Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

In the Polish Aftermath

In a public debate over a controversial new Holocaust film, Poland faces up to a complicated past

Print Email
Maciej Stuhr in Aftermath (Apple Film)
Related Content

The Curator of Joy and Ashes

How ethnographer Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett became the keeper of Poland’s Jewish heritage

Poland’s Real Jewish Revival

Their parents and grandparents hid their Jewishness, but now some Poles are converting back to Judaism

To read more Tablet in Warsaw coverage, click here.

On a snowy Sunday in March, dozens of parka-clad Poles trickled in between the pews of Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue. They removed their coats and greeted each other with kisses. Upstairs, the women’s section remained empty, as downstairs people quickly outnumbered the modest group of men who usually occupy these seats on Friday nights. Only some of the visitors were Jewish, and none were there to pray. They had come to watch a panel about a film that had come out six months before.

Pokłosie, or “Aftermath,” has been drawing intense criticism from Polish nationalists, who accuse the film of being “anti-Polish” propaganda and a gross manipulation of historical truth. Over the past few months, Pokłosie has so riled the Polish right wing that it has been banned from some local cinemas, while its leading actor, Maciej Stuhr, has received death threats. There is no righteous Gentile savior at the center of its plot, no shadowy scenes of reenacted horror, no survival against all odds or triumph of the human spirit. In fact, there are no scenes of the war at all, and not a single Jewish character. The film is strikingly devoid of the tropes of Holocaust cinema. Indeed, while the film is squarely about Polish-Jewish relations and the destruction of Poland’s Jewry during World War II, there are no carefully reconstructed flashbacks to when Jews were still around. But that is precisely the source of its unexpected power.


Pokłosie, originally titled Kaddish, was written and directed by Władysław Pasikowski, who is best known for making action movies and TV thrillers and who co-wrote the script for Andrej Wajda’s internationally acclaimed 2007 film Katyn. Pasikowski is little known outside of Poland, where Pokłosie premiered at the Warsaw Film Festival in October. The film takes place in the 2000s and tells the story of Franciszek Kalina, a Polish man living in the United States who begrudgingly returns to his backward hometown in the contemporary rural Polish countryside where his brother, Jozef, maintains their family farm. Though nothing has changed in this quaint village of farmers and babushkas, Jozef has. His wife has left him, and Jozef has been drawing the ire of his neighbors through his new-found fascination with the village’s former Jewish inhabitants, whose disappearances remain an unspeakable subject. Jozef spends his nights wresting old Jewish tombstones—long ago stripped from the old Jewish cemetery and used as paving stones (a common practice in Poland both during and after the war)—from the sidewalks and squares around town and then firmly planting them into a new Jewish cemetery he’s created in one of his wheat fields. He painstakingly restores each tombstone, the Hebrew inscriptions of which he’s taught himself to read.

At first, Franciszek is puzzled by his brother’s fascination, but then it takes hold of him, too. Together, Franciszek and Jozef exhume everything from land records to bodies, and they soon discover that the stories the villagers have been telling—about Nazi genocide and Jews intent on returning to reclaim their lands—are lies.

Long before Pokłosie was released, the Polish press documented the various obstacles Pasikowski had in the decade-long process of making his film, from securing financing for his controversial script to struggling with how to best approach what is, for many Poles, still a largely taboo subject. Though Pasikowski is notorious for ignoring interview requests, it was widely reported that he was inspired to write the film after reading Jan Gross’ Neighbors, a historical account of how the entire Jewish community of Jedwabne was murdered on July 10, 1941 not by the Nazis, as was once asserted by official Polish history, but by their Polish neighbors.

When Gross’ book was first published in 2001, it created enormous controversy in Poland, where Communist revisionism not only rewrote the Holocaust’s role in Poland’s national narrative, but also reinforced the Poles’ perception of themselves as absolute victims. Many Poles point to the fact that, unlike most European nations, Poland never officially collaborated with the Nazis, never ran their camps or established Polish SS groups. As a result of this resistance, more than 20 percent of the country’s population was destroyed. For that reason, Auschwitz has long been considered a site not of Jewish suffering, but of Polish suffering—even though half of the country’s death toll included 90 percent of its Jewish population.

After almost six decades of repressed memory, it was Gross’ book that finally got Poland talking. While right-wing, ultra-Catholic nationalists accused Gross of anti-Polish slander, Neighbors inspired among many Poles, including Pasikowski, a new curiosity in Polish Jewish history and its more disagreeable truth. “The changes are dramatic from when Neighbors came out,” Gross told me from his office at Princeton University, where he is a professor of history. “The big difference over the last 10 years is that all the fantastic research on the Holocaust is now being done in Poland.”

