New film suggests a bright future for Polish Jews

A talk with the director of ‘The Return,’ which opens Saturday in New York, on how he presents a positive look at a growing, hip Jewish community in an unexpected place

Katka, a Slovakian immigrant in Poland converting to Judaism, is one of the four main subjects in Adam Zucker's documentary 'The Return.' (courtesy)
Katka, a Slovakian immigrant in Poland converting to Judaism, is one of the four main subjects in Adam Zucker's documentary 'The Return.' (courtesy)

NEW YORK — Just when you thought you couldn’t take any more bad news about the uptick in European anti-Semitism, here comes some good news. “The Return,” a new documentary from Adam Zucker (whose previous work includes the award-winning “Greensboro: Closer to the Truth”) takes a look at inchoate 21st Century Polish Jewry and some of its … successes?

Using four individual and inspiring women as the film’s anchors, “The Return” shows how, at least in cosmopolitan centers like Warsaw and Krakow, Jews aren’t just welcome in society — they are actually quite hip! Young people in post-Communist society are increasingly finding out about their hidden roots, and institutions are growing where people can explore their Jewish heritage.

Of course, this poses some challenges, especially in a culture that was once the epicenter of Jewish life, and then the focus of its near destruction.

The four women range from a feminist (Kasia) who grew up Catholic, a part-time New Yorker (Tusia), a rare case of someone who knew of her Judaism from birth (Maria) but is only now becoming more religious, and a Slovakian immigrant (Katka) who is dating a Jew and now converting.

In addition to their stories, the film dunks you in the middle of contemporary Polish culture in the midst of something of a benign Jew-craze, which reflects back on our subjects just trying to live their lives.

I had the good fortune to speak with director Zucker prior to the film’s world premiere in New York City.

How did you decide to get involved in this particular story? What drew you to it? Are you part Polish? I’m imagining you’re Jewish.

Yes. I am Jewish, my great-grandparents came from greater Poland, Galicia. So, those are my roots. I’m a Jewish independent filmmaker but I’ve never been involved in a Jewish project.

Film director Adam Zucker began working on his documentary 'The Return' in 2008. (courtesy)
Film director Adam Zucker began working on his documentary ‘The Return’ in 2008. (courtesy)

In 2008 I read a story about the interest in Poland about Jewish culture amongst non-Jewish Poles. It was about the festival in Krakow. I went to the festival and I started hearing people’s stories, about how many people were either raised Catholic, and discovered they were Jewish, or always thought they were Jewish. But more than that was the whole thought of people trying to be Jewish in a place without any idea how to do it! And in the place that was once the heart of everything — seemed very poignant to me, and that really became the thrust of the movie.

You have previous documentary credits, but you also work as an editor for other people as well.

I edit to make a living, and I love doing it, and it allows my films to take more time. If I worked on a project all the time, it would condense and concentrate the filming, which might be a bad thing. Working on something like this from 2008 on is good for two reasons. One is that things may happen in their lives, which in this case they did. But secondarily, it really does take time for people to trust you so that they might be happy to be filmed. At a certain point, for everyone, it clicks, like “Wow, this guy is really serious.” He’s not coming in for a couple days’ shooting and then leaving; he’s really interested.

When I saw that your movie was about Jews in Poland I thought “Oh, no. It’s more anti-Semitism in Europe that’s happening right now. Oy vey. I’m going to watch this and get depressed.” And then it’s about ten minutes in when you go, “Wait a second. This is, in fact, quite the opposite.” Is Poland the lone stand against the tide of what is an un-dismissible rise in anti-Semitism in Europe right now?

‘What is noticeable [in Poland] is the philo-Semitism, the love and fetishism of all things Jewish’

I don’t like to present myself as a barometer for “How anti-Semitic is Poland?” Because I don’t live there and I’m a foreigner. But by and large, anti-Semitism is really not a big deal in Poland. I mean, there are some events that take place and they’re usually caused by the same skinheads that are racist and homophobic and all those other things. What is more noticeable is the philo-Semitism, the love and fetishism of all things Jewish. You go to the JCC at Krakow, there’s no metal detector — anybody can walk in the doors. And that’s not the case at Jewish synagogues in France or Sweden or elsewhere. So, if you were to quantify anti-Semitism in Europe, which is in fact on the rise, Poland is definitely low on the totem pole.

This fetishistic philo-Semitism is discussed at length in the film. “Do you want to be a young, hip person in Poland? You’d better get a Jewish friend.” Like it’s a commodity. Is that a problem for these people?

Yeah. I would say “problem” in quotes on that one. I probably think more of a presence than a problem. It’s a benign interest that they might find to be ultimately a little bit facile, but I don’t think it has any big impact, like, “Oy vey, my life is ruined because of all this philo-Semitism.”

