Many years ago, David Blumenfeld read a testimony from one of the sole survivors of his grandfather’s shtetl, Ivansk (Iwaniska), near Kielce in south-central Poland.
The survivor, Yitzhak Goldstein, recalled how the day before the Nazis deported the village’s remaining Jews in October 1942, they gathered in the local Jewish cemetery to bury the community’s Torah scrolls.
“The whole shtetl participated. Each one saw themselves as though they were at their own funeral. The rabbi turned to us — the young ones — and swore on our behalf: All of those who survived the war should dig out the Torah scrolls and tell the world what the German nation, with the help of a large part of the Polish population, did to us,” Goldstein wrote.
Blumenfeld, a Jerusalem-based photographer and filmmaker was intrigued. Then when he learned a decade ago that members of an organization of descendants of Jews from Ivansk planned to restore the village’s Jewish cemetery, he decided to grab his camera and go film what would happen.
Blumenfeld, who was born in Toronto and lived in Canada and the United States before settling in Israel in 2000, thought he would essentially be documenting family history, creating something to hand down to his three children about where their great-grandfather Max Carl Blumenfeld came from.
However, as the cemetery work began and Blumenfeld recorded reactions of the local residents, he realized this would actually be a much more complex film dealing with explosive issues in contemporary Polish society about memory, responsibility and victimhood.
Over the course of the decade of the film’s making, the Poles, whose national narrative had been one of victimhood and suffering under the Germans and later the Soviets, began to confront the fact the some among them had not been only victims or innocent bystanders, but also perpetrators of atrocities against local Jews during the Holocaust. Then came a nationalist backlash claiming that such historical claims were mere anti-Polish propaganda.
In the film, “Scandal in Ivansk,” Blumenfeld, 49, does discover what happened to the Torah scrolls buried by the Jewish community on the eve of its destruction. But more crucially, he digs up differing perspectives on history — especially when the rededication of the Jewish cemetery unexpectedly becomes a national headline-grabbing scandal.
It wasn’t the 2006 cemetery restoration per se that was the problem. By that point, Poles were relatively used to neglected Jewish graveyards being cleaned up, and desecrated headstones being returned to their proper place by activists like young photographer Lukasz Baksik, who is seen in the film expertly negotiating with an elderly Ivansk resident who expects payment in exchange for a headstone fragment has stashed his basement.
Rather, the issue was the inscription on the memorial prepared and erected by the North American Jewish organizers at the rededication ceremony.
A single word was highly problematic: “Collaborators.”
“Finally, on 15 October 1942, Jewish life in Iwaniska ceased when the Nazis and their collaborators brutally transported the town’s Jews to their deaths in Treblinka,” the inscription read.
“We had been received quite nicely by the locals up to that point. There had been a lot of cooperation with the cemetery restoration project, and the school even held an essay contest with the kids interviewing their grandparents about what they remembered about the Jews who used to live in the village,” Blumenfeld said.
“Then the monument was unveiled and all hell broke loose. None of us had realized how explosive this word was,” he said.
The local Polish residents would not tolerate the “collaborator” reference and wanted it removed immediately.
The film, co-directed by Ami Drozd, includes interviews with noted Polish academics such as Jan Grabowski from the University of Ottawa and Princeton’s Jan T. Gross, whose 2001 “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland” provided evidence that Poles murdered several hundred of their Jewish neighbors in July 1941. The work ignited Polish historical introspection.
One gets the impression, however, that Ivansk’s residents would side more with Polish nationalists — like the ruling Law and Justice party, which has outlawed the use of the term “Polish death camps” — than with these academics trying to get their compatriots to face painful truths.
Although it is a documentary, “Scandal in Ivasnk” is reminiscent of the excellent and controversial 2012 fictional film “Aftermath” by Polish director Wladyslaw Pasikowski. That film, implicitly based on the Jedwabne massacre, tells the story of two brothers who discover that their own parents were responsible for murdering their Jewish neighbors and stealing their property. One brother becomes so obsessed with making amends that he turns a part of his field into an ersatz Jewish cemetery, erecting desecrated gravestones that have been used as paving stones that he finds around his village. He even teaches himself Hebrew so he can read the names on the headstones over and over to himself in mantra-like fashion.
In the film’s gothic thriller-style, the local Polish characters are uniformly antagonistic toward the young men’s efforts to uncover the truth about the past. In Blumenfeld’s film, the real-life villagers are not angry so much as they seem devoid of true remorse over the fate of their Jewish neighbors, and of moral conscience about having profited from the Jews’ abandoned property.
Poignantly, the only Ivansk resident who speaks about Polish responsibility without reservation is a drunk, his open shirt revealing his pot belly as he sits with his buddies in the village square.
“The Germans wanted to exterminate the Jews. All of them. And the Poles were helping them with it. I know it from my home,” he says.
And when his companion suggests that a proposed (and so far unrealized) memorial plaque for the village square could state that the Germans murdered the Jews, the drunk asks, “And the Poles didn’t murder?”
‘The stories we pass down to the next generations are based on how we perceive ourselves as victims, and we all have stains we want to cover up’
Blumenfeld was educated in Jewish day schools and participated in one of the first organized teen trips to the death camps in Poland in the 1990s. Before making this film, he would never have thought twice about the rabbi’s words in Goldstein’s testimony. It was an unquestioned given that Poland was a terrible place and the Poles were collaborators with the Nazi occupiers.
However, the filmmaker no longer sees things in black and white. He found evidence of both real heroism and real cruelty in Ivansk’s history.
“Polish-Jewish relations is not something I really understood before. Memory and how we remember is subjective. The stories we pass down to the next generations are based on how we perceive ourselves as victims, and we all have stains we want to cover up,” he said.
The many trips Blumenfeld made to Ivansk to make this film taught him that while there may be a single truth, there can be many different perspectives on it.
If the truth is ultimately immutable, then it is fitting that in the end, “collaborator” was not removed from the monument in the rededicated Jewish cemetery. According to Blumenfeld, it is still there.
However, this is not necessarily a sign that Ivansk’s residents have fully reconciled with the word.
“The last time I visited, it looked like no one was really taking care of the cemetery. There was already a lot of overgrowth and the inscription was hidden from view,” he said.
“Scandal in Ivansk” premieres at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 9.