Neighbors not only ruptured the Polish silence regarding things Jewish, but it also challenged the widely accepted taxonomy first proposed by the historian of Shoah fame, Raul Hilberg, who claimed that everyone during World War II fit neatly into one of three categories: victims, bystanders, and perpetrators. If the Poles were victims, how could they also be bystanders, at best, or perpetrators, at worst?

“I think a lot of [Polish] self-complacency is a result of this triparte division coming from Hilberg, which is so contentious,” Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, a cultural anthropologist who specializes in Polish-Jewish relations, told me. “These categories are inappropriate for what was really going on in Poland. It wasn’t so black and white, but quite gray. This moment with Neighbors made people realize that we needed a new language to talk about the war.”

Though the movie was inspired by Neighbors, it is not an adaptation of the book, nor a reconstruction of historical events, a fact that is often lost on the film’s dissenters, who include Tomasz Terlikowski, the editor of, a right-wing nationalist website. Terlikowski, who also participated in the Nozyk Synagogue debate, maintained that the film’s greatest problem was that it was “historically inaccurate,” a statement that elicited disagreeable sighs from the audience.

But the movie is genre-bending in other ways. Pokłosie is, for example, also devoid of the genre’s favorite stock character: the righteous Gentile savior. Jozef Kalina comes closest to this role as we watch him stubbornly memorializing the dead in one of his fields. But Jozef is on a fool’s errand, despite his good intentions. The dead cannot be saved, and Jozef, living on their land, is guilty by association, plagued by an irresolvable mourning that leads to his destruction. And Jozef isn’t responsible for discovering the truth about the Jews’ murderers, either. That quest is reserved for his brother Franciszek, who is a reluctant detective. When Franciszek first arrives in the village, he doesn’t seem bothered by the anti-Semitic graffiti that greets him. Instead, he’s annoyed that he had to return to the Old Country. In America, where he now lives, there are no bad memories, though there are plenty of “Jews running the country,” Franciszek tells Jozef, as they fix a combine together.

Played by the acclaimed Polish film and stage actor Ireneusz Czop, Franciszek captures the off-the-cuff, lightly anti-Semitic talk that pops up in Polish public discourse. Yet, at the same time, Franciszek hunts down court records, digs up bones, wanders the ruins of the old Gestapo headquarters, and asks hard questions of a dying old lady, the last of the generation who lived through the war.

Anonymous Polish villagers wreak havoc on the Kalina brothers as they conduct their search, but they are never shown in the act. Only the evidence of their work is left behind—a rock through a window, graffiti on a barn door, flames engulfing a field. When we do see the villagers, they appear as innocent bystanders, shifting blame to others: delusional in their self-perception of absolute goodness. In Pokłosie, there is no uniformed boogieman to scapegoat, no righteous character to identify with, no absolute victims for whom we can have empathy. By the end of the film, everyone is implicated in the violence of the past. The safe old categories no longer hold.


Through last winter, Pasikowski’s film provoked an outpouring of public criticism, launching a second round of the Neighbor’s debate that began in 2001. Soon after the film’s release, Polish patriots and ethno-nationalists accused the film of being part of a Jewish conspiracy to tarnish Poland’s reputation. Obsessed with the film’s tangential relationship to Neighbors, they began invoking Gross’ name and attacked Pokłosie for misrepresenting Poland’s history. “The reaction was not a shock,” Dariusz Jabłoński, one of the film’s producers, said at the Nozyk Synagogue panel. “We knew we were dealing with a subject that was still very much a taboo.”

Still, it was surprising, even to Gross, that the one who received the most ire was Maciej Stuhr, the actor who played Jozef. Soon after he began receiving death threats, Wprost, a national magazine, featured him on its cover, provocatively scrawled in anti-Semitic graffiti meant to echo both the film and the very real harassment to which Stuhr was being subjected. Inside, Magdalena Rigamonti’s article, “Stuhr, You Jew,” chronicled the anti-Semitic backlash against Stuhr—who doesn’t identify as Jewish, though the right-wing press continues to insist he is of Jewish origin. Rigamonti didn’t necessarily approve of the vitriol being hurled at Stuhr, but wrote that she believed Stuhr had brought it upon himself. “He has become a symbol of simplicity and manipulating history for commercial gain,” she wrote.