And also, as pop culture goes, the pendulum can swing, and in ten years young Poles may be like, “I’m sick of these Jews, they’re so hip, and we keep having these Jewish arts festivals; enough already.” And the next thing you know, nobody’s showing up.

It’s possible, but I would say that the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow is top-shelf in terms of Jewish culture. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of klezmer — doesn’t do a lot for me either way. But there were bands playing there, in what I call New Yiddish Music, which are like interesting musicians, rock musicians reinterpreting the liturgy, or reinterpreting Yiddish folk songs — that are really top-notch quality, and that get much bigger venues when they go to Poland than when they play here in New York City.

Kasia, a young, independent Jew in Poland, from Adam Zucker's documentary 'The Return.' (courtesy)
Kasia, a young, independent Jew in Poland, from Adam Zucker’s documentary ‘The Return.’ (courtesy)

You boil the film down to these four characters who, to a certain extent, represent four different strata or types of Jews living in Poland today. And the title is “The Return,” so I was kind of expecting to see Jews who were not from Poland moving to Poland.

“The Return” to me meant many things, and Kasia says at the end of the film, some people actually want to try to bring back what was before the war — and that’s not happening. It’s impossible.

‘The bigger struggle is can there actually be a self-sustaining Jewish community in Poland, and I think the jury is out on that’

The bigger struggle is can there actually be a self-sustaining Jewish community in Poland, and I think the jury is out on that. The reality is, a lot of American and Western entities have been subsidizing a lot of activities there for two decades now, and at some point, money and institutional support will disappear, and I’m not sure what will be when that does happen.

Until it gets to the place when there can be Polish rabbis and Polish Jewish community leaders — and I’m not trying to kick anyone out of a job — but they know that they’re a stop-gap, because there aren’t Polish rabbis who can do the job yet. I don’t know what will happen to Polish Jewry.

If you’re religious there’s not a lot of support for that. If you want to marry someone, there’s not a whole lot of people from whom to choose. If you want to be kosher, there’s not a lot of food available.

Tusia, who lives half the time in Poland and half the time in New York, says at one point that when she’s in New York she’s just herself, but when she’s in Poland, she’s a full-time Jew.

You can get tired of it. Or it might not be self-sustaining. I think the larger question is “Where is the best place to be a Jew?” Which is one of those eternal questions. It definitely plays out in Poland — a complicated place, given the history.

Early in the film, there’s a discussion of when Kasia is told as an adult or a young adult — she thought she was Catholic her whole life, and then it turns out that she actually is Jewish, which is a fairly common trope. There’s the movie “Ida” which came out this year, and that’s sort of the central premise: A woman thinks she’s Catholic and then she wakes up and is told that she’s Jewish. In your film, it all seems to go well, but I would imagine there are some people who maybe didn’t take too well to that news.

It is very common, and I remember one evening, one of the first evenings that we were filming we went to this bar that was kind of a hangout during the festival for Jews, for Polish Jews meeting Israeli Jews. And it seemed like every person that each of us spoke to independently had this story: “My father always wore a hat in the house, and I’d say ‘Why are you wearing a hat?’ And they’d say ‘Oh, I’m drafty.’ ‘It’s the middle of the summer. Why are you wearing that hat?'” And they eventually found out they were Jewish.

Agata Trzebuchowska plays Anna, a nun who discovers she is actually a Jew named Ida, just days before taking her vows, in Pawel Pawkikoski's new film. (courtesy: Music Box Films)
Agata Trzebuchowska plays Anna, a nun who discovers she is actually a Jew named Ida, just days before taking her vows, in Pawel Pawkikoski’s new film. (courtesy: Music Box Films)

I think unlike “Ida,” which is telling a story in 1962 Poland — which was a much more repressive environment from today — I would say I didn’t hear too many negative stories. I did hear stories where people just didn’t care. “You’re Jewish.” “Well, I’m not Jewish. I don’t care what my grandfather was, that’s not who I am. Whatever, I don’t care.”

There are people for whom it just didn’t have any resonance. And other people who tried it on for a while and didn’t stick with it, and other people who embraced it fully.

‘Another way you sort of know you’re Jewish is if you have no family… Because everybody died’

In Poland, it’s almost unheard of to have Jewish parents. That is, it’s almost unheard of to have a Jewish father and a Jewish mother. Just because of the numbers, and because most people did go underground in one way or another, or at least lost their identity. The statistical chances of two people that are both Jewish meeting each other is really pretty slim, so that in most families of these new Jews, one parent is Jewish and the other parent isn’t.

And there were cases where the other family, the non-Jewish side, was not at all happy about this new embrace. And that did come up.

