Saturday, January 24, 2015

Come Hear Me Speak on April 9 12:45 at WPUNJ's Cheng Library

Come hear me speak about my work on Polish-Jewish relations on April 9, 12:45 in the Cheng Library on the WPUNJ university campus. Talk Title: "Why Can't We All Just Get Along? Sometimes We Don't Want To." 

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Selma" 2014 Accused of Erasing Jews and Rewriting LBJ

By the way, the Catholic sister at the left is "identified" as "unidentified nun"
"Bieganski" describes how official history is revised to serve political and ideological ends. 

Thus I am fascinated by the current brouhaha around the 2014 Academy-Award-nominated film "Selma." 

"Selma," an Oprah Winfrey production, purports to tell the true story of Martin Luther King's historic 1965 Selma, Alabama, march for voting rights for African Americans in the South. 

I am a huge fan of the Civil Rights movement and can't recommend highly enough a PBS documentary entitled "Eyes on the Prize." 

I have not seen "Selma" and I think I will wait for the video. I've been troubled by reviews I've read that indicate that it is a historical revisionist film. 

If what I've read is accurate, "Selma" downplays white contributions, depicts LBJ, an ally of Civil Rights, as a foe of Civil Rights, secularizes what was a very religious movement, and erases the contributions of Jews.

Again, I have not seen the film so I cannot state whether these accusations are accurate or not. 

Some theorize that "Selma" commits these alleged historical revisions in order to claim the glory of the Civil Rights movement for blacks alone. 

Any such claim is just not accurate. African Americans make up c. 13% of the population. They were disempowered. They could not have achieved all they did, in as short a period of time, without significant and committed whtie allies, including many white martyrs who gave their very lives for Civil Rights, including William Lewis Moore, Rev Bruce Klunder, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwermer, Rev James Reeb, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, and Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Many more whites risked their lives in Freedom Rides, like Jim Zwerg, who was badly beaten and almost died. 

Why readers of "Bieganski" might care about "Selma"'s alleged revisionism: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was, of course, born in Warsaw and was visually immediately recognizable as a Jew, has been, it is alleged, erased from the march. This is especially striking given the above photograph that makes it abundantly clear that Rabbi Heschel was right there, front row center, along with a Catholic sister whom the Huffington Post, which ran this photo, identifies only as an "unidentified nun."

Why erase Jews? Jews, who made such an historic and significant contribution to Civil Rights?

I would really like the answer to that question.

There is a Huffington Post article that covers the pertinent facts, Selma's Missing Rabbi by Peter Dreier at the link here

Here's a quote:

"In January 1963, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, the National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored a conference in Chicago entitled "Religion and Race." It was there that Heschel (who was asked to deliver the opening address) first met King (who gave the closing speech) .

Heschel began his speech by linking biblical history to contemporary struggles:
'At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses's words were, 'Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.' While Pharaoh retorted: 'Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.' The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.'"

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bieganski "Gives Voice to the Voiceless"

Katarzyna Szuster Tardi, the translator translating "Bieganski" into Polish for Wysoki Zamek publishing, wrote the other day to report that she had finished translating the main body of the text.

Katarzyna's comments on the book touched me a lot, and with her permission I repeat them here.

"It's the most interesting book I've translated so far. It's been fruit for thought for me and the people close to me. I really do hope that the book makes a splash in Poland when it comes out. It should.

I don't necessarily feel that Biegański is controversial. The arguments are based on academic research, and there is no spewing hatred towards anybody. I certainly appreciate you giving voice to a group of people who usually are rendered voiceless/unimportant/labeled as such and such."

The Charles Bronson Film We Never Saw by Michal Karski

Charles Bronson in "The Great Escape" source

The Bronson Film We Never Saw

(Achtung! There are some plot spoilers of 'The Great Escape' and 'The Dirty Dozen')

By Michal Karski

Considering that Hollywood is usually keen to follow-up a box-office success it seems unusual that there was never a sequel to John Sturges's enormously popular 1963 film 'The Great Escape'. Some people would no doubt point out that since the film was based on real people and real events, it would have been difficult to include the surviving characters in another equally exciting story, unlike, for example, the totally fictitious 'Guns of Navarone' and its sequel. However, because the characters were fictionalized, it could theoretically have been possible to make a second 'Escape' movie, featuring at least some of the same character names, if not necessarily the same actors. Since Charles Bronson was not only on his way to superstardom by the late sixties and early seventies but had played the role of one of the survivors in 'The Great Escape', he might well have been the first choice in a sequel. Also, since he had seemingly carved out a niche for himself as a tough Pole or Polish American – the character he played in 'The Dirty Dozen' had again been fairly indestructible – then this sequel may well have had more of a Polish angle.

