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‘Aftermath:’ A Riveting Portrayal of Polish Anti-Semitism

January 17, 2014 1:26 am 22 comments

A screenshot from the film 'Aftermath'.

After Germany itself, no country has been more scrutinized for its behavior during the Holocaust than Poland.  This is understandable considering the fact that 3 million Jews lived in Poland and the fact that the largest death camps were in Poland.

Sometimes, however, this scrutiny takes awkward turns. From time to time one hears references to the “Polish” camps, and it is necessary to set the record straight: these were German camps located in occupied Poland.

At other times one hears comments such as the Poles learn their anti-Semitism from their mother’s milk or the Poles were even worse than the Germans. These are most unfortunate comments because while Polish anti-Semitism was real and virulent, there is an implication of something historic and inherent about Poland that does not square with the record.

The question that must be posed is: If Poland was always an anti-Semitic country, why were 3 million Jews living there on the eve of World War II?  The answer is that for many centuries, Poland was a more welcoming place for Jews than countries in Western Europe.

Jewish communities were given a degree of autonomy and stability in Poland that did not exist elsewhere in the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Anti-Semitism existed, of course, but Jewish life could flourish. It was only later, with the dissolution of the Polish Empire and, particularly, in the 20th century with the emergence of reactionary political forces, that Polish anti-Semitism took a turn for the worse.

In sum, the history of Poland and the Jews is a lot more complicated than some would have it.

Still, the power of anti-Semitism in modern Poland is real and never has it so brilliantly been portrayed as in the Polish film “Aftermath,” which recently came to the United States.

It is a story of two Polish brothers, one now living in America who goes back home. He sees that his brother is being abused by his neighbors. He learns that it was a result of his brother’s digging up tombstones of Jews that were used to pave a local road and setting them up in the field behind his house.

Whatever his attitude toward Jews, he explained that “they were human beings. There is no one left to look after them.” People began to call him “Jew lover” and other even less pretty epithets.

This, however, is only the beginning of the tale. As it evolves the story of those dead Jews becomes more and more gruesome and relates back to events that took place during World War II.

The film is one of the most riveting Holocaust-related films I have seen for several reasons.

First, it is not in your face. The story and the revelations slowly emerge and are all the more powerful when they do.

Second, anti-Semitism is shown not to be a simple phenomenon, but one with many layers. Both of the brothers themselves make anti-Semitic references and yet each is very different from their hate-filled neighbors. For the brother living in Poland, even if he carried with him common stereotypes about Jews, using tombstones to pave a road was too disrespectful. So he took a stand.

And for the brother coming from America, concern about issues of property in the town led him to pursue with vigor and integrity the true story of what happened to the Jews of the town and the role of prominent members of the community in those events.

Third, through the telling of a story it shows the importance of recovering the truth of the past in order to repair the present and the future.

While this is a fictional account, it is based on the horrific events that took place in Jebwabne in 1941 when the Germans invaded. Jan Gross has written an important book on the subject.

Much like when Gross’s book came out, so too when “Aftermath” appeared in Polish theaters, there was much controversy. The filmmaker was accused in some circles of defaming the Polish people. Others, however, commended him for speaking truth about terrible acts committed by respectable Poles.

“Aftermath” is a must-see film. In a sophisticated way, it does a better job of communicating the power and destructiveness anti-Semitism than almost any other film.

And it is a story about heroes, about people who do the right thing even if they are less than perfect people themselves.

Poland’s history toward the Jews was, indeed, complicated. But the power of anti-Semitism in that country in the 20th century was profound. Coming to grips with it is an imperative of our times.

Abraham H. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

22 Comments

  • As an American born Jew brought up in the Polish section of a small upstate NY city because my grandfather had a grocery store there and it was depression so we lived upstairs of the store. He located himself there because he was a native Lithuanian and Polish and Russian were his native language after Yiddish. I have to tell you these people were indeed Anti Semites. They were happy to shop at the grocery even in the middle of the night as long as they had no money and it just went into the books but when they received their relief checks they went elsewhere. My grandparents died penniless with thousands of dollars owed them. It didn’t stop his customers from painting “dirty Jew” on the side of house or in the driveway. so don’t try to white wash Poles.

