Not Even Pretty from a Distance: Rural Poland and the “Holocaust Law”

It seems that communist habits die hard, even amongst anti-communists: legislating to tell people what they may and may not say is currently back in fashion in Poland. Much has been written about the new law of 26 January 2018, which promises to prosecute those who identify Nazi death camps located in occupied Poland during World War II as “Polish camps” and, more problematically, those who argue that the Polish nation or Polish state held responsibility or co-responsibility for the killing of Jews. Both are regarded by the current PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość; Law and Justice Party) government and its supporters as defaming the nation. The first part of this law is unproblematic in the sense that the Nazi death camps were indeed not “Polish camps”, but were built and operated by the Third Reich during the wartime occupation of Poland. Yet the threat of legal action against those who use this inept formulation – usually simply out of thoughtlessness rather than malice – is clumsy and heavy-handed. But the second part of the law is very problematic indeed, for the simple reason that it is historically true to say that some Poles took part in the Holocaust, whether by betraying Jews in hiding, rounding Jews up and handing them over to local Polish or German occupation authorities, or by directly murdering them, as in the infamous case of Jedwabne. No one disputes that Poland suffered hugely during the war – apart from three million Jewish citizens of Poland, a further three million Gentile Poles were killed, and almost no family in Poland was left unaffected by the violence. Whole cities were razed, most notably Warsaw; and the brutalisation of Polish society under Nazi occupation, which to a great extent lost its moral compass, paved the way for the communist occupation that followed. Equally it is true that the Polish state – unlike many other European states, although perhaps only because it was obliterated by the Germans – was not involved in the Holocaust. But at what point does analysing the role of individual Poles constitute “defamation of the Polish nation”? The government claims that the law will not prevent academic research, yet its expected effects are chilling and will surely induce a form of self-censorship amongst all but the bravest. With respect to both parts of the law, it is ominous that a government – surely a sign of feeling weak, under threat, or advancing its populist agenda – decides it needs to legislate to prevent people from saying something that happens to be true.

Support for the current Polish government is rooted firmly in the countryside, where suspicions of the cosmopolitan city and the European Union prevail, and are encouraged by the likes of Radio Maryja. The recent discovery by historians that the Holocaust played out particularly viciously in the countryside, where some Catholic Poles turned on their Jewish neighbours, hunting them down and then, after the war, finding ways of evading the so-called August decrees which were supposed to bring the perpetrators to justice, has contributed to the current situation. Scholars such as Jan Tomasz Gross, Jan Grabowski, and Alina Skibińska are not exactly the favourites of rural Poland, since they are accused of washing Poland’s dirty laundry in public. Nevertheless, this is what all mature democracies do, and those that try to hide the dark side of their pasts may convince themselves – but from afar they merely make themselves look ridiculous.

One way to understand this situation is through a powerful film about rural Poland called, tellingly, It Looks Pretty from a Distance (directed by Anna and Wilhelm Sasnal, 2011). If this film (available on Netflix) were to be released today, it would be unaffected by the new law. It is not, on the face of it, a “Holocaust film”; the word “Jew” is never mentioned, and there is nothing in the film that is “about” the Holocaust in any obvious sense. It Looks Pretty from a Distance is about a rural community somewhere (unspecified) in Poland. Its inhabitants live in squalor, they barely speak to each other, their lives are focused on bodily functions and eating, primarily meat – lots of it, in the most primitive ways possible. The camera lingers on heaps of rubble, scrap metal, filthy furniture, unwashed clothes, unspeaking, macho men and angry, suppressed women. The film is shot through with a poverty porn aesthetic.

The film is about a man, Paweł, who lives with his elderly mother, who suffers from dementia and is treated like a caged animal. He makes a living from breaking old cars and selling scrap metal, which he does with his brother, a chain-smoking muscleman, and his tired, care-worn father. One day, to the consternation of his girlfriend but no one else, he disappears. After some days, his neighbours begin creeping into his house at night, stealing Paweł’s few possessions and eventually stripping the house bare so that all remains is a tumbledown shell. Although the theft takes place during the night, at dawn the villagers stand smoking in the early summer light, openly and wordlessly sharing in their complicity. When Paweł suddenly returns, his girlfriend stabs and kills him as they drive out of the village together.

The film has had limited circulation in Poland. In any case, it is easy for the authorities to dismiss a film made as an art installation in which two New York directors mock the idiocy of the countryside (although they might not choose to use Marx’s formulation). The only hint that this might be about more than just the internal dynamics of a small community with limited horizons is a conversation that takes place at one point as one of the village’s families eat a meal. Shot from below the father’s armpit, so that the viewer’s vision is obscured by a meaty arm and the sound of chewing, the young son says that some of his friends told him that some people once drowned at the river where the villagers swim. The father replies that that was during the war, and that the people drowned themselves out of fear. Two women drowned their three children and then themselves. Then he adds, “But they weren’t Polish”. The implication is clear, though never made explicit: they were Jews. The film thus reveals itself to be a metaphor for the wartime persecution of the Jews, the theft of their property, their flight and death. And the murder of Paweł after his return mirrors an all-too common response to surviving Jews returning to their homes after the war. Other films have depicted this issue more explicitly, most notably Birth Place (directed by Paweł Łozinski, 1992), which depicts the writer Henryk Grynberg discovering where his father was murdered, and Ida (directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013), a fictional tale of a young novice nun who discovers she is Jewish. Ida is led to the site of her parents’ and young brother’s murder and burial by the man who, as he finally admits from within the grave, killed them. In It Looks Pretty from a Distance, it is presented obliquely as an open secret and an undiscussed, troubling memory that disturbs the community. It is the return of the repressed.

From a distance, Poland seems to be facing up to its Holocaust past. The new museum Polin, the thriving Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and its attempts to internationalise its work, for example through its new online magazine, Memoria, and the emphasis on the rescue of Jews in recent museums, all suggest a grappling with a complex problem. But when you get up close, things are less comfortable. What is ironic is that the government’s new law is, contrary to its intentions, leading those outside the country to understand that there is no real appetite amongst many in Poland to talk about what really happened during and immediately after the Holocaust. This is truly myopic behaviour: the Polish government cannot see far away and thus does not appreciate how its actions, which are designed to protect Poland’s reputation, are having the opposite effect. One no longer needs to get up close; even from a distance, Poland’s current approach to dealing with the Holocaust is not pretty.

Professor Dan Stone is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Professor of Modern History, Royal Holloway and University of London. See his profile here.

© Dan Stone. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).