resistance was not strong enough to provide a greater level of support until the more general Warsaw uprising of 1944 (2001:63-8).

88. I am indebted to Mike Stevenson, Elzbieta Ostrowska, and Oscar Swan, for providing me with a copy of the film and English subtitles for the dialogue. The translation of the subtitles is a collective work of Professor Swan and his students at the University of Pittsburgh.

89. The opening sequence of the film is based on the short story, “Silence,” in (Borowski 1976).

90. The battle of Grunwald is regarded as the most important in Polish history as it epitomises the victory of Poland against invaders. For a short summary see

91. The missal would appear to be Catholic but hides the Hebrew text.

92. Jedwabne, a small town in north-eastern Poland came under German control in June 1941. A few weeks later, on July 10th, a group of Poles massacred several hundred of the town’s 900 to 1600 Jewish population while others failed to intervene. A report by Poland’s Institute of National Memory in July 2002 concluded that at least 350 men, women, and children were murdered and that the Polish population played a central role in the massacre. Others, including Jan Gross in his book Neighbors (2001) argue that all 1600 Jews were killed. For an account of the Jedwabne controversy, and links to related articles see
http://info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/J/ ,
Mach (2013), Knap (2013), and Polonsky (2009).

93. The Jewish population of Poland is tiny, around 10,000. See Salmonowicz (1997:54).

94. Their attacks on Promised Land and Korczak argued that he consistently defames Jews and that his films suppress anti-Jewish activity in favor of showing Polish heroism. See Fogler (1996b).



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