05 July 2013

Remembering the Ghetto Uprising

The commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May this year represented a major, multifaceted memory event for Poland. The commemorations were far more than the repetition of rituals according to a set tradition. Warsaw has, of course, commemorated the uprising many times, in many different forms, but this year’s events, in their scale and diversity, and in the way that they have contributed to a reshaping of Polish-Jewish memory relations, eclipse recent commemorations.

President Komorowski at the commemorations. 
The programme of events was rich, ranging from official state events to performance art, gala concerts and bicycle rides. The Presidents of Poland and Israel, Bronisław Komorowski and Shimon Perez, and the mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, attended, as did delegates from countries and cities across Europe and around the world. The world’s media was present, with the events receiving generous coverage in Israel and the US in particular.

While Poland has been making efforts for many years to come to terms with the loss of its Jewish minority as a result of the Holocaust, this year’s events in Warsaw marked a significant moment. The opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, one of the most significant museum projects in Europe in recent years, and a result of collaboration led by Poland but involving Germany, Israel, the US and others, makes a powerful statement about how Poland sees its past and the role that Jews played in it. While attitudes are, of course, diverse, that past is now accepted and displayed in the centre of the country’s capital, in what is (or will be when it is finally completed) probably the country’s most impressive museum.

16 April 2013

The Holocaust in L'viv and 'European Memory'. The two levels of Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness

Agnieszka Holland’s choice of L'viv as the setting for In Darkness (2011) raises a number of important questions about the portrayal of the Holocaust. The film, which is based on a memoir, portrays the fate of a group of Jews who are hidden and kept alive in the city’s sewers by a Pole. The Pole initially helps the Jews purely for material gain, and shows little empathy for their predicament. Yet throughout the film he begins to grow attached to his charges, eventually stopping taking payment and risking himself and his family for their sake. Some reviewers have criticized the focus on the Polish rescuer, which takes centre stage against the backdrop of the plight of the Jewish characters, much in the same way that Schindler’s List, focuses principally on a German character.

It was precisely this focus on a Pole that, understandably, dominated Polish reaction to In Darkness. The film taps into what has become the most problematic area of Holocaust memory in Poland: the exact nature of Polish role in the Holocaust – as bystander, rescuer, exploiter, denouncer. All of these roles can be observed in the film. The central character, Leopold Socha, is presented initially as an unscrupulous criminal, but progresses to show courage and empathy towards the Jews he helps. The film explores the difficult dilemmas faced by non-Jews in the Holocaust in a nuanced way, showing the fine line between decisions to help or collaborate that often depended on pragmatism, circumstance and improvisation. The character is Socha is ably played by Robert Więckiewicz, who succeeds in being by turns brutal and empathetic, and even in his seeming conversion retains a degree of ambiguity. As he gleefully celebrates saving ‘my Jews’ (a phrase he repeats several times) at the end of the film, the viewer is left wondering whether it  is human courage and kindness that are at work here, or an expression of a kind of ownership and the obsessive desire to defy the Nazis.

It is difficult not to compare In Darkness with Holland’s other famous film about the war and the Holocaust,  Europa Europa (1990). There is a stark contrast. The latter film is by turns grotesque, fantastical, funny and tragic, encapsulating the horrors of the war in a carnivalesque spirit, and underpinned by skilful and elaborate plotting and baroque, deliberately overblown aesthetics. In Darkness has more in common with a Hollywood thriller, retaining a relentless and linear tension throughout, with almost no concessions to irony and certainly not to fantasy. It retains the bleakness of canonical Holocaust films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist, but without ever getting close to their pathos. Its claustrophobic, jerky camera work and settings have more in common with the type of thriller that Holland has directed recently (The Wire; The Killing).

16 January 2013

The Prison on Lonts’kyi Street: Memory Dialogue or Memory Monologue?

Courtyard of the museum, photo by Uilleam Blacker

The Prison on Lonts’kyi Street: Memory Dialogue or Memory Monologue?

Uilleam Blacker

First published on the Current Ukrainian Politics Blog:

L’viv’s wartime history is complex, and demands sensitivity and an understanding that victimhood and guilt are not always exclusive categories. The history of the site of the prison on Lonts’kyi Street speaks to this complexity. It speaks of the Polish state that forcefully oppressed Ukrainian political and cultural aspirations, and also of the Poles tortured, killed and deported by the Soviets. It reminds of Ukrainian victims of the Soviets, but also of Ukrainians’ part in the L’viv pogrom of 1941; it speaks of the Jewish victims of that pogrom, and of wider anti-Semitic violence and murder. This site speaks to the history of interwar Lwów, where Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews failed to build a strong enough society to withstand the chaos that the war would bring. For these reasons, it is a good thing that there is a museum at Lonts’kyi. Its history of the tragic intertwining of the fates of various groups makes it a perfect location to examine that history and learn from it. Unfortunately, the current museum does not take advantage of this opportunity.