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Travels in Poland and Israel, Between Old Wars and New

As I travel through Poland and Israel, watching, discussing and writing about films, I find myself tracing the continuities, as well as the tensions, of Jewish identity. The only child of Polish Holocaust survivors, I am returning to Poland for the first time in 25 years, exploring what Judaism means there now. My mother, who accompanied me the last time, is no longer alive, but I feel her presence especially in Krakow, her beloved native city. Unlike 1989, when the first free elections were ending decades of Communist rule, I sense a growing philo-Semitism: Younger Poles are expressing awareness of all that their country has lost — not only during the Holocaust, but also in the 1968 expulsion of Jews.

The most striking official expression of this is in Warsaw, at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Although its official opening will be in October, the museum’s director, Dariusz Stola, offered me an early guided tour. The museum is an extraordinary testament to the vitality of Jewish life in Poland, especially before World War II. The site is across from the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, created in 1948 by Nathan Rapoport, an American sculptor of Polish-Jewish origin who appropriated the black granite that had been ordered during World War II for a Berlin monument to celebrate Hitler’s victory.

Warsaw was not simply occupied by the Nazis from the first days of World War II, but systematically destroyed on Hitler’s orders, even as the end of the Third Reich was imminent. Stola reminds me that the Nazis began the process of torching one house after another in the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943 — targeting Jews first and foremost — and then repeated the same strategy for the Polish population during the Warsaw Rising in 1944.

Despite omnipresent modernization, Poland seems permeated by a sense of loss. When my husband, Mark (an actor and teacher whose parents were also Polish Holocaust survivors), arrives in Warsaw a week after I do, I take him to the Plac Grzybowski to see the restored Nozyk synagogue (where I attended Sabbath services a few nights ago), as well as a ruined building I previously noticed nearby: Riddled with bullet holes, it had large aged photos of Jewish-looking individuals next to the upper windows, as if commemorating them. But when we arrive there, no photos are visible. A construction company has already erected a huge drop cloth on the upper floors.

We are on the Ulica Próżna, a name that seems all too apt: It means “empty street.” Unsure if this is the same building, I find a worker who confirms that they are renovating and have covered the photos. I have no idea where we are, but I keep feeling that this must be a remnant of the Warsaw Ghetto, even though the Ghetto area is supposed to be farther away. I am struck by words that were stenciled near the bottom: “żyjesz?” (Are you alive?), and “pamiętasz?” (Do you remember?). I later research “Ulica Próżna” and learn that it’s the only former Warsaw Ghetto street that retained tenement houses. We must have seen the very last one, literally on the brink of modernization.

At the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, I develop a deeper appreciation of the city where my mother had a happy childhood until she was deported to concentration camps. Her family was assimilated: Because her father had been a captain in the Polish Army, she was one of only two Jewish girls in her secular school. She told me she went to the synagogue on only the High Holy Days.

There were no open synagogues when we visited Krakow 25 years ago, but now I sit in the restored synagogue, listening to klezmer music one evening and to exhilarating Middle Eastern rhythms another. Leaning my head against the wall, I wonder if my mother prayed within this space 80 years before.

During the festival, I hear about the growing number of Christian Poles who learn of their own Jewish ancestry when a parent or grandparent is on her deathbed. As in the great Polish film “Ida” — the fictional tale of a young nun who discovers she is the daughter of Jews murdered during the war — there seems to be a growing personal stake in exploring one’s origins and assuming a legacy. This has become the subject of new documentary films such as Adam Zucker’s “The Return” and Francine Zuckerman’s “We Were There,” as well as Katka Reszke’s 2013 book, “Return of the Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland.”’

I attend a memorial service for the Jews of Krakow who were murdered by the Nazis. It takes place at the Plac Bohaterow Getta, the square dedicated to the heroes of the ghetto. The sculpted chairs form an eloquent monument: Each is empty (except for the memorial lamps placed there), expressing absence. But the voice of the American cantor singing the Jewish prayer for the dead resounds with reverent resilience.

At Krakow’s museum, I visit the Stanley Kubrick exhibit, which contains its own Jewish dimension. In addition to the copious material from his completed classics — notably “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” — I view the director’s plans and correspondence for a movie he never made: “Aryan Papers” would have been his only Holocaust film, which he planned just before Steven Spielberg made “Schindler’s List” in Krakow. Based on Louis Begley’s book “Wartime Lies,” it might have been shot in the very same areas.

