By: Steve Pelczarski
I am a student in Lizy Mostowski’s POL 102 class. Throughout the course we’ve been invited to attend Dialogue: A Polish-Jewish Film Seriesa series of several film screenings and discussions organized by Lizy Mostowski and Diana Sacilowski tackling the events of the Holocaust and the extent of Polish involvement. One film featured in the series was Ulica Granicznaor Border Street,the 1948 film follows the story of Polish and Jewish families living together in Warsaw at the time of Nazi invasion and occupation. The children serve as a microcosm of Polish citizens to represent the various actions and stances of the common Pole during the war.
With the recently passed Polish laws restricting speech about Polish involvement or complacency in the Holocaust, I wondered if this sentiment of victimhood has been present since the end of World War II or if it is a result of the recent right-wing resurgence in the country. I feel that Border Street, being made only a few years following the events of the Holocaust, would provide insight as to how Poles felt immediately following the genocide that took place. Without as much time for the nation to process their collective emotions, would an artistic reflection let through more truth than we’d see today? Or, with wounds not yet scabbed, would blame still be levied completely against the Nazi occupiers?
I found the most glaring part of the film to be the lengths taken to distance the antagonist’s family from Polish identity. As the air sirens ring out calling men to war, we see the antagonist’s father demand the barber style his hair after Hitler. Occupation had not even begun and the film has said, “The bad guys are not Polish as you are, they are turn-coat cowards.” Later on in a scene with a Nazi officer, the characters go on an unnecessary tangent about their German heritage. This serves little purpose in the film besides severing the ideas of Polishness and anti-Semitism. While such a plot point could have been used as a dramatic motivational reveal further on in the story, the information is given nearly from the outset to distance the antagonist from the audience. After some time without being presented as Germans, the film takes the time to not-so-subtly remind you with a shot of Hitler Youth singing and dancing about their apartment.
None of the three scenes mentioned above are integral to the story being told. Their trivial nature, coupled with the over-the-top presentation, leads me to believe their inclusion served to prevent the Polish audience from identifying with these anti-Semitic characters. If we were to suppose art imitates life, this leads to the conclusion that, following the war, public opinion said anti-Semitism among Poles should be swept under the rug. After the screening we spoke briefly as a group as to whether this apologetic or dismissive nature we see in films is benevolent or not. Whether it is done with the purpose of allying the Polish and Jewish identities, or whether it is done to absolve Gentile Poles of involvement or complacency. I think it’s worth considering the artists behind the works when pondering the intent of a piece.
Aleksander Ford, the director of the film, was a Polish Jew who was placed in charge of the nation’s film industry following the war. Being one of the most prominent filmmakers in post-war Poland, he felt that “Cinema cannot be a cabaret, it much be a school” (Misiak). To him his work was about educating the audience as opposed to pure entertainment. Given his background and commitment to using his position to tackle societal issues I feel confident that this film was made with benevolent intent to unite the Polish and Jewish identities as opposed to downplaying Polish involvement.
Through attendance of this film series I have learned a lot about the realities of the Holocaust and gained a new insight in to the current Polish political landscape. While the Dialogue: A Polish-Jewish Film Series has completed all of its screenings for this schoolyear, the organizers have expressed interest in hosting a similar series of events in the future. If you are in the Champaign-Urbana area and are interested in this idea, reach out to Lizy Mostowski or Diana Sacilowski for information on future events of this nature.
Anna Misiak, "Politically Involved Filmmaker: Aleksander Ford and Film Censorship in Poland after 1945", Kinema, 2003
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The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies
is an interdisciplinary program based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Founded in 2009 and located within the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, HGMS provides a platform for cutting-edge, comparative research, teaching, and public engagement related to genocide, trauma, and collective memory.