Aftermath Exposes Poland's Reluctance to Face Its Dark Past

"We won't make the world a better place, but at least we won't make it worse," says Franciszek Kalina (Ireneusz Czop) to his younger brother, Józef (Maciej Stuhr), near the climax of Wladyslaw Pasikowski's Aftermath. That stark cynicism permeates Pasikowski's unsettling historical drama. The story is simple — two siblings in a Polish village gradually learn of their kin and neighbors' barbaric Jew-baiting during the Holocaust — but what gives Aftermath its peculiar strain of portent is Pasikowski's consistent suggestion of the futility of bold, desperate attempts to undo a wrong.

Not only are there not heroes in Aftermath, there's not even a cut-and-dry protagonist. The director has lifted the material from both Jan T. Gross's 2000 book Neighbors, about the vicious 1941 pogroms in the Jewish-populated Jedwabne, and the 1996 documentary Shtetl, in which a Polish historian stumbles upon Jewish gravestones used to pave town roads. Pasikowski has said the near-decade-long effort to make Aftermath, impeded by Polish nationalists, stemmed from his own shame at these events. But the film is far from a polemic. Its anger is cagey and cryptic, and, at first, its voice of reason seems to belong to an unapologetic anti-Semite.

Franciszek returns from Chicago to his native Poland in 2001, having left 21 years ago in disgust with Poland's implementation of martial law. America wasn't much better for him, though, and he's bitter about his lowly asbestos work for the greedy "Yids" that "run" Chicago. He's determined to find out why Józef's wife and children have left for America — and why hooligans are beating Józef up and chucking rocks through his window. But Józef, stinging from Franciszek's abandonment — he refused to come back for both parents' funerals, and the family farm has suffered in his absence — isn't providing any answers.

Franek (Ireneusz Czop) and Józek (Maciej Stuhr) in shock after unearthing their family's secret.
Menemsha Films
Franek (Ireneusz Czop) and Józek (Maciej Stuhr) in shock after unearthing their family's secret.


Aftermath: Starring Maciej Stuhr and Ireneusz Czop. Written and directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski. Opens Friday, January 31, at Bill Cosford Cinema, University of Miami Campus, 1111 Memorial Dr., Coral Gables; 305-284-4861; 104 minutes. Not rated.

What has stoked everyone's ire is Józef's reclamation of Jewish tombstones used as building material after World War II — in roads, farm structures, the local church well. He's bent on respecting the dead, and, unlike the fuming townsfolk — and his own brother — he sees the Jews as human.

In a more mundane film, Józef would be presented as the tragic noble figure, the one soul in a sea of evil who can see right from wrong. But Pasikowski doesn't shy from making Józef look somewhat ridiculous and misguided. Józef never explains his actions in terms more persuasive than "I kind of figured it wasn't right." He bears little remorse for the harm his martyrdom causes to those close to him, and his obsession seems rooted more in narcissism than a sudden affinity for the Jews. As Franciszek, thoroughly unmoved by Józef's actions, flatly puts it: "It doesn't matter; they are dead," and for the film's chilling first half that alarming notion seems to be Pasikowski's.

Aftermath becomes a more conventional thriller (complete with a booming, overwrought score) as the brothers uncover more secrets. Their own home once belonged to murdered Jews, and the Jews in their community were exterminated not by Nazis but fellow Poles. The brothers' assailants in town aren't portrayed with the same bracing complexity; they are one cartoonishly sputtering mob, screaming epithets, even calling the boys "Jews" themselves. There are a few cipher characters, a good priest and a bad priest. And, more problematically, Aftermath is unlikely to shock anyone outside right-wing circles in Poland — who refuse to do any finger-pointing at themselves — with the revelations that stretches of Poland still harbor a breed of violent anti-Semitism.

Aftermath is not merely a grandiose apology for Holocaust-era complicity. It taps a richer vein with its examination of why such an apology is ultimately so empty, even if it takes profound bravery to apologize. At the least, guilt over past collective wrongdoing does reveals a conscience, and here Pasikowski is essentially excoriating Poland for its lack of guilt. When Józef, at the film's end, can't come to terms with his family's involvement in genocide, he stands for a nation in its most vehement state of denial.

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Sam Weisberg, how much do you really care about the Jewish Revival in Poland? Throwing around comments as found in your concluding paragraph smacks of indifference and ignorance, it causes denial and, sadly, anti-semitism. You have to be far more precise and thoughtful when entering in to such complex territory: as Rabbi Michal Schudrich has said, Poles have think they had a better role in the Holocaust than is generally true, and Jews think Poles had a worse role in the Holocaust than is generally true.

If you want Poles to come to terms with the whole truth and refrain from narcissism, defensiveness and denial then you're not going to get this by ignoring what suffering they went through and what sacrifices they did make and simply hurling accusations at them instead. 

When you talk about Polish complicity in the Holocaust, don't stop at Jedwabne - include the other 20 or so pogroms that also took place, the blackmailing and outing of Jews in hiding, the robbing of Jewish refugees and looting of Jewish property, the wrongdoing of Polish resistance units (especially in north-eastern Poland) that included murder of Jews; and the deadliest of all, the dearth of help for Jews.

Also include that  3 million Poles were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, that unlike everywhere else in Europe there were no Polish SS units, that unlike  everywhere else in Europe there was no Polish collaborationist government, that Poland consistently supported the creation of Israel, that Poland alerted America to the Holocaust but was ignored by the US President, that Poland had Jews in its wartime government in exile in London, that grouped by nationality, Poles represent the biggest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, that unlike anywhere else in Europe Poles received the death penalty for helping Jews, that Poland fought against Nazi Germany from the first day of the war on all European fronts until the last, right up to the storming of the Reichstag. 

Give the Poles some fairness about what they did right, and they're more likely to be fair about what they did wrong.


Guilt for what? For losing 3 million of its own people to Naziism? For giving the world more "Righteous Among the Nations" than any other nationality? It's one thing to correctly point out that there were individuals and even villages who were either complicit or stood idly by in the face of Nazi horror. It's another thing to make sweeping generalizations that have no basis in historical record. Poland was a victim of Nazi Germany, and any attempt to portray the entire nation as complicit in the Holocaust is an exercise in revisionism. Nothing more. 


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