Life & Culture

They're playing Nazis in my grandparents' Polish homeland

An author finds himself on a film set during a pilgrimage to Silesia


Nearly half a biblical three score years and ten separate my two visits to Poland. For someone with two Polish grandparents, and therefore a legitimate claim to a Polish passport, this is a bit shameful.

The first time, in 1990, the Iron Curtain had barely come down; one felt that one could still smell the lingering exhaust fumes of the last departing Soviet tanks.

Patches of colour, like desert flowers after rain, were sprouting in Warsaw and Krakow; these were advertising hoardings for stuff no one really needed, but who was I to be a curmudgeon about things the people had been deprived of for so long?

There were enough lingering effects of communism. The flat I stayed in during my time in Warsaw — modern but tiny, and two generations save one son had vacated the premises so I could have a room — was in one of those suburban areas where, I was plausibly assured, I was not to stray from without native company, because I’d never find my way back; the blocks were so identical that not even a cab driver could tell them apart.

But in Krakow I saw, as if in a dream, through the dusty window of a bungalow in a blasted part of town (war damage? Rebuilding?

General ruin? It was hard to tell), an ancient Charedi man, walking through his living room like a ghost.

Now, I am in the town of Bystrzyca Kłodzka, being shown around a film set. This is, effectively, pretty much the entire centre of the old town, which is doubling as the French town of Crest, as imagined under wartime occupation by the Germans.

The film, The Partisan, is about the SOE operative Krystyna Skarbek, an extraordinarily brave woman who did more than most in her position to help the Allies’ war effort in Europe. The usual surrealism of a film set is intensified by the skips across Europe and time.

Shops have been aged and scarified and given French names; modern shutters have been replaced with ancient ones; the churchyard has sprouted gravestones and mausoleums with French names; we are invited to knock on them: they are made of wood, and hollow.

Every day, lorries bring in fresh loads of rubble to make the town look increasingly beaten up. I take a photo of one scene of fake devastation and send it to a friend, captioning it: “Sorry about the mess, we’ve had the Nazis in.”

Two things have changed significantly since I was last in Poland. The first is that the country is obviously no longer a Soviet chattel, or suffering from the bombardment of history. It is a modern European country; as simple as that.

The other change is in me: I am now travelling as a Jew. This involves a major realignment of one’s internal radar. I am seeing things from a different perspective; and it is hard not to imagine that people are looking at me differently than they would have done heretofore.

This is perhaps appropriate given where I am: a place where the boundaries have always shifted. People in the UK often have no idea how contingent borders are in Europe, how dependent on history.

Bystrzyca Kłodzka may be playing at being French for the moment but it has been German, and it has been Czech. When I ask for a good local beer, I am served a glass of Pilsner Urquell (which is Czech).

The Czech-Polish border is itself fraught with history: that was where the Nazis invaded; I am right where the Second World War started. My Polish grandparents came from Lwów in Poland and it is now Lviv in Ukraine. Or, until that country regained its independence, The Ukraine.

Where in the UK do borders do this? Hay-on-Wye? Berwick? It’s hardly the same.
Next to me at dinner one night, one of the film’s executive producers pulls out a phone and shows me a GIF of Poland’s changing borders over the centuries. It expands and contracts like a bloodclot; in 1795, it disappears altogether.

“That’s not good,” I say. I am reminded of the opening line of the Polish national anthem, once waggishly translated for my benefit as “Poland isn’t finished yet” by a member of the then-Government in exile.

My mention of Ukraine is not irrelevant. The Russian invasion has changed the complexion of European allegiances.

Poland and Hungary used to be firm allies but Viktor Orbán’s support for the invader has caused widespread dismay in Poland; the Polish government may have been going down the same populist-authoritarian route as Hungary’s but this seems increasingly untenable; and besides, I am among the kind of Poles who largely did not vote for the current administration.

In the minibus ferrying my fellow journalists to an other location in the woods, I overhear a conversation: “what are British-Polish relations like these days?” asks a journalist. “Perfect,” replies George, the executive producer. “Better than ever.” I wonder what the answer would have been if Putin had minded his own business.

I am used to thinking well of the Poles, and this has nothing to do with my ancestry.