There was in fact a follow-up called 'The Great Escape II: the Untold Story.' This was a made-for-TV movie of the eighties starring Christopher Reeve but it was more of a re-make than a sequel, since essentially it retold the same story as the original film but with different characters, athough it did take events a bit further. (By way of a footnote, it also had a scene with an uncannily authentic-looking Hitler – played by the actor Ludwig Haas and not WWII footage.) As for a Hollywood cinema sequel, perhaps the closest in spirit to the original was the 1981 'Escape to Victory', featuring another all-star cast. This may have been an exciting and stirring film in its own way, but it was not quite in the same league as the sixties classic. Whereas critics maintain that the film which made a star of the motorcycling Steve McQueen took liberties with historical truth, even though it was based on real events – no Americans apparently escaped from the camp, for example, although they were involved in the tunnelling – 'Escape to Victory', on the other hand, played fast and loose with history for the sake of entertaining a largely soccer-loving audience.

As for sequels in general, despite all the obvious duds and the lame attempts to cash in on the success of box-office hits, many critics and film fans never tire of pointing out that sequels are by no means always inferior to their originals. Many people have argued, to take just one example, that part two of 'The Godfather' is vastly superior to part one. There are so many other examples to choose from in this category, which, of course, often includes more than one sequel, and whose relative merits can be debated, such as: 'French Connection II', 'Terminator 2', 'Die Hard 2', 'Back to the Future II and III', 'The Blues Brothers 2000', the 'Rambo' and 'Rocky' sequels, and many others which followed on the success of their originals. There were no fewer than three sequels to Sturges's 1960 western 'The Magnificent Seven', three of whose leading actors were to feature in his later war film, but only one of these featured its leading actor, Yul Brynner, again. (I don't imagine anyone would count as a sequel the highly inventive 'Westworld' of 1973, in which the black-garbed Brynner again appears as a gunfighter, but in decidedly different guise.) I don't include here films such as the 'Bourne' or 'Matrix' films, or indeed 'Lord of the Rings' all of which were, I believe, originally conceived as trilogies. I think this last category would also include 'Star Wars' with its growing number of sequels and prequels.

And if there had been a sequel to take the story of the fictitious characters of 'The Great Escape' further? We now reach the realm of speculation but it might have been made sometime in the mid-seventies – perhaps with a title such as 'After The Great Escape' – and the script might have gone something like this:

Night time – the camera zooms in on planes rumbling north-eastwards (towards the upper right on the screen) against a black sky. Zooms in again on the pilot and co-pilot. Their goggles are pushed back over their flying helmets and Charles Bronson and John Leyton are instantly identified by 'Great Escape' aficionados as Danny and Willie, the 'Tunnel Kings' from the original film. The characters had made their way to neutral Sweden and then back to Britain to rejoin the RAF and to continue fighting against Hitler. It is now August 1944 and the Warsaw Uprising has begun.

Danny, the Polish flyer who had joined the RAF at the beginning of the war, is on a mission to drop supplies and equipment to the insurgents. The Soviets, although on the Allied side, are being obstructive and are refusing British and American planes permission to land on Russian-held territory to refuel, so the mission has taken off from Italy and must be accomplished in one trip. Willie, Danny's British friend and co-pilot, is baffled by the politics. Danny tries his best to explain the situation. He is personally not anti-Russian – in fact there is a suggestion, in the original film, of some kind of past relationship with a Russian woman, in the scene where Danny teaches Sedgwick the Australian a Russian phrase – but he cannot understand why Stalin should be doing everything possible to hinder efforts to get Western aid to the Polish resistance fighters.

The planes come under German anti-aircraft fire as they approach Warsaw; the pilots see the fires and destruction below as the city is pounded by German artillery, they drop their cargo at the designated point, hoping the supplies get to the resistance, then start heading back towards the base in Italy. They see one of the other planes in the squadron going down in flames.