Others have rallied behind the film. Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s most widely read newspapers, embraced the work as “outstanding,” while Dwutygodnik, an online arts and culture weekly, ran several simultaneous reviews that all agreed Pokłosie was an important film for all the reasons that made it so hard to watch. For Tokarska-Bakir, the public debate has been emblematic of how far, or not, Poland has come since Neighbors. “The situation is much better and much worse,” she said. “There are so many more people who are inhabiting this space of anti-anti-Semitics. And, at the same time, there is much more acceptance of anti-Semitism in the mainstream culture. Positions have been reinforced.”

Still, much like the film, the one voice that seems strikingly absent from the discussion is that of the Jewish community. Poles are forced to work through the tragic past alone. Even if Jewish audiences from abroad were engaged in the debate, Pasikowski suggests that they could never offer the Poles any real comfort or redemption. In the final scene of the film, a Jewish youth group, like those that frequently come to Poland to tour Holocaust sites, prays at Jozef Kalina’s virtual cemetery. As they shuckle, they stand entirely apart from the film’s action, unaware and untouched by what has just transpired in this little town. They look like alien invaders. Their return does not offer comfort or redemption but only dramatizes the distance between the Jews of the past, the Jews of the present, and the Poles, who exist outside the frame, no better off than before the truth was revealed.


To read more Tablet in Warsaw coverage, click here.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

beniyyar says:

Sure the Poles were victims of the Nazi war machine and were killed off in vast numbers but the Poles were also deeply complicit in the Nazi genocide of the Jewish People, an historical fact which the Poles can hardly deny. Poland had a long history of hostility and antagonism towards Jews, and did as much as possible both during WWII and after to particpate in and profit from the destruction of Polish Jewry.

    Armando says:

    Denise Grollmus, Thanks for informing us about the film in your excellent article. I would jlike to point out one thing. Your wrote : “Many Poles point to the fact that, unlike most
    European nations, Poland never officially collaborated with the Nazis,
    never ran their camps or established Polish SS groups. As a result of
    this resistance, more than 20 percent of the country’s population was

    The Poles were never given the chance to collaborate along the Vichy model in France. There were Polish candidates for Pétain-like roles in the occupation, but the Germans did not have the same plans for the Poles as they did for the French. Poland was to reduced to a nation of helots serving the Herrenvolk. Ukrainians were chosen as camp guards because, among other reasons, the large Ukrainian minority in Poland had grievances against the nationalistic governments of that country. It is not as if Poles had been given the opportunity to collaborate and had massively refused.. “As a result of this resistance, more than 20 percent of the country’s population was destroyed,” This sentence gives the reader the impression that the 20% loss in population was due to Poland’s refusal to collaborate ! The huge losses in the non-Jewish Polish population were due to military action, deliberate liquidation of part of the Polish intelliegentsia.

    oh do elaborate on this ‘historical fact’ of [all by implication] ‘Poles’ doing ‘as much as possible’ ‘to particpate in and profit from the destruction of Polish Jewry’! at least let us see you try.

      beniyyar says:

      Ever heard of Katowice, where after the war the Poles murdered over thirty Jews who managed to get back to reclaim their homes and property. The Poles who had stolen it never thought they would see the real Jewish owners again, so they killed them. Get a life you filth Polack!

        calm down dear, I trust you’re referring to Kielce pogrom, which on its own is more than enough to back up your above hysteria.

        beniyyar, you need overcome the racist impulses here to castigate a
        whole nation here based on the actions of the few. The whole point of
        the debate provoked by Gross’ book and the film in this article is the
        mixed reality of the Polish experience during the Holocaust, which had
        been swept under the carpet during the years of communism. Note, that
        this debate is happening in Poland and, as Jan Gross said, the new
        research comes from Poles themselves re-examining the facts from a fresh
        perspective. It is blatantly untrue to say that all the Poles were
        either only helping Jews or aiding the Germans or looking to profit from
        the holocaust. The whole point is that there is not a single narrative.
        Also, calling someone a ‘filth [sic] Polack’ (in anger I presume?)
        really brings you down to the level of those people who committed the
        acts you describe. What would you make of someone hurling such abuse at you?