  • And mr. Eric r, don’t throw “holocaust denier” around so loosely. It does not scare off every arguement you start. It only points out your very simple understanding of what happened. And it really lowers the meaning of the term which should be kept for actual deniers and antisemites.

    Your father equating his life to African Americans in the south is an insult too. Do you think those Americans had the option to vote In a real government to protect their rights? We’re they able to earn an honest living and buy a ticket out of their situation? Could they build a Christian church for their community? Please.

  • The history of Poland and the Jews may indeed be “a lot more complicated than some would have it,” but it is not quite as complicated as the rhetoric of its apologists, including Foxman, would have it. Antisemitism in Poland did indeed wax and wane over the centuries but it remained (and remains) a constant even up to today.

    The real memories of the Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust (that are here being disparaged by Foxman, who himself can claim only a child’s personal experience there) include their actual lifetime experiences with antisemitism in Poland in the years BEFORE the Nazis (including the exception of some relatively “benign” years under Pilsudski’s regime) and in the years AFTER the Nazis’ defeat, in the years of Communist rule in Poland, and continuing on into the years of post-Communist Poland.

  • Over 5.8 million polish citizens died during WWII as a result of the german invasion and german supported lawlessness. Over half of the 5.8 million Polish citizens who died practised Judaism.

    And as for the post WWII communist discrimination that did exist, it’s a result of the german war which destroyed poland and allowed for an eventual soviet takeover of central and Eastern Europe.

    Poland has championed the Jewish culture for 700 years and if you all think 10 years of german aggression and soviet discrimination will destroy centuries of polish tolerance you are dreaming.

    • Sir,

      You are only one small step above a Holocaust denier. Go away.

      • And there it is, I don’t agree with you so accuse me of being close to holocaust denial. Very typical of someone who only knows what biased people have taught him.

        Have a redbull, refresh your sponge and read my posts again. Nowhere does it say or imply anything about denying the holocaust.

        And for the record eric, no offence to your father but he seems like someone who would never be proud of his homeland. to begin with He saw what is happening in Germany and I assume after Czechoslovakia and decided to flee his country instead of protecting it. I would not ex

        • I would not expect someone who ran away from his people and nation to teach his son that poland was a fair place with a rich Jewish culture that was worth helping defend. I would expect your father to magnify all the bad things he experienced in poland and tell you be fled a country because it was not worth dying for.

          I am glad that at least the wealthy jews who could afford to flee can speak of how horrible poland was for there families. I am sure the wealth your father was able to amas had nothing to do with his rights upheld by a government he did not want to protect.

          • I am glad to see that Israel is filled with men and woman of a much prouder and patriotic calibre. Look how hopeless Israel felt against the Arabs in all the wars it had to fight to protect itself after creation. And it won them all.

            I assume you are in the U.S. Eric? Because if courage like your families filled Israel after the war it would be Palestine again.

        • “And for the record eric, no offence to your father but he seems like someone who would never be proud of his homeland”

          Poland was never his homeland, and the Poles never saw him or any other Jew as Poles.

          As for you, my original assessment stands. Now go away.

          • Not alot of rebuttal from Eric, I think you may have learned a thing or two. It’s been a pleasure Mr. Rosenberg, good day.

  • As far as I am concerned the polish jews who died in the war were part of the millions of polish soldiers and citizens who died during the war and as a result of murder during the occupation. For a people to live in a country for 700 years and still be excluded from the nation by foreigners of the same religion is a joke. The jews all around the world writing and preaching about polish jews and using their misfortune for their own aims is a sin. I am obviously polish and have much more in common with my Jewish country men and women than Catholics in Germany. I know that Judaism is more of a cultural and identity thing than most religions but I consider matters of citizenship and loyalty to a country as secular.

  • All of this blame that Poland gets is just because its easy to split WWII Germany as the german people and nazi germany. “The nazis were so bad but the german people were so good and civilized”. the Poles however were all bad to jews because of several backwater villages and towns who committed horrible things to POLISH CITIZENS during the war under the nazi german occupation, while good hearted civilized german citizens back home had no choice but to accept what the evil poles and nazis were doing.

