Polish anti-Semitism and the press

Polish anti-Semitism and the press November 20, 2012

A new film that premiered last week has resurrected moral questions that some Poles hoped had been settled long ago. The 20 Nov 2012 front page of the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza was dominated by the controversy surrounding the film Poklosie (Aftermath).  The headline reads  “Poklosie under attack — but the reaction of many Poles is that they are under attack from Poklosie.

The film questions Poland’s self-identity as an innocent victim of Nazi aggression. While there is no doubt that Germany sought to destroy the Polish nation, killing  millions, destroying its cities and attempting to eradicate its culture, film director Wladyslaw Pasikowski has challenged one of the pillars its post-war identity — the country’s innocence in the Holocaust.

Poklosie is a war movie that dramatizes the 1942 massacre of 340 Jews in the village of Jebwadne. However these Jews were not killed by the Nazis, but by their Polish neighbors who herded men, women and children into a barn and set it alight. Set in the fictional village of Gorowka, the site of a war-time massacre blamed on the Germans, the film takes place shortly after the fall of the Communist regime. The movie tells the story of two brothers who in attempting to preserve Jewish tombstones arouse the ire of villagers who fear they will uncover the crimes of the past.  As they used to say in Hollywood, this is a message film, and the message is that hiding past sins results in modern evils.

Amongst the motives for the massacre of the Jews by their Polish neighbors in the film is that Jews were Christ-killers. The incidents recounted in Poklosie are based on true events. In 2003, a Polish government commission released a report saying that claims the Polish Jews of Jebwabne were killed by the Nazis was false. They had been murdered by their Polish Christian neighbors.

I have not seen reference to this story in the American or British press so far — but articles last week in the French press on this story caught my eye. Le Figaro‘s story « La Pologne confrontée à une page noire de son histoire » and Le Nouvel Observateur « Poklosie  : le film qui fait polémique en Pologne » approach the story from an entertainment angle — a film that forces Poland to confront a “black page” in its history — that sort of thing.

The Polish press has treated this not as a movie story, but as an existential question. “Who are we? Where have we come from in our history? Do we share in the sins of our ancestors? Has our faith as Catholics led us to this?”

The Associated Press last year reported that in 2001:

Poland’s bishops made an apology for the Jedwabne massacre and other crimes against Jews under the German occupation, in a special ceremony of prayers in Warsaw. It was viewed as a step toward reconciliation with Jewish groups who often accuse the Catholic Church of being too tolerant of anti-Semitism.

However, conservative and nationalist newspapers have been harshly critical of the movie. They reject the assertion that Poland shares in the collective guilt of the Nazis for the Holocaust and reject the movie’s depiction of Polish peasantry being “evil anti-Semites” roused by their priests to commit murder against the Christ-killers. In the conservative weekly Uwazam Rze, Piotr Zychowicz writes in an article entitled “Polacy, Zydzi, kolaboracja, Holokaust”:

No nation has a monopoly on being evil and no nation has a monopoly on being good. Nations are composed of millions of people, and people, it so happens, are very different.

In an interview published in the right wing news and opinion website, Bogdan Musial argues the historical narrative of Poklosie is a false creation of the media.

Many American Jews left Poland and their father and grandfathers became victims of Holocaust. A big part of the Jewish Diaspora considers Poles to be anti-Semites. Remember the film industry and the media have a strong influence on the intellectual environment and they impose their cultural belief in Polish anti-Semitism.  There is also in German a harmful and false belief in “Polish nationalism” while there is also a lack of historical consciousness in Poland.

Prof. Musial goes on to state there is no doubt that a crime was committed in Jebwabne, but “reactions to the accusation of anti-Semitism should be measured.” He also suggests the “discussion about the anti-Semitism is designed to draw people’s attention away from the crimes of the Communist” era.

A crime has been committed and this is a fact. But the same fact is that the [2002 book Neighbors by Jan  Gross about the Jedwabne pogrom] is unreliable and distorts the history. The problem is that the so-called forces of progress in Poland consider this distorted history to be dogma. The people who denies this are called (by the so-called forces of progress in Poland ) freaks and nationalists. … Through the Gross’ glasses Poles are greedy, primitive, murders who are jointly responsible for the Holocaust and as anti-Semitic as Nazis. Not Germans, but Nazis! … Films such as Poklosie can only strengthen this image …

However the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest circulation daily appeals for critics to stop trying to halt the “cleansing process” of the national soul by appeals to to “nationalistic ideology”. Quoting Gross’s book it states there were Poles who killed Jews simply for profit. It defends Poklosie saying it is a:

… valuable work, unique in Polish cinema, reopening an only superficially healed wound of the Polish conscience.

In my recent posts at GetReligion I have been critical of the European-style advocacy journalism practiced by the New York Times and have argued its stories are neither balanced, fair nor complete in their reporting. And, the Times appears to be blissfully unaware of this problem. Yet advocacy journalism when it is done well can produce exceptionally fine work — such as the front page of today’s Gazeta Wyborcza — because it is written from an ideological and moral perspective that is not hidden by spurious claims of being objective. While I find the views express in Niezalezna to be unpalatable, taken in conjunction with Gazeta Wyborcza they provide a better picture of the affair than any single source.

I applaud the Polish press for addressing these issues of national identity, religious bigotry, and historical memory. Well done.


