Poland’s controversial Oscar

Is “Ida” really anti-Polish and anti-Semitic?

Filip Mazurczak
24 February 2015

While Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, not all Poles are happy with its success. Some fear it will resurrect anti-Polish stereotypes, while others accuse it of anti-Semitism. Is this subtle, 80-minute minimalist film really frothing with ethnic hatred?

 

Attacks from the left and right

Ida has generated a wave of controversy in Poland and has been attacked both by conservatives and leftists for different reasons. The film tells the story of a young orphaned nun, Anna, in early 1960s, post-Stalinist Poland raised in a convent. Just before taking her final vows, she learns from her superiors that she was born Jewish and her real name is Ida. Her only living relative is Wanda Gruz, a Stalinist judge who sentenced Polish heroes to the gallows. The two women are given a few days to reconnect. Wanda and Ida investigate Ida/Anna’s parents’ death, and learn that the Polish farmer who sheltered her parents ultimately killed them. Ida/Anna is torn between her Jewish and Catholic identities; the worlds of monastic austerity and handsome boys and jazz clubs. She must choose which life to live.

On Monday, on the Catholic-oriented Fronda.pl, one of Poland’s biggest right-wing websites, readers were greeted with the headline “An Oscar for the Controversial and Anti-Polish Ida.” Indeed, in recent months many right-wingers have criticized the film for being anti-Polish. Conservative Member of the European Parliament Janusz Wojciechowski said: “This is the first movie of such dimensions and with such class in which there is the Holocaust, but there are no Germans! Jews are not killed by the SS, or some knightly Wehrmacht, but by a wicked, cruel, primitive, filthy Polish peasant lusting after property.” Similarly, Polish political scientist and journalist Michał Szułrzyński expressed concerns on TOK FM radio that Western viewers unfamiliar with Polish history will watch Ida and only learn about Poles who killed Jews for property reasons, which is an incomplete image of Polish-Jewish relations.

Meanwhile, the Polish Anti-Defamation League has been circulating an online petition signed by 50,000 people in which it asks the producers of Ida to begin the film with a disclaimer informing the reader that: Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany; its German occupiers exterminated Polish Jews; Poles who hid Jews risked the death penalty, often applied collectively, yet many Poles hid Jews nonetheless; thousands of Poles were executed for helping Jews; the Polish Underground State punished those Poles who harmed Jews; and more Poles have received the Righteous Among the Nations medal (an honor bestowed by Israel’s Yad Vashem Institute for Gentiles who helped Jews for humanitarian reasons) than any other nation. Right-wing Polish publications and politicians have openly supported this petition.

While Poland’s right accuses Ida of anti-Polonism, its left accuses it of anti-Semitism. Helena Datner of Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute said that “Ida presents a protagonist according to a simple principle: what Poles want to think of a Jewess building real socialism. That she’s a whore and an alcoholic.” Indeed, the film’s Wanda Gruz character is sexually promiscuous and no teetotaler. Meanwhile, feminist Agnieszka Graff of the leftist Krytyka Polityczna has said that Ida is a simplistic story of revenge about a Jewish woman sentencing Poles to death as a vendetta for the death of her relatives. Graff implies that such a narrative feeds into anti-Semitic stereotypes.

 

Ida and the historical record

In September 1939, Poland was invaded by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. No other country in Europe endured such a brutal occupation. Six million Polish citizens (half Jews, half ethnic Poles, as well as other minorities) were killed. After its inhabitants, Gentile and Jew alike, heroically rose up against the Nazis, Warsaw was razed to the ground, suffering more damage than any other city during the Second World War, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the German occupation zone, Germans were allotted 2,613 calories of food a day (well over the 2,000 needed to be healthy), while Poles and Jews were allowed only 669 and 184, respectively, both starvation levels. While Jews were the largest group killed at Auschwitz, non-Jewish Poles come in second place, and until 1942 the main victims of the concentration camps in occupied Poland were Polish political opponents of Nazi Germany.

Most non-Jewish Poles were themselves struggling to survive an unprecedentedly cruel occupation. Furthermore, the death penalty was applied (often collectively) to Poles who aided Jews. Furthermore, posters reminding Poles of this punishment were all over occupied Poland.

Nonetheless, several hundred thousand Poles hid Jews. Żegota, an organization devoted to aiding Jews, the only of its kind in occupied Europe was formed, and, thanks to money given by the Polish government-in-exile in London, helped finance the survival of 50,000 Jews in hiding. Meanwhile, after the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (which was praised in most Polish underground publications) General Władysław Sikorski, Poland’s exiled prime minister, appealed to Poles to aid fugitive Jews and praised the Jewish insurgents’ heroism.

