What was the nationality of the stuffed teddy bear?

Le Monde is one of the world’’s most important dailies and that is why its review of Andrzej Wajda’’s film Katyń has astonished me and prompted the following thoughts.

The French critic writes that Wajda places the burden of responsibility for the pillage and destruction of Poland and the Poles equally on the Nazis and the Soviets.

For the French critic historical facts of the period from September 1939 to July 1941 are lies and an abuse of history. What shocking ignorance! The territory of the Polish state was divided between two totalitarian powers which, at the time, were allies.

Both parts of occupied Poland were subjected to comparable degree of terror; both occupying powers detained and murdered Poles with equal cruelty and viciousness.

In May 1943, when the Germans dug out the remains of Polish officers in the forest near Katyń,  the Information Bulletin, Underground Poland’’s most authoritative journal, carried the following salient editorial commentary: We are fully aware of the bestiality of Soviet occupation in the Eastern regions of our country. (…) We are astonished at German impudence: are the graves of Palmiry, Wawer, Auschwitz, Majdanek and hundreds of Polish villages, not enough to stop them from revealing atrocities committed near Smolensk? (……) At a time when our people have received this tragic news, in this day of deepest mourning we declare as forcefully as we can: we will forever remember the Russian atrocity in Smolensk and the crimes of Lvov, Vilnius, Rovno, Kovel and many other cities, just as we will never forget German atrocities in Palmiry, Wawer, in the Western territories and in the concentration camps.

This was Underground Poland’’s comment on the Katyń massacre which, in turn, was the culmination of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.  After the war the Katyń massacre was not talked about or it was lied about. This hypocritical silence was a great victory for Stalin and his propaganda. In Central and Eastern Europe the silence was enforced by terror; in Western Europe it was imposed by ideological dogmas which did not permit a comparison of Hitler’s crimes and Stalin’’s atrocities. The French critic is a prisoner of this dogma, whereas Andrzej Wajda has dared to challenge it.

The Polish artist has broken the conspiratorial silence. Katyń is the first film about the Soviet crimes and its aggression against Poland, committed in alliance with Hitler. This issue has been a taboo for the French Left.  For years they were silent about the Soviet aggression against Poland and about Soviet atrocities; they were also silent about Katyń.  This massacre is still the skeleton in the cupboard of the French Left that has shown such understanding for Stalin, the Great Linguist.

This is not the only dogma of left-wing hypocrisy. The other one is the conviction that all Poles have soaked up anti-Semitism with their mothers’’ milk and that Jews were the only victims of the German occupation. I learned from Le Monde that Wajda presents a strange confusion of the Katyń crime with the extermination of the Jews. And by contrast, the film includes scenes of hunting and persecution of Polish officers presenting them as if they were deportations of Jews to death camps.

But that is not all: Future victims of the massacre show deep emotional attachment to a mascot – a stuffed teddy bear which, according to Yad Vashem, is the symbol of martyrdom of the Jewish people – the extermination of Jewish children.

And as if that were not enough, we are told that in this film everything relates to the Holocaust even though the word itself is never uttered. The film is simply devoid of Jews.  It is as if it were the Poles who were the victims of World War II.

I would like to believe that the nonsense quoted above is based on ignorance rather than on ill will. Obviously, Andrzej Wajda’s film is not about the Holocaust, it is about the Katyń massacre. True, the film does not show any Jews in the streets of Krakow under German occupation because in 1943 there were no Jews in those streets. They were dying squeezed into the ghetto and being deported to death camps. There is no confusion between Katyń and Treblinka in this film. These are two distinct atrocities and Wajda’’s film deals with only one of them. The accusation that it does not deal with the Holocaust is as absurd as it would be to accuse Spielberg or Polański, in Schindler’’s List or The Pianist, of not dealing with the Katyń massacre or with the camps of Kolyma and Karaganda in the Gulag.

I am writing these words in indignation: there is still a dearth of films about Stalin’’s crimes even though they were just as brutal and affected as many millions  as those of Hitler. For decades these crimes have been buried in conspiratorial silence. Andrzej Wajda – and let me be quite emphatic about this – is not and never has been a closet ‘‘Holocaust denier’’. Wajda made three films about the extermination of the Jews: Samson, Korczak and The Holy Week. To accuse this artist, of all people, of fobbing off the audience with the massacre of Katyń is an insinuation that lacks any justification.

Wajda’’s film Katyń depicts, with great realism, the detention and persecution of Poles, stuck between two murderous totalitarian colossuses. Sadly, this was Poland’s fate and that is why the Poles were among the main victims of World War II.

It is high time for the French critic to accept these banal facts. The critic in question concludes his analysis by claiming that Polish cinema has been ambiguous about the Jewish problem.  But Polish cinema consists of a great number of personalities, points of view and styles. The French critic’s generalization is as absurd as the claim that Andrzej Wajda has Polonized the Jewish stuffed teddy bear.

Sadly, stupidity is just as international as it is incurable.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Polish in the Gazeta Wyborcza on 14 April 2009. 

We are grateful to Adam Michnik for the permission to publish this text in English.