    This is what all your comments amount to, scape goat Poland because its easy. That’s fine you all have your own opinions, never forget that Israel has Poland at the top of the “righteous of nations” also with that there are more poles that risked their lives and their famies lives protecting jews than all the other nations put together.

    And lastly, the jews who died in poland during WWII were polish citizens, for 700 years they had a history in poland. Their families worked there, celebrated there and died there. No one has any right today to seperates them from the polish nation as a statistical number. Poland has always had large minorities and everyone was happy, while Western Europeans were burning witches and jews and murdering each other over religion poland was poland and will never bend to this post WWII defamatory campaign.

  • Peter Kubicek

    Eric R. has basically got it right.

    Key points;

    1. Mr. Foxman states that the largest death camps were located in Poland. The fact is that ALL extermination camps were located in Poland. Hitler assessed it shrewdly when he decided to locate the extermination camps in a country with a brutish population who who took in stride the tall crematorium chimneys spewing daily noxious fumes into the atmosphere. While there were maybe as many as a thousand concentration camps in Germany, the German population would not have accepted these crematorium chimneys in their country.

    2. Mr. Foxman mentions the famous quote that Poles drink anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk. This may have been an undiplomatic comment by an Israeli politician, but it was right on the mark.

    3. Mr. Foxman touches on the infamous story of Jedwabne, a town in Poland where Jews were murdered by the Poles, while German troops only stood by and watched. This was well-documented by Jan Gross in his book, “Some Were Neighbors.” Without belaboring the point, you can just look up this important book.

    4. Keep in mind that Poland was the only country where Jewish Holocaust survivors were murdered AFTER the War.

    I rest my case.

    Peter Kubicek
    Author of “Memories of Evil — Recalling a World War II Childhood”

    • The quote about drinking anti-Semitism from their mother’s milk originated with Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko, talking about Ukrainians. But it certainly applies to Poles, and really to ALL Europeans, even the Brits.

    • Elizabeth Danzig-Teck

      Excellent outline and points, Mr. Kubicek. I agree with one and all.

    • Clearly you are an ignorant person full of hatred and prejudice. Your diatribe is pure nonsense. Your post does a disservice to the victims of the Holocaust. First, you clearly don’t know history. Hitler build concentration camps in Germany and in occupied Poland because, overwhelming majority of European Jews lived there so they don’t have to be transported across Europe. It is also well documented that the camps were manned by the well armed German units but they forced others (Jews themselves) to perform certain functions in the camps. What is well documented is that significant percentage of the prisoners of the camps were Poles themselves including my own uncle who died in Stuthoff concentration camp. You should also go to Israel and visit Jad vashem to discover that more Poles were honored for saving Jews than any other nationalities despite the consequences of death penalty. As for books by Gross he is not a historian but someone who profits from writing historical fiction. Maybe you should crack a real book once in a while. I can go on but I see no point in talking to a racist idiot like you who doesn’t know basic historical facts and has a racist agenda.

  • Russian and Polish anti-Semitism were the compelling reasons for my grandparents and their siblings to escape their respective countries for America at the end of the 19th century. The present views of much of Europe toward the Jew exemplifies its lack of change in attitude,despite the Holocaust.

    • Yes, the same is true for three-fourths of my grandparents. One complexity with respect to Poland must be remembered; it was partly where Tsarist Russia dumped its Jews. This little point notwithstanding, the real problems began with the ascent of the Saxon dynasty, wherein we lost all support of the government.

  • Polish church to display painting depicting Jewish ritual murder of Christian children

    Read more: http://www.jta.org/2014/01/14/news-opinion/world/painting-depicting-jewish-ritual-murder-christian-children-to-go-on-display#ixzz2qg8ARMwU

    My parents, brother and sister were among the few Jews to escape Poland and find refuge here in America July 1938.

    Old habits die hard, especially for this hatred that will not die.

  • “Poland’s history toward the Jews was, indeed, complicated. ”

    Wrong Mr. Foxman. Poland’s history toward the Jews for the last 300+ has been very simple.

    They want us dead.

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