Meanwhile, another minority of Poles denounced or killed Jews. Across Poland, gangs of young men called szmalcownicy made a living threatening to denounce fugitive Jews if they failed to pay them. The Polish Blue Police frequently raided Polish houses to seek out Jews in hiding. In the summer of 1941, the Nazis incited Poles to murder Jews in 23 towns in the Łomża region (while individual murders of Jews by Poles occurred across occupied Poland, this region was the only one where pogroms happened on a large scale). The victims in each town ranged from several to several hundred.

However, some stereotypical views of the Holocaust have blown these numbers out of proportion. Yitzhak Shamir, a right-wing Israeli prime minister, said in the 1980s: “Poles suck anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk,” thus echoing such sentiments, which are undoubtedly harmful to the Poles who risked their lives for their Jewish neighbors, as well as the many more who while not doing so felt great solidarity with the Jews.

As far as the majority of Poles goes, some expressed sympathy and sorrow for the Jews; others, Schadenfreude and said things in the vein of: “Hitler may be a bastard, but at least he solved our Jewish problem.” However, there were cases such as that of the Polish farmer who killed the Jews he was supposed to shelter, and so making a film about such incidents is not anti-Polish. Never is it suggested in the film that the farmer’s behavior was representative of Polish society. One thing that Ida’s right-wing critics seem to miss is that nuns saved the titular heroine. Indeed, of about 1,600 Polish Catholic convents during the Second World War, many – almost 1,000 – sheltered Jewish children. In other words, Ida shows both noble and ignoble Polish behavior.

If Ida is not anti-Polish, is it anti-Jewish? About 300,000 Polish Jews survived the war. About 40,000-60,000 survived thanks to altruistic Poles. Most, however, survived the war by escaping to the USSR and repatriating to Poland. Many were ideologically brainwashed by the Soviets. Furthermore, many high-ranking officials in the new communist Poland were of Jewish origin. Among them was Helena Wolińska-Brus, the real-life basis for Wanda Gruz. Wolińska-Brus was a Stalinist judge who sentenced many Polish heroes who were both anti-Nazi and anti-communist to death in show trials.

However, it must be said that while Jews were disproportionately represented in Poland’s political elite, they were poorly represented in the Communist Party at the local levels. Before the Second World War, the majority of Polish Jews voted for the Bund (a socialist, although anti-communist party encouraging Jewish assimilation), followed by the Polish Socialist Party and Zionist parties. Communists received few Jewish votes. In the 1980s, many Poles of Jewish origin – such as Marek Edelman, a hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Adam Michnik, and Bronisław Geremek – were high-ranking Solidarity members and advisors to Lech Wałęsa.

Because Poles of Jewish origin were widely represented in Poland’s ruling elites, the harmful stereotype of Żydokomuna (“Judeo-communism”) developed in Poland, which sparked a wave of anti-Semitic violence in the late 1940s.

While Ida shows a Jewish character who is a communist, its titular protagonist is a Jew who rejects communism, instead choosing the religious life, something hated by all communists starting with Marx. Furthermore, Wanda Gruz commits suicide in the film. It is implied she does so out of feelings of guilt. In other words, the film’s alleged Jewish caricature in reality shows moral nuance.

Both the stereotypes of the Polish anti-Semite and of Żydokomuna are hurtful. Helena Wolińska-Brus is not representative of Polish Jewry, and the Łomża area pogroms were not the norm for Polish-Jewish wartime relations. However, to say that because Ida features one Polish character who killed Jews and one Jewish character who was a communist (not to mention that the character is based on a real person) criminal is anti-Polish or anti-Jewish, is odd.

Ida is an innocuous film. The Polish Anti-Defamation League and Michał Szułdrzyński are correct to a certain degree: Ida does not show a full picture of Polish-Jewish relations. However, it must be said that it is not a historical film. Its purpose is not to educate its viewers about the past, but rather, as Pawlikowski has emphasized in interviews, it is a metaphysical story with universal themes of identity, guilt and choice, as well as a nostalgic trip back to early 1960s Poland and its music and fashion styles.

 

Educated viewers

However, Ida is a textbook example of what in the United States is known as an “art-house film.” The masses will not flock to it; instead, they will prefer to feast on popcorn to Hollywood fodder with little intellectual and aesthetic worth. Ida is a film that will appeal mostly to educated viewers most of whom already know that Poland was occupied by Germany and that the latter was the prime culprit in the extermination of Europe’s Jews.

If such a viewer’s interest in Polish history is piqued, he will seek out books about Polish history. Inevitably, he will find both dark and bright spots in Polish history, and will learn both about the heroic exploits of Żegota or Polish-Jewish anti-Communists like Edelman, but will also learn about people like Helena Wolińska-Brus and the anti-Jewish violence in the Łomża region.

 

Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.

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