NEW YORK, July 8 (JTA) — Many people are familiar with Jan Gross’ recent book about the 1941 massacre of 1,600 Jews in the Polish town of Jedwabne — but few are aware of the person who inspired it.
Early one Sunday morning, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold sat at her cluttered kitchen table in Southern Warsaw and sipped coffee as she talked about her film “Neighbors” — Arnold lent Gross the use of her film’s title for his book. Visibly exhausted, Arnold is a commanding woman in her late 40s, with a tough exterior and blue eyes that easily dampen.
She has made more than 20 documentaries about Polish-Jewish relations, but nothing prepared her for what she discovered in Jedwabne.
“For the past five years,” Arnold, a Lutheran, says softly, “I lived in that barn where the 1,600 Jews were rounded up and killed. Every testimony I collected, every witness I spoke to, put me back into that barn. I haven’t slept well since.”
After the Polish responsibility for the massacre was publicized, the Polish government decided to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the event with a memorial Tuesday.
The Jewish community marked the event with its own ceremony last Friday.
On July 10, 1941, some 1,600 Polish Jews were rounded up by their Polish neighbors, forced into a barn and burned to death. A plaque that stood in Jedwabne since the war falsely claimed that the Nazis committed the atrocity.
Even though Gross’ book has received all the attention, Arnold was instrumental in placing the massacre before the public eye.
This spring, Arnold’s film, broadcast in two prime-time slots, was viewed by 2 million Poles.
Viewers have reacted strongly to Arnold’s film.
Some critics say that Arnold is anti-Polish; others embrace her work.
Boguslaw Majewski, minister at the Polish Embassy in Washington, is sympathetic: “Arnold’s film enables us to come to terms with the crimes that some of our own committed because others stood on the side in silence. It shows us that indifference can be lethal.”
Arnold’s concern about Polish-Jewish relations stems from growing up as a member of the only Lutheran family in the Catholic town of Lowicz.
She believes that minorities in Poland have an advantage when it comes to examining society
“We feel and see more. Being an outsider allows us to look in,” Arnold says.
After graduating from the University of Warsaw in 1972, Arnold worked for Communist-run state television but was forced to quit because her pieces were considered too political.
Eventually, her independent streak motivated her to direct her own films.
How Arnold came to discover the truth about Jedwabne has more to do with the striking absence of information rather than its existence.
After communism fell and the Polish government set up a commission to investigate Nazi war crimes, an alarm bell sounded for Arnold when she read a falsified report that claimed the Nazis had committed the massacre in Jedwabne.
In 1997, Arnold went to Jedwabne, a small town about 90 miles northeast of Warsaw.
“Literally, in the course of two hours, I learned the truth,” Arnold says.
She and her cameraman, without equipment, entered a bar and began buying drinks for the patrons.
“We might have been tourists — although, how many tourists go to Jedwabne?” Arnold asks ironically.
The patrons in the bar accused one another, loudly, of having relatives who were murderers or living on stolen land.
The tension was palpable; they seemed to be competing for Arnold’s attention.
Why they were so anxious to talk about such a taboo topic is something that Arnold easily answers.
“No one had wanted to listen to them until me,” she says.
To make “Neighbors,” Arnold traveled as far as Costa Rica and the United States to interview survivors, rescuers, perpetrators and witnesses.
The film uses no narration, and craftily unravels the hidden horrors through intimate interviews. Some faces are hidden and others boldly face the camera.
The current priest of Jedwabne, who claims on camera that no anti-Semitism exists, warned his congregants not to speak openly to Arnold, but many volunteered.
Arnold points out that for 60 years, no one — neither the Roman Catholic Church, schools nor the Communist Party — ever attempted to talk with them.
Arnold admits that only four years ago she thought the broadcast of her film would be postponed indefinitely.
Poland was still emerging from 50 years of communism, a period during which all open dialogue had been frozen.
Poles were still reluctant to openly face controversy about the past.
It was against this political backdrop that Arnold began to show her unfinished film to everyone she could. Its chilling firsthand testimonies captured the imagination of Gross, a Polish emigre and historian, and inspired him to expand his own research and publish his internationally acclaimed book.
In addition to sharing her film’s title, Arnold was also happy to provide her transcripts of her interviews.
“I left my ego out of it. I knew that once Janek” — as she calls Gross — “released his book, the public would know the story and my film would be broadcast,” says Arnold.
She was right. Her producers are now negotiating to bring the film to the United States this fall.
Pouring herself and her guests a second cup of coffee, Arnold glances at the rows of drab Communist-bloc buildings outside her kitchen window.
She’s quick to point out that interspersed between the ugly gray blocks stood some prewar buildings reminiscent of a once-elegant Warsaw.
But, not surprisingly, Arnold refuses to romanticize Poland’s past.
“People tell me that I’m a woman who has changed the course of history. Yet I am not satisfied. I am emotionally spent,” Arnold sighs and continues.
“I am a mother with a teen-age son who I want to bring up in a country that has faced the demons of its past. My work is not done until Poles come to grips with the truth. I hope that my film restored some order and things are clearer now.”
Deborah Sklar is the assistant director of the Community Services Department of the American Jewish Committee and has developed a project with the Polish government for the “Next Generation” of young Poles and Jews to address the past.