November 12, 2013
By Louise Steinman.
Going full out for the distressing double-header, I saw the Polish film Aftermath the same weekend as 12 Years a Slave. Both films were an opportunity to view how a filmmaker handled a country’s national shame through the art of storytelling. Aftermath, is a fictional film inspired by Jan Gross’s book Neighbors, about the Jedwabne pogrom, a 1941 massacre of a Polish village’s Jewish population by their Catholic neighbors. It’s just been released in the US. 12 Years, based on the diary of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and pressed into bondage in the American South, brings to Technicolor luridness the hideous cruelties of the slave trade.
Both films are deeply disturbing and both films necessitate a revising of a national self-image. For Poles, that involves admitting that they were not always the victims in World War II; on some occasions, they were perpetrators. Americans must countenance that our country’s literal foundations were built on the blasphemy of human bondage.
In Poland, when Neighbors was first published in Polish in 2000, discussion of the Jedwabne case became a national obsession. Crucial to note was that the debate about Jedwabne was carried out in full public view. It involved Catholic prelates, former Solidarity leader Adam Michnik (himself of Jewish descent), Polish writers and academicians, and Jewish Poles.
When the stone commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre was dedicated in the town in July 2001 by Poland’s then-President, Aleksander Kwásniewski, the president’s unflinching apology was carried live on Polish TV:
"We express our pain and shame. We express our determination in seeking to learn the truth, our courage in overcoming an evil past. We have an unbending will for understanding and harmony. Because of this crime we should beg the shades of the dead and their families for forgiveness. Therefore, today, as a citizen and as the President of the Polish Republic, I apologize. I apologize in the name of those Poles whose conscience is moved by that crime."
I’ve never heard an American president apologize for the abomination of the slave trade. And, lest anyone forget, this past spring, The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a key provision of the landmark civil rights law.
Aftermath has caused outrage in Poland among Polish nationalists who consider the film a slur. It also has passionate defenders, for whom looking squarely at the past is a prerequisite to building a tolerant civil society. As a film, I found Aftermath’s Gothic approach—spooky score, supernatural scares, a cast of Troglodyte villagers with raised pitchforks—a distraction and a disconnect from the sober story the film attempts to tell. 12 Years a Slave—far more artful—so aroused my sense of outrage that I wanted to smash my fist through the screen.
In 2006, before Jan Gross’s next book (Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz) was published in Poland, I expressed my worry to a Polish friend about the possible harm the book might cause to the efforts towards Polish-Jewish reconciliation. This friend, an artist and civic activist who was also Gross’ Polish publisher, replied, “Yes, it will be very painful. But we have to take this relatively peaceful time to look at what is cruel and painful in the past. It is the only way we can build a democracy. We cannot lose this time. We must be honest.”
His response was so obvious, clarifying, and a deep relief. It still is. My friend was neither alarmed nor defensive at the prospect of controversy.
It’s never easy to admit to different points of view about history—look at the broiling controversy over the Smithsonian allowing Japanese responses to Hiroshima in the exhibit commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of World War II. (The Smithsonian backed down.) And when will an American filmmaker take on the genocide of the Native Americans? He or she could start with the bounties paid for the scalps and body parts of California Indians, legally sanctioned by our state legislature until 1900. There are plenty of uncomfortable national truths to contemplate; looking at them collectively doesn’t denigrate a nation’s history, nor the acts of bravery of its citizenry. (We must also remember that there are more Poles among the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem than from any other European country.)
This public confrontation with the truths of an uncomfortable past is a crucial aspect—a responsibility really—of living in a democracy, of taking advantage “of this relatively peaceful time.”
Louise Steinman is the author of the The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation, as well as the award-winning memoir The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War and The Knowing Body: The Artist as Storyteller in Contemporary Performance. For the past two decades, she has curated the ALOUD literary and performance series for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. She also codirects the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at the University of Southern California. Her website is www.louisesteinman.com, and she writes regularly at her Crooked Mirror blog.