          Umish Katani says:

          I don’t think he needs to get over anything, you need to stop defending your benevolent murderous poles who were overjoyed to be Jew free. Until they were next. Never forgive and never forget.

    arabesque says:

    People in the US are terribly ignorant about the situation in Poland
    during the war, hurling accusations about Polish complicity in the
    Holocaust. I’m amazed that so many Jews were saved (check the Yad Vashem records) given the fact that
    helping a Jewish person meant death not only for the person who extended
    help but for their whole family. I was always wonder how many of us
    today would be willing to take such a risk if we knew that our spouses
    and children would suffer imminent death. What’s also almost never
    mentioned is the Jewish collaboration with the Nazis (the Jewish police,
    for example). Again, the picture is more complicated than it may seem at first glance. It would be easy to condemn them, but none of us can tell how far we’d go if there was even a small chance of saving the lives of our loved ones. It’s a great pity that The Tablet never quotes what Mark Edelman, one of the leaders of the ghetto uprising, has to say on the subject. His politically incorrect views might destroy the simplified black-and -white vision that so many choose to cling to. Two great books that might clarify things are Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and the just published Agata Tuszynska’s Vera Gran: The Accused.

      ” I’m amazed that so many Jews were saved “. FYI about only 0.3%. Is it many? Compare it to Denmark. Yes, there were few human Poles and Ukrainians. No secret.

        Michal says:

        Danmark is not a good example 100% of the population was saved but they consisted in only several houndred souls. The saving action was pretty simple a German officer called his classmate from Danish administration and told that the next day they will start deporting Jews. The Danish administration without any risk for themselves packed Jews on one boat and transported 15 km away to a neutral Sweden.

        Such an action involves minimal resources, is carried out overnight within one city of a developped countlry with an efficient administraiton, concerns minimal group of people, there is no risk, no heroism, no resistance involved. I do not understand how this is comparable to a situation of a 3 milion Jewish population in rural underdevelopped Poland, where there is nowhere to escape, and saving Jews is a multi year effort is punishable by death for entire family of the host.

20 years ago visiting Poland what struck me were the Catholic cemetaries dotting the countryside. They had survived the turmoil between the wars, Nazi and Communist rule, and continued to be maintained and respectfully cared for in contrast to the Jewish Cemetaries I visited in Lask (my mother’s village) and Lodz (where my father was from). I remember thinking at the time why was it that the Poles’ concept of patriotism seemed to exclude the obligation of stewardship for the sacred places their murdered Jewish countrymen were no longer able to care for?

    bykov says:

    I visited my dad’s home town in what is now Belarus, but was then Poland, and is about 30 km from the Polish border, and most of the graves there were dug up, as one local told me, to “look for the gold and silver” the Jews had buried in them. On that same site, the old folks who were too sick or frail for transport to Treblinka were shot dead. So much for proper care of the cemetery ….

This new film “Poklosie” covers ground documented from 1992-1996 by Marian Marzynski’s 3 hour film “Shtetl.” Marzynski’s film is well worth seeing and available online at PBS Frontline and download sources.The filmmaker accompanies Nathan Kaplan, a 70 year-old Jewish man from Chicago, to Bransk, a shtetl in Eastern Poland. Kaplan has been corresponding with young Polish historian Zbyszek Romaniuk. The film accompanies them as they reconstruct the community’s past and meet and confront locals– a few good brave, humane and sympathetic souls; others defensive, complacently deluded, hostile, or slanderously anti-Semitic. Kaplan and the historian dig up gravestones used as pavement around the local Catholic church. Marzynski brings Zbyszek Romaniuk back to the USA to meet Holocaust survivors from Bransk and takes him to Israel to visit Yad Va Shem. Tel Aviv high school students returned from a visit to Auschwitz give the Pole a hard time. Back home is Bransk, Zbyszek is called a Jew and subject to anti-Semitic graffiti. As a civil servant (he ends up as vice-mayor), the historian chooses to compromise and bury the past he has dug up. In a speech for the town’s 500th anniversary, making no mention of the Jews who lived in Bransk for 250 years, he says Our town was Polish, is Polish, and will be Polish forever. I look forward to seeing the new movie and am glad that a Pole has made it.

bykov says:

An excellent article. Thanks!

What is Poland with regards to Jews you can read in M. Begins’s book who lived there before the war. He also describes the anti-Semitism in Polish army that was under command of Polish government in exile. For Jews it is forever the largest graveyard in the world. Jews should never go there even for a visit.
On a different subject. Germans didn’t want Polish collaboration. The rejected it time and again.

Howard Celnik says:

Is it possible to see this film in the U.S., or to get a Region 1 DVD?

Pole says:

This is so typical. We Poles make a brutally honest movie about our history and your pathetic reaction is a mixture of ignorance, hate, insults and nationalistic prejudices against us.

