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Film on 1946 Kielce pogrom stirs Polish American protest

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 28 (JTA) — A film dramatizing a 1946 pogrom in Poland has gained international attention after the Berlin studios of the film’s German-Jewish producer were largely destroyed in what police called an arson fire. The film, “From Hell to Hell,” premiered in Los Angeles two weeks ago in an open screening at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and at a press conference at the German Consulate in Los Angeles. Almost immediately after the public presentation, the Wiesenthal Center received scores of e-mail and phone protests, many from the Chicago area, by Polish American organizations and individuals, charging that the movie defamed Poland and its people. The protests went unnoticed in the United States but were widely reported in the German media. The German press went all out after Artur Brauner returned to Berlin early last week to find large parts of his studios burned to the ground, with damage estimated in the millions of dollars. Brauner himself and the Wiesenthal Center have been at pains to squelch German press conjectures of a link between the protests and the arson. “Although some of the protests we received were highly emotional, they contained nothing that could be construed as a threat,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “While a crime was obviously committed, it would be inappropriate to jump to any conclusions.” “From Hell to Hell” was inspired by a pogrom in the Polish town of Kielce on July 4, 1946. Most of the town’s 25,000 Jews had been killed by the Nazis during World War II. After the war, some 200 survivors returned to Kielce and tried to re- establish their community. They were met with growing hostility until a mob, enraged by Polish nationalists and some Communists, went on a rampage. In their wake, they left 42 Jews dead and 52 injured. As word of the massacre spread, about 100,000 Jews left Poland en masse. Last year, the Polish prime minister formally apologized to the Jewish people for the Kielce pogrom. The 50-year-old tragedy still seems to hit a sensitive nerve among Polish Americans. Among the protest letters to the Wiesenthal Center was one by Deana Alvi, who identified herself as the chairwoman of the Polish American Public Relations Committee. Its purpose, said Alvi in a phone interview, is “to respond to anti-Polish statements, coming mainly from Jewish organizations, the Jewish press and the Wiesenthal Center.” While she acknowledged that “a tragic incident, which is still under investigation,” occurred in Kielce, she bitterly denounced the film, which she had viewed at the Wiesenthal Center as “offensive, inaccurate and utterly stupid.” Alvi said her family had sheltered five Jews in Warsaw during the war, “while American Jews did nothing to help East European Jews.” She said she had not heard of the torching and that “that’s not the way to solve problems.” But she urged Jews to realize that “their behavior has not been exemplary; otherwise, they would not have been expelled from every European country.” Brauner, 79, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who moved to Berlin in 1946, said he had intended to make “From Hell to Hell” for the last 50 years. He was delayed, he said at a news conference, partly for lack of backing from German film support agencies. He has made more than 200 mass appeal movies in Germany, plowing the profits into a series of money-losing films on Holocaust themes. “From Hell to Hell” is the 18th film in the series, which included the gripping 1991 movie, “Europa, Europa.” “From Hell to Hell” is a joint German-Belarus production, shot under a Russian director and with a mostly Russian cast. It has been submitted as the official entry of Belarus for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.