Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Pole helps Jews in a dark hour

Director Angnieszka Holland tells a little-known Holocaust story

Not long ago, Poland was regarded -- at least among many Jews of a certain age -- as a bastion of anti-Semitism. I grew up around Jewish people who believed most Poles were secretly (or even openly) happy that the Germans were doing their dirty work for them, eliminating Jews from every aspect of Polish life. It didn’t matter that the first people to die at Auschwitz were Polish political prisoners or that the Germans regarded the Poles as lesser beings. One question resonated above all others: Where were the Poles when most of the country's Jewish population was being annihilated?

During the past 20 or so years, there has been a conscious effort in Poland to come to grips with that image, mostly in the form of new interest in Jewish culture. Warsaw and Krakow host two of the world’s largest Jewish festivals, and in Warsaw, a Jewish history museum is under construction. Poland is making an effort to understand Jewish culture, and to make Polish/Jewish history a part of Polish history.

If one were inclined toward skepticism, one might think of this as a somewhat hollow gesture, Judaism without Jews. The Jewish population of Poland, though growing, remains woefully small. There were 3.3 million Jews in Poland prior to World War II. The number of Jews in Poland today is estimated at between 8,000 to 12,000, and I'm not sure that a generation of younger Poles is as caught up in any of this as their parents may have been.

So where am I going with all this?

At this point, any contemporary movie that grapples with the relationship between Poles and Jews during World War II must be seen in the context of Poland’s evolving mindset about such matters.

All of this makes director Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness part of an ongoing trend that has yet to reach its destination -- if, indeed, it has one, as well as a singular artistic effort.

Holland, who dealt with Holocaust-related issues in Angry Harvest (1985) and Europa, Europa (1990), this time offers a portrait of an initially reluctant hero: Poldek is a Polish sewer inspector who winds up helping a handful of Jews in the city of Lvov, which is now part of the Ukraine, but which belonged to Poland during the war.

In part, In Darkness is made compelling by its setting, the sewers of Lvov, where a small group of Jews hides from the Nazis. It takes a man such as Poldek, who knows how to scavenge and how to negotiate the sewer system, to supply the Jews with food and water -- at first for a price. When the Jews run out of money, Poldek continues to help, perhaps because he begins to see past stereotypes he long has taken for granted.

Holland offers a rounded portrait of the Jews who take to the sewers, where they live in horrible darkness and suffer all the kind of indignities that easily are imagined -- from the inescapable stench to an abundance of rats. The hiding Jews include a couple of kids, a man who abandoned his wife and daughter for his mistress, a religious Jew, a stalwart guy who’s willing to fight and a wealthy man who never dreamed he'd be put in such a position.

Poldek (Robert Wieckiewicz) proves a commanding figure, a gruff, physically powerful man who has become accustomed to doing whatever he must to keep himself, his wife and his young daughter alive during the German occupation. A young sidekick (Krzysztof Skonieczny) helps Poldek and shares in his looted bounty.

I’m always a little wary of stories about Holocaust survival -- even harrowing ones. In essence, the story of the Holocaust is not one of hope and survival, but of mass murder. But Holland's movie -- as its title suggests -- is a grim and affecting exploration of the way people behave under extreme pressure; it also reminds us that when the worst conditions occur, it’s impossible to predict who among us will be capable of acting with decency.

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