What does it teach us ?

An honest dialogue with Jews seems to make no sense at all. !

We should better keep quiet like all the other nations, who slaughtered hundereds of thousands of Jews, but do not make any films and books about it.

Lithuanians together with the Germans killed 70.000 Jews in a couple of weeks in the Ponary massacre. Vichy France, Holland, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Italy, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Austria sent millions of Jews to the German death camps, where Germans and Ukrainians murdered them. USA and UK gave crap about the Holocaust.

But who do Jews 1st and foremost associate with anti smeitism instead ?….us Poles.


Theopliske says:

This is pretty much the Polish version of the German film, Das Schrechlische Maedchen (The Nasty Girl). A really good movie and actually based off of real events.

Jack Kuper says:

It’s about time and should prove therapeutic for the nation.
Having said that, I still don’t
advocate for Jews to reestablish a life there. All this recent museum building and Jew embracing cannot erase our own deep seated anti-Polish poison.
75 years later,”Jews to Palestine”
still echoes in my head, as a 7 year old, I was pursued by a stone throwing boy my own age, in my hometown of Pulawy

This was all wit and righteous.In all this piece of writing you refer Nazi ,never German.What is the problem,I would love to know.Is history writing taking the bend?For Germans Poles were any better than Jews and our fate would be similar. Let me recount a story of a briclayer from Opole Lubelskie city,50 kilom.west of Lublin.It is September morning 1939.On market place no peasants as usual trading with Jews.Jews in their small shops with living quarters on first floor.Incidentally,all existing today so one can easily imagine noise of children,busy life,Jews doing their crafts.Other cities are similar,all at a distance of a horse driven carriage for one day. As Polish troops are already shattered,the first detachment of Germans arrives at the city on motobikes.It is the first time anybody can see Germans.What happens is that Jews are the first trying to make contact with Germans.I guess,it was easier as Yiddish is Germanic language.They did not know ,they missed their jugdment,and when German soldier shot the first Jew they jerked to see what the hell is coming.But can you imagine what anger built in Polish habitants seeing Jews going in cahoots with Germans. I saw Mrs Gross on Polish tv a few years ego giving interview and promoting his writing.I can remember my mind was occupied by his ounturage.The man speaks fluent Polish,do not need interpreter sitting beside him and half his age.After all,plane tickets , hotels,restaurants,journes are not so cheap for a scholar. Similary Pasikowski,not known name,and only popped up by film,his only chance of being closer to reward by doing something controversial,fantasy as if real,and that pays off.

(continuation}It were mentioned Jewish cementaries.In places i know ,Opole lubelskie ,Belzyce kirkutes are well mentained. Do not rate me as Jew hater.In fact I admire many writers of Jewish origin and being graduate of physics faculty Einstein was always second after God. Poland is now mundane ,normal country, with enormous progress.It is becoming good place to live in.If there is any anti-Zionisem,thats periphery and looked on with contempt. So it is wise thinkig of future and not building any walls of hatred.They plan to build mosque in Warsaw,future is for Jews,Muslims,Ukrainians and other ethnic from east. In my opinion young Jews and Poles should not be brought up in hatred,so I can not agree with Mrs Gershon Shwartz,Arad Israel,appealing in Newsweek 10years ago against participation in Kletzmer music festival in Krakow others then Jews.(I am in posession of that piece.} My hope is that in future Jews and Poles will be on similar stage as Jews and Germans. To the end I would to answer Mrs Jack Kuper above about that stone throwing in Pulawy.Hard to find words of condemnation,I will read that to others.Belive me,that happened to me,too,many years ago,I am not a Jew,and this would form a broader story.

Klara Zasztowt says:

It hurts. Those questions :
Am i innocent- two generations apart? Are my parents and than living grandparents & grand grandparents innocent ?

This comment is late, but i could resist the need to express :guilt,regret,(discomfort or pain ?), anger but never hate.

(…) stop defending your benevolent murderous poles who were overjoyed to be Jew free.(…)
(…)you filth Polack(…) – at least with an initial.

You’ve reached for heavy ammunition.I’ll ask rethorically: Jewishness? Really? No racial tensions here. There lives here minority population of Gypsy.Neighbours to locals but no tens relationship. You say filthy,undertone to express propensity for sex abusement. We people of North filthy? Hard sell.Rather broadly known as hardworking,cosmos afar from Madoff-style.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

In the Polish Aftermath

In a public debate over a controversial new Holocaust film, Poland faces up to a complicated past