They are apparently out of danger, when they, too, are hit.

To cut a long hypothetical script short, either their fuel lines are cut or their navigational instruments are damaged (or both) and they end up having to make a hair-raising emergency landing somewhere in southern occupied Poland, near Krakow in fact. (At this point there would be an excuse to show the beautiful city, which was, of course, mostly undamaged by wartime destruction.) They are rescued by local partisans and consider their next move. Should they head south over the border and try to reach neutral Switzerland? Danny, a Varsovian, wants to fight for his native city. Also some of his family are still there. (He could even be married?) Willie will follow his friend. They make their way up to the capital, and once there, find and join the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK), team up with a couple of Jewish resistance fighters, who have joined the AK after the collapse of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and a young woman who has been a courier for the AK but who is now herself in the thick of the fighting. There follows some harrowing footage of the fighting, to rival the scenes in 'Saving Private Ryan'. The partisans are facing overwhelming German firepower. One of the Jewish fighters is killed in the combat.

When the Uprising inevitably collapses in early October, the city is razed. Here authentic aerial footage could be used. The scale of the destruction is horrifying.

The main characters are all taken prisoner by the Germans. Danny's wife and the young partisan woman are shipped off to a separate camp and the men find themselves in a POW camp in Germany itself. Danny determines to find his wife. Willie has fallen for the partisan girl and also wants to search for her.

If James Garner and James Coburn had been available for cameo roles at this point, then perhaps here Danny and Willie would meet up again with Hendley (the 'Scrounger') and Sedgwick the Aussie. Hendley would have been transferred from the original camp and Sedgwick, the only other successful escapee who had made his way from Spain via Portugal to the UK, would have re-joined the British and somehow – unluckily enough – would have found himself in German captivity again. There would have been scope for many other cameo roles with famous faces from the seventies: Richard Roundtree, fresh from his success in 'Shaft', Clint Eastwood perhaps, Richard Burton, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Sean Connery... maybe even Horst Buchholz, another 'Magnificent Seven' veteran, as a sympathetic German?

It has been pointed out elsewhere that there was not a single female role in the 'Great Escape'. The role of the women in this sequel could therefore have been much-coveted ones. Which seventies film stars – American or European – would have been suitable? The field is wide open. The candidates all fascinating.

And how would the film have ended, with a far-sighted producer taking into account the possibility of yet another sequel? One evening, soon after they arrive, Danny and Willie are invited to a session of the escape committee. A plan is outlined, which involves tunnelling. There will be three tunnels: 'Don't tell me', says Willie, 'Tom, Dick and Harry.'

Background music gets louder. The camera pans up and away from the prison compound and the moving searchlights, into the night sky. Credits roll. And roll. And roll ...

The studio is confident of another massive box-office smash and someone is already sketching out the outline of part three.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Expecting to Find Death in Poland, and Finding Life

Jewish American doctor Hugh Pollack expected to find death in Poland, and he did. But he also found life. 

"Death and Life in Poland Today by Dr. Hugh Pollack"

"There were so many preconceived notions and conventional wisdoms which I brought with me - that there was no Jewish life in Poland today, that the Poles were the worst of the anti-Semites.

But what I saw, what I heard, challenged many of those beliefs. Suddenly Poland and the Jewish issues involved were not as black and white as I had previously believed.

The history we learned challenged my understanding of Jewish Poland - how Jews for centuries from the Middle Ages until the 1800s were protected by the kings of Poland. They were actively welcomed and so Jewish life thrived, and grew. It was no coincidence that Poland for so long was THE center of world Jewry both in terms of the largest numbers, the high levels of Jewish literacy and knowledge and the intensity and vibrancy of Jewish life. Sounds a lot like American Jewry of the past 50 years."

Read the full article here

Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Ida" 2013 Beautiful but Underdeveloped

"Ida" 2013 directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, is a brief (80 minutes) black-and-white, two-character movie. It is very quiet; you barely need to read the subtitles to follow the slender plot. It is so slow-moving that three times while watching it I suspected that technical difficulties had stopped the film. No; the actor and scene were merely all but frozen. This almost anorexic film takes on huge, sweeping issues: Polish-Jewish relations, Christian-Jewish relations, identity, the Holocaust, guilt, karma, Communist oppression of Poles, and the Catholic vow of chastity for nuns. Reviewers have blessed "Ida" with glowing reviews, insisting that this minimalist film makes big points through allusion and suggestion.

