THE STORY OF THE KOWALSKI FAMILY

Łucja Koch, 21st October 2009
On 20 October, a fictionalised documentary called The Story of the Kowalski Family (dir. Arkadiusz Gołębiewski and Maciej Pawlicki) had its television premiere.

The film presents the story of the Kowalski family from Cieplew near Radom. They were murdered in 1942 for giving shelter to their Jewish neighbours.

Adam and Bronisława Kowalski were hiding Elka Cukier and Berek Pineches. On 6 December 1942, German military police entered their house and the houses of other inhabitants of Cieplew under suspicion of hiding Jews. The Nazi burned 34 people alive, including the Kowalskis and their five children.

The film is based on the testimonies of eye witnesses of the tragedy, family members and neighbours of the murdered, as well as on the script written by the directors.

It was realised as a part of the “Life for life”programme of the Institute of National Remembrance and the Polish National Centre for Culture, which focuses on Poles who rescued Jews during the occupation. The film was co-produced by Telewizja Polska.

The film will be aired on Sunday, 25 October, at 6pm on the TVP2 channel.

Review

The Story of the Kowalski Family moulds together two different films – on one hand, we have an important documentary and the testimonies of those who witnessed the events happening in Ciepielew; on the other, we have fictionalised scenes that have nothing to do with the testimonies.

The documentary part of the film is truly moving. Simple people say that the relations between Jews and Poles had always been difficult, even before the war, but somehow the two groups managed to live beside one another. “A Mosiek was like “our” Jew” – says an old man with watery eyes. An old woman talks about how children – for instance her friends – would destroy Jewish property, sacred items and how it used to make her laugh, even though they should have “cried a river” about it.

I was shocked by the testimonies of those who witnessed the tragedy of the Kowalski family and by the story of their little daughter Helenka, who returned to a house burned to the ground.

For this village and for these people the past is an open, painful wound.

The disappearance of Jews left them with a sense of void which they cannot quite fill.

The descriptions of the extermination of Jews – acquaintances, friends, neighbours – are still desperate, even after so many years. The film's indelible value is that it commemorates those events and those people.

Unfortunately, the fictionalised fragments feel incredibly inauthentic and biased. The relations between Jews and Poles before the war are idealised – take, for example, the scene where Polish and Jewish girls take a bath in the river.

This idyllic image is disrupted by elements yielding to the negative stereotype of a Jew, distant and obsessed with money. For instance: the scene from 1937, when people of Ciepielew find out about the discrimination of Jews in the Third Reich. Five elders of the Jewish community debate whether they should leave Poland, but eventually they decide to stay because Poland is a good country. At the end of the meeting, one of the elders says that Poles do not approve of Jews taking over trade but they “still buy from us.”

Next, we see a scene from September 1939, when the mayor enters the local synagogue with a standard and a group of young violinists. The rabbi talks at length about how much Jews owe to Poland, how Casimir the Great took them in when the West wouldn't, how great the Constitution of 3 May was and how welcome they feel here. Afterwards, the rabbi and the mayor sing the Polish anthem in unison. The scene is supposed to convey Jewish loyalty to Poles, but it feels forced and creates the impression that Jews living in Poland are nothing but “grateful guests.”

After the Germans enter the village and brutally assault and murder people, a council of elders is convened once again. The local shop owner proposes to bribe Germans so that they leave Jews alone. The rabbi asks: “If it was the other way round and you could face death for helping the Goyim, would you help them?” The shop owner doesn't answer, but the answer is presumed to be obvious.

Ciepielew looks at the mass murders of Jews with compassion. The parish priest helps them by issuing fake certificates of baptism. Village women teach them how to pray.

There is only one anti-Semite in the town. Before the war, he tried to incite a boycott of Jewish shops (for which he was scolded by the protagonist) and now, he can potentially become a denouncer.

The very act of hiding Jews is barely shown. The shop owner says that he will pay for shelter, but other than that, the financial and other aspects of the issue are completely ignored.

The film does not give any information on the situation around Ciepielew, described in the book The Price of Sacrifice by Jacek Młynarski and Sebastian Piątkowski – about the activity of communist and Jewish partisans and about German counter attacks. Th real context of the tragedy of Ciepielew is replaced by the biased fictionalised fragments; they lack believability and make it impossible to understand the motivations of the characters.

The film overestimates the number of Poles helping Jews during the war (according to the statistics at the end of the film: between 500,000 and a million Poles; according to researchers: no more than 200,000).

Łucja Koch