WARSAW, Poland — The Oscar-winning Polish film “Ida” has found an enthusiastic reception worldwide. But in Poland it has provoked a debate over whether the film is anti-Polish.
Controversy was perhaps inevitable given that the film by Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski explores the fraught interaction among Poland’s Jews, Catholics and communists during and after the Holocaust, a history that still has not been fully processed.
The film tells the story of a young orphaned woman, Ida, who is on the verge of taking vows to be a nun in the early 1960s when she discovers that she is Jewish and that her parents were murdered by a Polish peasant during World War II.
To be sure, many Poles are celebrating the film’s exceptional success, with the president and many Polish cultural figures hailing its recent Oscar win for best foreign language film as a sign that Poland’s rich tradition of cinematography is enjoying a renaissance.
But some Poles are offended that the film contains no Germans or any hint that wartime Poland was under the occupation of Nazi Germany, which was murdering Jews on a massive scale across Europe. They also find it troubling that Polish anti-Semitism is laid bare while no mention is made of the Poles who, at enormous risk, helped Jews.
“The viewer who sees ‘Ida’, and doesn’t know about the German occupation in Poland and its anti-Jewish laws, sees that Poles killed Jews,” publicist Michal Szuldrzynski wrote in the daily Rzeczpospolita.
“Granted, such a story could happen. There were unfortunately thousands of cases of denunciations and murders of Jews by their Polish neighbors. … But the truth of the 20th century is also of thousands of Poles who saved Jews and hundreds of thousands of Catholics who died in concentration camps, something that sometimes surprises people from abroad,” Szuldrzynski said.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the nationalistic opposition party Law and Justice, said Tuesday that “as a Pole I am happy about this success.” But he said he would be “much happier” if the Oscar went to a film about Poles who heroically helped Jews during the war.
The Polish Anti-Defamation League has asked the creators of “Ida” to add disclaimers to the film explaining that Poland was under German occupation from 1939 to 1945, that Germans carried out the extermination of Jews and that any Poles caught helping Jews risked not only their own lives but that of their entire families. The organization says it has collected more than 50,000 signatures in support of that appeal.
The director, Pawlikowski, has brushed off such complaints, and says he was never trying to make a historical film.
Some on the political left in Poland also accuse the film of fomenting anti-Jewish stereotypes in the character of Ida’s aunt, a Stalinist-era prosecutor who sent some Poles to their deaths for resisting the Moscow-backed communist regime that took control after the war.
That touches on another historical episode that still festers in Jewish-Christian relations in Poland: that some of the Jews who survived the war welcomed the imposition of the postwar communist regime and were among its early leaders. Some Jews who were prosecutors and judges were involved in cases which ended with death sentences for Polish patriots who resisted the Nazis and then the communists.
Polish Jews and historians acknowledge that this occurred but they also argue that the numbers of such Jews is often overstated by those who want to justify their anti-Jewish animosity.