We Brits went to war because of them; we thrilled to the daring exploits of their pilots in the Battle of Britain; during the 1969 film of that name, endlessly repeated during my childhood on UK television, a training flight of Polish fighters peels off, without authority, to attack a Luftwaffe squadron. “Stop!” cries their exasperated (English) instructor. “In Polish!”

In 1980, a new chapter of Poles Not Doing What They’re Told opened with the formation of the Trade Union Solidarity; we learned how to pronounce Lech Wałesa’s name and that Soviet hegemony could be resisted. We learned the Polish word for Solidarity, too.

However, for Jews, the story is somewhat different. It is a measure of British ignorance that every single compatriot I have mentioned my Polish ancestry to — and they’re not poorly educated — has assumed, when they’ve said anything about the matter, that this is where my Jewish roots come from too.

I am forced to disoblige them: like the vast majority of the Polish population, my grandparents were Catholic.

Polish Jews hardly found it easy getting out of the country at the time. In fact, as I hardly need to say here, very few did.

The historical burden is, in certain respects, greater in Poland than anywhere else in Europe, and the question of Polish involvement in the Holocaust is now even more fraught than it needs to be.

The general but by no means overwhelming consensus is that the Poles were more complacent about the fate of their Jewish fellow citizens than complicit.

Still, it did not need the Nazi invasion to make the Jewish situation in Poland deeply uncomfortable; when it came to antisemitism, the Nazis were pushing at an open door. 3,000,000 Polish Jews were murdered in the camps and that’s a number it is impossible to forget or ignore.

But the waters have been stirred up and muddied — not to say poisoned — considerably by the populist government’s 2018 Amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, which (briefly put) made it a crime to describe concentration and death camps on Polish soil as Polish.

There is also now strong official pressure to place greater emphasis on the Polish, rather than the Jewish, victims of the camps than heretofore.

And in a survey conducted earlier this year, people across Europe were given a list of common prejudices about Jewish people; if they said that six out of the 11 suggested statements, which do not need to be repeated, are “probably true” then that respondent was classed as antisemitic.

Thirty-five per cent of Poles fell into this category; only Hungary, on 38 per cent, did worse. If it’s any consolation, the figure in 2019 after the same survey was, for Poland, 48 per cent.

As it happens, Krystyna Skarbek’s mother came from a Jewish family; assimilated, and assimilated enough to marry into an aristocratic family; but not assimilated enough to escape her eventual arrest and murder by the Nazis.

Interestingly, Krystyna is being played in The Partisan (which will be in cinemas next year) by Morgane Polanski, Roman’s daughter; he, too, came from a Polish-Jewish family.

Here’s where it gets slightly personal: I am introduced to everyone, quite correctly, as the correspondent for the Jewish Chronicle.

And I might have been imagining it, but it feels as though the reaction to that is qualitatively different to that when my fellow correspondents are introduced as coming from, say, the Daily Telegraph or the Sun. (To tell the truth, I am somewhat surprised to see the Sun represented here; but good for them, and the people who invited them, I say.) There is a beat, as if the pressure in the room has slightly increased.

But that being said, everyone goes out of their way to be nice to me. After all, this is a film about a Polish-Jewish partisan; and George’s grandmother, I learn, earned a place in The Righteous Among the Nations for helping Polish Jews during wartime. There is no chance of my experiencing any antisemitism here.

Before we leave for Wrocław airport, we are taken deep into the woods to watch the filming of a scene where some partisans seem to have run into a Nazi ambush.
The noise of gunfire will be dubbed in later: the blank rounds are silenced so as not to disturb the local bears.

We are now much nearer the Czech border: in fact, my mobile network cordially invites me to the country. A man with a Free France armband is being told to roll around the forest floor to look authentically grubby.

“You’re in a forest, not a f***ing art studio,” says one of the crew. An actress starts crying; we are apologetically told that the presence of a posse of journalists is not helping with the pressures of acting, so we are moved to a tent where we can watch the filming on monitors.

Before we get there, I see a couple of extras wearing SS uniforms. I ask if I can take a photograph; I can. And they are not wearing the menacingly smart Hugo Boss SS uniforms we have come to expect; these are the tatty uniforms of conscripted privates.

The film-makers have gone to great lengths to achieve historical accuracy, and the actors playing them have clearly been chosen for their convincing pallor and air of undernourishment. And they look so young; so very young.

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