Agnieszka Arnold, documentary filmmaker – Part One
Kasia Kubin, a young woman who had grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and I are meeting the documentary filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold. Kasia’s English is perfect and she translates flawlessly.
Agnieszka Arnold was the first artist to touch on the subject of Jedwabne Jews. In her documentary Neighbors, Agnieszka interviews witnesses, participants and survivors of the massacres of an estimated 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne and 800 in Radzilow and other nearby villages. She finished the film in 1997 with no hope that the documentary would ever be broadcast. She started to show the film to her friends, and to whoever wanted to watch. This is what inspired Jan Gross, who saw the film, to do his research and write the book Neighbors, using the same title with Agnieszka's permission. After Jan Gross’s book was published in 2000, Agnieszka’s documentary was shown on Polish National Television in 2001 and viewed by two million people.
Agnieszka’s apartment is on the top floor of a five story building. Kasia finds the apartment very unusual. It’s full of old furniture. Because of the horrendous destruction of the city, antique furniture must have been difficult to find in Warsaw after the war.
‘I hate Our Class. It’s simpleminded and vulgar. How else can I help you?’ Agnieszka says as an introduction. She is an intense, emotional, and brilliant woman, with white hair falling into her eyes, and a deep raspy voice that is colored by the inhalation of numerous daily cigarettes. ‘May I smoke?’ she asks.
Agnieszka and Tadeusz are not on friendly terms. Agnieszka is a documentary filmmaker who believes in facts. In her mind, writing a fiction about historical events vulgarizes them. She is not interested in psychological complications and details. Agnieszka believes that Tadeusz’s play simplifies the problem of anti-Semitism, which, according to her, is still very much alive not only in Poland but also in the rest of Europe. To her, the play suggests a general notion that people are flawed, that evil exists on both sides – that both the Catholic and the Jewish Poles are implicated. She thinks that the play focuses too much on the Soviet occupation, incriminating the Jews for collaborating with the Soviets and justifying the need for the Catholic Poles’ revenge. ‘In the play, they are all equal in their behavior,’ she complains. ‘The play tries to explain Evil through psychology. But the reason for the pogrom was pure and simple Polish anti-Semitism,’ she insists.
Later I read that Agnieszka belongs to the Polish Evangelical Church, a small minority in Poland, where 90% of the population is Catholic. In her film she interviews an old couple. The husband, Stanislaw, saved his wife Rachela, who became Marianna and converted to Catholicism, by marrying her. He later rescued her after she had been taken to a ghetto for extermination. After that, they had to hide in the countryside and forest for almost four years during the war. After the 2001 release of the film, where both were interviewed as witnesses of the July 10, 1941 atrocities in Jedwabne, the couple received death threats. Agnieszka put them up secretly in an Evangelic Home where they lived until their death.
‘In Poland, anti-Semitism has been present even after World War II,’ Agnieszka continues. She makes the point that after 1945 not a single historian or literary historian mentions in their scholarship that Jews comprised 10% of the population of Poland ‘There is not a single book from the post war period that discusses the influence of Jews on Polish culture.’ Agnieszka adds, “Jedwabne has become a symbol. The elite recognize that maybe a pogrom did happened, maybe it’s true, but it was done by the peasants! They say this and then like Pontius Pilate, they’ll wash their hands.” Agnieszka implies that the intellectual Polish elite has develops a very comfortable vision; they recognize the atrocities that happened, but the perpetrators were Polish farmers, not them. She also questions the silence of American Jews. “Why didn’t they do anything? Why weren’t they interested in what was happening in Poland?” According to Agnieszka, the Polish Catholic Church is also guilty of anti-Semitism. “Just look at the images of Jews in Crucifixion pictures hanging on the walls of Catholic Churches. They make them look like devils or animals.’
Photo: Agnieszka Arnold