Spielberg’s choice to film in Kazimierz — the Jewish quarter that became a slum after the war — is now credited with transforming the area. I learn that the Krakow-based musician Zbigniew Preisner (one of the greatest film composers in the world, based on his scores for Kieslowski’s “Three Colors”) is in town, and I contact him for a rendezvous. He tells me that he and Kieslowski met with Spielberg in Paris when he was still thinking of shooting “Schindler’s List” in Prague, and convinced him to go to Kazimierz. The result? Over the past 20 years, this neighborhood has grown into a vibrant community, and the main location of the Jewish Culture Festival.

From Krakow I travel to Jerusalem to speak at Yad Vashem’s ninth International Conference on Holocaust Education. The opening ceremony of “Through Our Own Lens: Reflecting on the Holocaust from Generation to Generation” is in the Valley of the Communities, surrounded by names — inscribed in stone — of 5,000 places where Jewish life was lost. Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, now chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, eloquently (with no notes) addresses the hundreds of participants.

The youngest survivor of Buchenwald (at the age of 8), he begins by remarking that one of the gifts the Lord gave us is the ability to forget; otherwise, how could we go on? But he cautions that this gift does not work with the Holocaust. After acknowledging the 24,000 “Righteous … holy people” as well as the general indifference of the majority, he concludes with the hard-earned lesson to “Never lose hope.”

On the night before my panel — part of the session titled “Documentation and Representations of the Holocaust” — the first siren is heard, alerting Jerusalem to missiles being fired from Gaza. I am more surprised than frightened. Only when I read emails from concerned friends in New York do I realize I’m in a potential war zone.

The next morning, conference head Ephraim Kaye announces that, of the 450 participants from 50 countries, not a single person has left. After hearing security instructions (which I will experience at almost every public event over the next few days), I participate in a fascinating discussion — devoted to using Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” as an educational tool — while hoping there won’t be more sirens.

The conclusion of the Yad Vashem conference coincides with the opening of the 31st Jerusalem Film Festival. For the next 10 days, I see provocative movies that often echo themes from this conference. The legacy of the Holocaust is one of them, as in the latest film from master German director Michael Verhoeven, “Let’s Go.” Adapted from the autobiographical novel by Laura Waco, it is a beautifully made drama about a survivor couple who choose to raise their daughters in Germany in the late 1940s.

Another recurring theme is the prevalence of genocide. Daniel Goldhagen’s Yad Vashem lecture — based on his book, “Worse Than War” — includes a horrifying statistic: In our time, across the globe, there have been 100 million innocent victims of genocide. In Stefan Ruzowitzky’s documentary “Radical Evil” — about the Einsatzgruppen death squads that shot to death some 2 million Jews in Eastern Europe during World War II — Benjamin Ferencz says, “Mass murderers are ordinary people like you and me.”

He should know. The former Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, Ferencz was also a war crimes investigator with the U.S. Army and a prominent figure among those who liberated the concentration camps. Is it a coincidence that Ferencz appears in three of the documentaries selected by the festival?

One of them is the riveting “Night Will Fall,” directed by Andre Singer: The archival material contained in this documentary constitutes essential evidence about the Holocaust. When Allied troops liberated the German concentration camps, they systematically recorded evidence of torture and murder. In 1945 England, Sidney Bernstein, chief of the Psychological Warfare Film Section, commissioned a documentary to show Nazi atrocities to the German population. Titled “German Concentration Camps: A Factual Survey,” it was never shown.

Twelve minutes of “Night Will Fall” are from the original documentary. Some sections are exceedingly difficult to watch: The archival footage of the liberation of the concentration camps challenges our capacity to apprehend and comprehend the emaciated, tortured corpses found in Bergen-Belsen as well as in other death camps. (It is hard for me personally, as I fear recognizing an image of my mother among the survivors: She was sick with typhus when this camp was liberated.)

One of the most intriguing aspects of “Night Will Fall” is the role taken by Alfred Hitchcock. Bernstein asked his friend and colleague to serve as supervising editor. Hitchcock began work in late June 1945, insisting on panning shots to keep the reality of the space and relationships — so no viewer would think images could have been faked — and he added maps. Hitchcock wanted the Belsen “dot” to be surrounded by dozens of other dots representing nearby towns and cities, demonstrating that people could not have been unaware of the death camp’s existence.