I doubt this. I think most viewers who don't know a heck of a lot about Poland will be baffled and bored by this movie. I think sometimes less is not more but really is less. I think "Ida" would have been a better film with a more tightly focused and more developed screenplay. Words can lead to misunderstanding but words are what we've got to work with. "Too many notes!" a cinematic emperor criticized a Mozart work. "Ida" suffers from "too few words."

In spite of its heavy subject matter, what struck me most about "Ida," and what I will most remember, is its visual beauty. "Ida" is shot in black and white, and it takes place in undistinguished Polish settings in the depth of winter. You see snow-covered fields, corner bars, dingy buildings with cracked plaster. The careful composition of each shot, and the cinematographers' lovely handling of different gradations of light and shadow, transform otherwise dreary locales into works of art.

"Ida" is about a teenage girl in Poland in the 1960s. She has spent her entire life in convent, and she is about to take her final vows. Her mother superior orders her to meet, for the first time, with Wanda Gruz, her sole living relative. Ida does so, and Wanda informs Ida that she is Jewish. Wanda and Ida travel to the village where their Jewish family hid from the Nazis in a barn. Ida's parents and brother were murdered. Wanda and Ida travel to their grave. This new information causes Ida to reassess her commitment to becoming a nun.

Agata Trzebuchowska plays Ida. Press accounts claim she is not a professional actress. She is given very little to say or do. The camera spends much time gazing at her youth and beauty. A male director ogling a gorgeous young amateur – the director's "discovery" – whom he does not allow to speak, act or develop as something other than an artistic composition – distracted and offended me. Enough already with females as marionettes of male geniuses.

Agata Kulesza plays Wanda Gruz, Ida's aunt. Wanda was a judge under Communism. Wanda participated in the persecution of Polish anti-Nazi fighters in the post-war era. Wanda is based on the real life Helena Wolińska-Brus. Wolinska-Brus participated in the Stalinist persecution of genuine heroes who had fought the Nazis and aided Jews. She was a monster.

The Wanda Gruz of "Ida" is not a monster. She is the most fascinating and memorable character in the film. She is the one burning ember in an otherwise inert, black-and-white landscape of monosyllabic Polish peasants and the boring Miss Goody Twoshoes, Ida. Wanda is complex. She is a highly tormented character who drinks, smokes, is sexy and sexually promiscuous, and reveals her superior intelligence through her sarcasm. In the scene where Wanda and Ida are brought to their relatives' graves by a morally compromised Polish peasant, Wanda reveals deep grief. You cannot help but like Wanda.

In a movie that touches on WW II and the Holocaust, I was sickened by how sympathetic Wanda was. Would Pawlikowski have been able to get away with placing a likeable Nazi at the center of such a film? If not, then why did he place a sexy and lovable Stalinist murderess at the center of his film? Answer: Because Stalinist murder does not carry the same taint as Nazi murder. Problem: the millions tortured and murdered in the name of Communism are just as dead as the millions murdered in the name of Nazism.

There are volumes of history and hours of debate transcripts behind the issues that "Ida" touches on. Most filmgoers will have no idea of any of this and much of the film will pass right over their heads. Reviews on the International Movie Database reveal this. Sincere and intelligent filmgoers were unmoved and befuddled by "Ida." Key pieces of information are never articulated: Poland was occupied by Nazis. Nazis persecuted and murdered Polish Catholics as well as Jews. Some Poles betrayed Jews. Some Poles were heroic and saved Jews. Many Poles were neither heroic nor villainous. Everyone was afraid for his or her life. A thousand years of history preceded the Nazi era, and every word and gesture has history behind it. There are no easy answers.

"Ida" falls into predictable traps. Its Jewish character, Wanda, is fascinating and verbal, worldly and morally compromised. Its Catholic character is pure, but boring and simpleminded. These stereotypes are trite and unworthy of any serious film.

Towards the end of the film, one major character leaves the movie and the other character is left to pursue an underdeveloped and aborted subplot that serves no end except to add extra minutes to the runtime.