The other thing that’s interesting about that is — another way you sort of know you’re Jewish is if you have no family. If you’re Jewish, yeah, you have a mother or a father. But there’s no cousins. There’s no aunts. There’s no uncles. Because everybody died. That’s one more thing you’d say “A-ha. Now I get it. Now I understand why I only have family on one side.”

To compare again to “Ida,” that is set during Communism, which while not quite as deadly for Jews as Nazism, was still no walk in the park. Your film is about getting out of the one-two punch, after the War and after the Cold War. However, you don’t discuss the era of Communism too much.

Well, it is a conscious decision. I tend to find that what happens with films is that you can engage audiences with the lives of people, and there’s a million other ways to find the other information out, whether it’s links on my website or an education or outreach campaign, what have you. The reality is that Polish Communism was much more anti-Semitic than most Communism, for a variety of reasons, and I’m not the authority on that.

In Poland, people don’t talk about the Holocaust. There’s nothing to say. It’s so there that it’s on your mind; it’s on my mind. It’s not on their mind. It doesn’t come up. It comes up when I ask them.

In the same way, Communism is not a bugaboo, like you can’t talk about it, you’re not allowed to — anybody can talk about it — but it’s not the first thing on people’s lips anymore.

Jewish men rounded up for forced labor in Krakow, Poland (photo credit: Shem Olam Institute)
Jewish men rounded up for forced labor in Krakow, Poland (photo credit: Shem Olam Institute)

This dovetails into the quote-unquote heritage tour that a lot of Americans or Europeans, Jews and non-Jews alike, make when they come to Europe. If they’re going to Europe, then they’re doing a stop in Poland. They’re getting out, they’re seeing the concentration camps, they’re seeing the Warsaw ghetto maybe, and then they’re back on the bus, and they’re going to Prague or something. And I thought it was really interesting to see pretty much everybody in the film comment on their somewhat ambivalent reaction to Auschwitz and sort of the Auschwitz industry, if you will.

Jonathan Ornstein, the American-born director of the JCC talks about how these death tours are really, really bad for Judaism, and are not the way we should go. We’re a religion of life, and we’re a people of the future, not just of the past, and of death and of martyrdom. But it wasn’t just him. Everybody did. Ambivalence is not the wrong word. They would all tell me, “You should go there.” Every American Jew should go visit Auschwitz, but it shouldn’t be the first thing you do in Poland, and it certainly shouldn’t be the only thing you do in Poland.

In talking about the philo-Semitism, there were some sort of tchotchke shops somewhere that had these little refrigerator magnets of cartoonish rabbis and whatnot…

Yeah, that’s actually caught some flak when they’ve been taken out of context. I do have a certain affection for that visual imagery. They do have Aunt Jemima imagery in the South, and I know African-Americans who collect that stuff for the same bizarre affection-slash-revulsion kind of thing that I have.

For me, those images, those dolls and whatnot — and everybody is like “Oh my God, look at them” — it doesn’t upset me so much. There was a museum exhibit in Krakow last summer about those, they’re called “totems” and “talismans,” and there’s people who study this stuff. They were called “My Lucky Jew.” It was actually a good luck charm to have around the house. And it was about all the different people who made these things, and what motivated them to make them. I’m a filmmaker. How could you not film that?

In the last two weeks, there’s been a bit of a brouhaha about emigration to, of all places, Germany from Israel. That these are welcoming places for Jews — is there something going on in German and Polish psychologies as a guilt thing? They feel so bad about what happened on their turf that they’re being extra nice to the incoming and returning Jews?

‘It’s easy to equate Germany and Poland as places that were really terrible for Jews, but it is really important to remember, by and large, that the people who were killing Jews in Poland were Germans’

The number of Jews in Germany versus the number of Jews in Poland I believe is much, much higher. I don’t know if there’s any connection, and the one thing I would say, and Poles are really touchy about this — it’s easy to equate Germany and Poland as places that were really terrible for Jews, but it is really important to remember, by and large, that the people who were killing Jews in Poland were Germans. They weren’t Poles. And yes, there have been incidents of anti-Semitism committed by Polish people, no question about it. But Poland was an occupied country during the war, and there were Germans there who were systematically killing Jews and systematically killing Poles.

All to say I’m sympathetic to Poles who get very upset about the term Polish concentration camps. They really were German concentration camps on occupied Poland territory. I don’t need to be an apologist or explainer of that, but I’m not sure of the connection of those two places, really.

“The Return” makes its world premiere at the Margaret Mead Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on October 25. This is followed by two screenings at DOC NYC at the IFC Center on November 18 and 20. After that, it will continue a festival run around the globe. Check the film’s website to see if it is coming to your town.

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