But “German Concentration Camps” was not released. As Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in Bergen-Belsen, says on camera, the film became a political inconvenience. Britain neither wanted to take in the refugees, nor to let them into Palestine. The Cold War was starting, and Germany would be playing a role against Russia.

The documentary’s footage was used as evidence in trials, however, including Nuremberg. “German Concentration Camps” was completed 70 years later by Imperial War Museums, and the Jerusalem International Film Festival presented the remastered original in addition to “Night Will Fall.”

Ferencz also plays an integral role in “Watchers of the Sky,” the most powerful film I see at the festival. Directed by Edet Belzberg, this galvanizing documentary highlights a few heroes who struggle to do their part in repairing the world. While Raphael Lemkin — who coined the term “genocide” — is the focus, he clearly inspired such contemporary heroes as peace advocate Ferencz, Samantha Power (American ambassador to the United Nations) and Juan Moreno Ocampo (head of the International Criminal Court).

The heart of the film can be found in one of the lines from Lemkin’s notebooks: “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of one person?” While his own formative experience was the Holocaust (which claimed his Polish Jewish parents), the atrocities of Armenia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Sudan are discussed in the film as well.

At the age of 21, Lemkin decided to formulate international law against genocide — to make barbarity identifiable, punishable and preventable. He was first appointed to serve as deputy public prosecutor of Warsaw. In 1939 he hid in the forest and made his way back to his parents’ small farm. Unable to convince them to go with him to America, “I tried to live a year in this one day, to borrow time from the future,” he wrote about his last moments with them.

He arrived in the United States in 1941 and became a “one-man lobbyist” at the newly formed United Nations: In 1948 he succeeded in getting the votes of small nations to establish punishment for genocide in times of peace. But it took 50 years to implement this. Only in 2002 was Ocampo able to build a case against Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir.

Ocampo is a fascinating hero, an Argentine who was a prosecutor of the military junta in 1985. We see him speaking at the United Nations to protect Darfuris by chronicling the rape of young girls and the bombing of schools. “Silence only helps the criminals,” he concludes. We later realize that there is no enforcement mechanism for the ICC’s evidence and conclusions.

From Rwanda, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, field director of the UN Refugee Agency in Chad’s refugee camps next to Darfur, is another inspirational figure, especially when recounting — ever so quietly — how intolerable the murders of his entire family remain for him. Through this survivor, we learn that it was (tragically and ironically) during the slaughter that troops were pulled out rather than added. The language we hear from the Hutu is identical to Nazi terminology — “Exterminate the cockroaches” — as well as from Sudan’s president, who demands the “ridding of vermin… insects.”

Uwurukundo’s assessment seems eerily applicable to the current situation in Israel: “No solution has ever been found by retaliation.” He laments “spiral killings” that lead to the children’s doom. But the film ends on an upbeat note, with Power expressing gratitude for “the privilege of getting to try,” and Ferencz’s story of Tycho Brahe. This Danish astronomer and alchemist of the late 1500s minutely chronicled the skies, providing manuscripts that served even the American astronauts who landed on the moon. “I’m watching the sky,” Ferencz concludes.

It seems more than coincidental that this is the last film I see at the JIFF. I have been looking upward a great deal — at movie screens, or for possible missiles, or in prayer. Maybe this gaze of ascent is also one of assent, accepting that I was meant to be in Warsaw, Krakow and Jerusalem at these particular moments, tracing lines from a haunting past to a volatile present and a more hopeful future.

Yes, hopeful, as I refuse to believe that violent retaliation is the only path. Indeed, many of the movies shown at the JIFF serve as a reminder of one of Lemkin’s lines from “Watchers of the Sky”: “Love despite difference, and rather because of difference.”

While it is of course easy to feel frightened or vulnerable in Israel, a particular moment feels symbolic. One afternoon, I hear what seem to be gunshots and ask a local what is happening. It turns out to be the sound of fireworks for Arab students who are celebrating their graduation from nearby schools. A few hours later, as night falls, I hear the sounds again; this time, I look up to appreciate the fireworks.

Annette Insdorf is director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University. Her books include “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust” and “Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski.” She is currently writing a book about the films of Wojciech Has.

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