Polish Film Institute Rescinds Funding for Movie That Says Most Poles Didn't Save Jews in WWII

The government-run Polish Film Institute called parts of the film 'historically inaccurate' for saying the vast majority of Poles did not save Jews during the Holocaust

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan, as seen in Heymann's film.
The Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan, as seen in Heymann's film.Credit: Lukasz Konopa
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Polish Film Institute demanded the return of its funding for an Israeli-directed documentary – or else that parts of the film be censored – because experts in the film said it was rare for Poles to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The flare-up over Barak Heymann's film "High Maintenance," about Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan, comes on the heels of a crisis between Israel and Poland over the part played by Polish people in the persecution of the Jews during World War II.

The institute was particularly opposed to the documentary's depiction of the complexity around establishing a Warsaw memorial to Polish "Righteous Among the Nations" – Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust – planned by Karavan. People interviewed in the film, including senior Israeli historians, said the memorial might present a distorted narrative that says many Poles saved Jews in the Holocaust, when in reality the opposite was true.

The institute wrote in a letter to Haaretz that this part of the film is “obviously inconsistent with historical facts" and needed to be removed, and said the handling of the issue does not contribute to Polish-Israeli dialogue, which it says the film "was meant to serve."

"This not-so-smart fragment ... could instead contribute to a conflict between our countries," it said.

In response to this, Heymann said, "I’m afraid that the film institute got a bit confused. I am an independent filmmaker. My film was never intended to ‘serve the Polish-Israeli dialogue’ and I do not work for either of the two governments. It’s sad, infuriating and frightening what’s happening there.”

The filmmaker Barak Heymann.Credit: Lorenzo Ferroni

Heymann’s prize-winning and internationally screened film accompanies Karavan, who died last year at age 90, on his last visits to some of the dozens of his works in Israel and abroad.

In one scene, addressing Karavan's plans for the Polish "Righteous Among the Nations" memorial in Warsaw, Polish Jewish journalist Konstanty Gebert says, “There is a growing movement in the new government to recognize Righteous Among the Nations as representing the conduct of all the Poles in World War II. This is a historical distortion. Righteous Among the Nations were a minority. The people they were afraid of were not the Germans, but their Polish neighbors, who gave them up to the Germans.”

Heymann says the director of the Polish Film Institute, Radoslaw Smigulski, told him earlier this year that the statement was “a foolish declaration by one of the great haters of Poland, Mr. Gebert."

Holocaust scholar Dr. Yehuda Bauer, also interviewed in the film, likewise emphasized the small the number of Polish Righteous Among the Nations. He took the number of such people recognized by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum – about 7,000 – and said that even if we multiply that figure by several times, the number of Poles who saved Jews in the Holocaust would reach 100,000. That would leave some 21 million Poles who did not do so.

Heymann says Smigulski called this “a foolish calculation” in a confrontation with him, and said that it hints there were 100,000 good Poles and that the rest were murderers of Jews. Heymann says he responded that no one claims this in the film, to which he says Smigulski retorted, “You don’t understand your film. Good luck. You can do anything you want. You have freedom of speech – but without the institute.”

In another scene in the film, Dr. Dina Porat, former chief historian of Yad Vashem, tells Karavan that "this is not the right time to establish this memorial,” adding that “it doesn’t sit well on a Jewish, historical or national level.” She said, “You, an Israeli and a Jew, will be giving a seal of approval to one of the elements that the Polish government is pumping up – that huge numbers of them saved Jews.”

Karavan himself responds in the film to such criticism, saying that the memorial was intended to help the world “remember these courageous people.” He said, “For me these people were superheroes. You put your whole family at risk, your children. It’s simply unbelievable. Because of this I believe that what we are doing here is very important.”

Yet he also said he understood the arguments against the memorial. “I won’t forgive myself for going into this at all if they use my work to clear the Poles – some of them, not all of them – from the crimes they committed," he said.

Director of the Polish Film Institute Radoslaw Smigulski.Credit: Anka Górajka

'I'd rather give up the money'

Heymann said he sent the film to the Polish Film Institute before it premiered, but that “they didn’t bother watching it.” He says they ultimately agreed to view it when he told them it would be shown at a number of festivals – and at that point the institute first expressed its objections to the film and said that it would not approve screening it under its aegis.

After that, Heymann made a few changes in the film “to put them at ease" – for instance, by cutting some of Bauer and Gebert's statements. He then flew to Warsaw to show the edited film to Smigulski, and to “look for a creative and mutually agreed-upon solution together.” But a half-hour into the film, Smigulski “got up in anger, went into a rage, and stopped the screening,” Heymann said. “He said the film is unacceptable, that it's rewriting history, that it makes absurd claims about Poles and even shows understanding toward Germans."

Last month came the official demand from the government-run Polish Film Institute to return the funding, with an additional 10 percent, due to "non-compliance with the agreement." As to this demand, the institute said in its statement, “It was the Polish producer who asked about the possibility of withdrawing from the contract. The Institute agreed with great regret."

According to the contract, the institute had contributed 256,000 Polish zloty (about 188,000 Israeli shekels, or $54,000) to the making of the film, and Heymann says he returned 90 percent of it back to the institute.

“I have worked on around 30 films over the past 20 years," Heymann said. "This is the first time changes have been demanded from me for political reasons. I have never encountered a case like this, not in Israel and not abroad. I’d rather give up the money from the Poles than my integrity. I'd rather be hurt financially than to be spineless on a basic level of ethics and political and social conscience.”

Heymann said the film was budgeted at more than 1 million shekels, and was also funded by Israeli Public Broadcasting; the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts; the Mifal HaPais national lottery; Arta Israel; and Swedish, Canadian and Dutch television.

The Polish Film Institute said in its statement that it had initially had "great enthusiasm" for the prospect of co-financing the documentary. It noted that the institute's director is a "great fan" of Karavan, adding that the institute remains willing to co-finance a film about him.

The spat over the film comes against a backdrop of revived relations between Israel and Poland.

Last week the presidents of the two countries, Isaac Herzog and Andrzej Duda, declared that ties between them had been restored “to their proper course,” including the appointment of ambassadors. The preceding conflict had revolved around a series of Polish laws, government decisions and official statements that had raised hackles among senior Israelis in recent years.

Some of these were directly associated with the subject presented in Heymann’s film – the debate over the involvement of Poles in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust.

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