Some 40 million people watched on TV this week as the Polish movie “Ida” collected the Oscar Award for best foreign language film. It is the story of a young novice nun who, before she takes her vows, discovers that she is Jewish and then undertakes a journey to learn about her past.
“No Jews ever lived here,” the head of the Polish family declares in one gripping moment of the movie as Ida comes to visit what actually turns out to be her old family home.
There is much debate in Poland and elsewhere as to whether the film is a fair portrayal of history. But the image of a home now lost is a penetrating glimpse into a largely undiscussed chapter of the history of Poland.
The story of Polish Jews is a complicated one — a thousand- year history where Jews were at times welcomed, at times suffered and ultimately where most perished during the Holocaust. A significant part of world Jewry traces its roots to Poland. A new Museum of the History of Polish Jews seeks to tell that story.
However, history cannot just be told. It must also be faced and addressed.
Poland is the only major country in Eastern Europe that has not passed legislation to address the loss of Holocaust-era property. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish homes were simply taken and no compensation ever paid. An international consensus emerged in 2009 with the Terezin Declaration, endorsed by more than 40 countries. It urges “that every effort be made to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures … which were part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups.”
Polish officials stress that it was the Nazis that were the initiators of the death camps in Poland. Certainly Poland suffered under Nazi oppression. Millions of Poles died — non-Jews as well as Jews. Private property was frozen in place during the Communist-era. But as Communism fell in the late 1990’s, other countries across Eastern Europe took up the challenge of returning or providing compensation for former Jewish property. Some of those efforts were comprehensive. Some were very limited.
Yet Poland was alone among these countries in not addressing the issue in any kind of national framework. A few schemes for specific geographic areas and isolated individual court cases helped a tiny number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust recover their property. Most could not. Legislation was introduced in the Polish parliament over the years since the fall of Communism but never passed.
Poland is no longer a poor country. “Poland is the only nation in Europe to see growth in every quarter since the financial crisis hit six years ago, with its gross domestic product now 25 percent above 2008 levels while the European Union average remains below that year’s mark,” noted a recent article in The New York Times.
The image of a Jewish home taken from its owners is a window not just to a taking of property but rather is an extinguishing of history. History cannot be ignored and it has ramifications for the present.
Understanding the past requires us to seek to right its wrongs. It is sometimes painful and gut-wrenching. It can be costly. Ultimately, it is the way that we can move forward.
As the movie “Ida” shows us, Poland is still grappling with its past. Poland needs to embrace that past and address it. As the survivors pass away, it is time for Poland to return that which was taken.