Dialogue: A Polish-Jewish Film Series screens Shimon’s Returns

I created Dialogue: A Polish-Jewish Film Series about a year ago with the intention of starting a forum for cross-cultural dialogue around Polish-Jewish issues that extend well beyond the scope of this particular cultural space. The goal of the Series is to breakdown perceived binaries between “Polish” and “Jewish” cultures through dialogue and discussion about a film. I was inspired by Professor Erica Lehrer’s exhibition Souvenir, Talisman, Toy put on at the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Krakow, Poland in 2013 where Prof. Lehrer attempted to create cross-cultural dialogue through her exhibition featuring wooden figurines of Jews carved by Poles after the Second World War. Each of my screenings begins with a film (sometimes a particularly controversial film) on a Polish-Jewish topic and is followed by a discussion led by graduate students specializing in the area. This academic year, Diana Sacilowski and I have curated the lineup of films and together we introduce and discuss the films with participants. In past semesters, we have screened films like Aftermath (2012), Ida (2013), Austeria (1982), and Little Rose (2010). 

Our first screening this semester was the largely independently produced documentary film entitled Shimon’s Returns (2014). The film is directed by US-based Polish-Jewish filmmakers Katka Reszke and Slawomir Grunberg—both of whom have been vital in many grassroots Jewish revival efforts in Poland. The film allows a glimpse into the life of a man named Shimon Redlich, an Israeli historian and child Holocaust survivor. In 1948– before emigrating to Israel, Shimon was cast in Unzere Kinder–Poland’s last ever Yiddish feature film. In four languages—English, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew—Shimon guides viewers through his story and his recurrent visits to contemporary Poland and Ukraine.

Diana introduced the film, suggesting that, “various critics have noted, despite the dark history the film contends with and how charged the topic of the Holocaust is in this region of the world as of late, particularly regarding issues of complicity and who helped and who participated, the documentary itself is fairly uplifting.”

The film seems to have been created to speak to a North American audience as Shimon narrates to the camera only in English while his interactions with others throughout the documentary occur predominantly in Polish and Hebrew. The film complicates common stereotypes around Polish-Jewish relations after the Holocaust. As one participant noted in the post-film discussion, it is as though there is a dramatically swinging pendulum between scenes that illustrate pro-Polish and anti-Polish sentiments in Shimon’s interactions and experiences in his returns to Poland throughout the documentary.  For example, in one scene Shimon approaches a right-wing group who are dressed in Nazi uniforms in Lwow (which was a part of Poland before the Second World War), yet instead of overtly confronting them, Shimon climbs up on a Nazi motorcycle and pretends to ride it. In another scene, Shimon meets his childhood sweetheart in Lodź, where they ride in a cycle-rickshaw and reminisce about their youth in the city, organically alternating between Polish and Hebrew. In this way, the film may seem to reinforce preconceived stereotypes that a North American viewer might carry with them before seeing the film, such as a notion that all Poles are anti-Semitic because of the complicity of some Poles in the Holocaust or that Poland was a thriving (Yiddish) Jewish homeland before the Holocaust (think of the nostalgia produced by the American film Fiddler on the Roof (1971)), but in fact, the film reveals the complex texture of Shimon’s identity and relationship with Poland, Poles, and the past.  Shimon’s Returns thereby shows that Polish-Jewish identity and Polish-Jewish relations after the Holocaust are likewise more nuanced and complex than many anticipate before viewing the film.

It is important to note that Shimon’s Returns was made in 2014, before the introduction of the recent law which seeks to criminalize certain discourses on Polish complicity in the Holocaust. “On the one hand, this film might seem like it’s in line with new political discourse focusing on Polish heroism over complicity. But the story is far more complicated than that,” Diana rightly highlighted in her introduction to the film. In its complexity, Shimon’s Returns opens up a space for dialogue between perceived cultural boundaries that linger from the anti-Semitic laws of the Second World War and the Anti-Semitic Campaign of 1968.  In our discussion, we considered how such dialogue-initiating films may be at risk in light of the new policies implemented by Poland’s right-wing government and the extreme responses to them from the Jewish right-wing.

All are welcome to join us for the screening of Scandal in Ivansk (2017) on Thursday, April 19th at 5:45pm in the Lucy Ellis Lounge of the Foreign Languages Building (707 S. Matthews, Urbana) which will be followed by a special Q & A with the film’s director, David Blumenfeld, via Skype!