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11 responses to “Polish anti-Semitism and the press”

  1. One line in the posting makes me wonder how fairly the movie portrayed Polish villagers . It says that the movie is “based on true events.” Well, if the movie is “based on true events”the way Hollywood bases movies on true events the movie is probably loaded with sensationalism , gross stereotypes, and horrendous errors for dramatic effect. Maybe it is time to give the whole concept of “collective guilt” a final burial and not transfer its historic evil use from Jews to Poles as seems the case here.

  2. Newspapers like the Gazeta Wyborcza are saturated with progressives who have an agenda. They use journalism to paint pictures of their adversaries in order to discredit them. This is simply exploitation of an event that has already been put to rest. Not for the left, their satisfaction lies in ongoing accusations and smears. As far as they’re concerned, the only reconciliation is destruction.

    • Frank, would you tell me what you mean when you say Gazeta Wyborcza and other liberal media outlets are seeking to exploit this issue. Do you believe this is being driven by a political agenda such as undercutting Polish nationalists, or a cultural issue like Polish self-hatred? What do you see going on here?

      • “Do you believe this is being driven by a political agenda such as undercutting Polish nationalists, or a cultural issue like Polish self-hatred?”
        Both. Hatred of Polish culture and especially the Church for political reasons as well as exploitation of the situation to score points for Tusk/Palikot. It may be that some of the people who are progressive do not see value in maintaining Polish traditions, culture and the Roman Catholic faith. I certainly have experienced this. There is an emerging virulent hatred in Poland of anything Polish or Catholic.

        BTW this whole article brings about connotations of right wing extremists and “nationalists” – most people will think Nazis here or Brown-shirts or fascists. But that is far from the truth. Polish mainstream conservative movements are not like that. They’re ordinary people, intellectuals, professionals, farmers, pensioners, university kids and school kids. They’re not thugs. Not like the left wing thugs who made a cross made of Lech beer cans when the whole cross outside of the Belvedere issue came up. One should not use left wing terminology when terms such as nationalist are loaded with emotional baggage. It’s poisoning the well, so to say.

        It should be noted that far more Jews were persecuted by the Communist authorities in Poland than anyone else. Most liberal movements in Poland descend from people who were either Communist Party members, supporters or beneficiaries (children of PZPR functionaries).
        Such is the situation in my own extended family. We have people who are very liberal but who still have fond memories for the old system and the perks they enjoyed and who will openly say that Communist atrocities were exaggerated. They despise PiS despite PiS attempting to clean up corruption and PiS trying to establish who did what under the previous system through the actions of journalists such as Bronislaw Wildstein.

        Poles still have not come to terms with their past. We have programs made about famous film directors who had to fight censorship, yet we never hear who the censors where. We never hear who ordered arrests and killings. That information is censored for the good of national unity or perhaps to protect those people who know too much. Well perhaps it should all be in the open in a type of Truth and Reconciliation Commission which ran its course in South Africa after apartheid ended in that country and which helped to bring out the skeletons from both sides of the anti-apartheid struggle.

        BTW anyone who wants a great example of left wing Polish humanism needs to look at the Lech Beer ad which appeared after the Smolensk accident where Polish president Lech Kaczynski lost his life. “A Good Lech is a Cold Lech” was the slogan which ran at the time. Does anyone think, such people really care about the fate of a Jewish village?

        • Pete stunned me when he wrote:
          “It should be noted that far more Jews were persecuted by the Communist authorities in Poland than anyone else.”
          Really? Anyone else? Wow!!
          There is nothing I can say to that.

  3. BTW anyone who wants a great example of left wing Polish humanism needs to look at the Lech Beer ad

    How is a beer company representative of “left wing Polish humanism”?

  4. Pete’s comment on media coverage left and right and its use of demonic sterotypes (or halos for one’s own side) reminded me of the way the American media slandered and smeared the conservative Tea Party movement here (which was actually very civilized) and how it lionized the “occupy” movements( which eventually sunk into a semi-barbaric quagmire in many places.)

  5. I fail to understand the great value you place on European advocacy journalism, George. In math, multiply two negatives and get a positive, but combine two opinion pieces and the reader walks away with little in the way of reliable data. That’s especially true when people acquire their news from a single source . Where’s the balance there? Should the Polish people be spared the actual facts, facts that can be documented through reliable sources? In this case, the media imparts the prevalent worldview of its readers with little in the way of hard evidence to support its assertions. That’s not news.

    • Sari, I have not made myself clear. I prefer the Anglo-American, or the classical liberal style of journalism. Once upon a time this was the standard that made the BBC, for example, trusted round the world. However, this style is now largely absent from the European scene (including the BBC) and instead the European advocacy model is the norm. When it works well, it does a great job — intelligently argued points of view on the same set of facts help a reader understand. The problem with this school of newspaper reporting, as you have noted, is that poor quality advocacy reporting — where inconvenient facts are omitted, or which peddle lies — quickly degenerates in to propaganda.

      A point about which I feel strongly is newspaper self-awareness. Most European newspapers know they are advocacy newspapers and do not protest the label. The New York Times and the BBC, for example, deny they are advocacy papers. Hence when there is a flagrantly bad case of bias, blindness, provincialism etc I call them out over it.

  6. I agree withe the statement “No nation has a monopoly on being evil and no nation has a monopoly on being good. Nations are composed of millions of people, and people, it so happens, are very different”. Jedwabne was a small village at that time, not representative of thirty some millions of poles at that time. Don’t misunderstand me. I totally condemn what happened in Jedwabne. But, as it is stated in this article, Poland officialy accepted it’s guilt in 2002 and, few years later, President Kwasnieski travelled ther to officialy ask the jewish communityforgivness for what happened. Then why, so many years leter, reopen the wounds?