Often, the dead are more alive than the living.
It was April 1977, a few months before my bar mitzvah.
My father drove me from Riverdale into Manhattan. My goal was to find out the fate of the Jews of Pinsk. Actually, my father’s parents hailed from Motele, a village in Belarus that is only remarkable for being the birthplace of Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann.
But Motele was near Pinsk, a city with a large Jewish population before World War II. While I had already known from the Encyclopedia Judaica that the Jews of Pinsk were murdered by the Nazi mobile killing units, I had a keen interest in tracing my family’s roots and wanted to discover the individual stories of my family that I had not gleaned from discussions with relatives.
Most of my father’s family left Europe long before the deluge.
But what was the story of more distant relations? What was the fate of the Jews of Motele? The logical place to turn for answers was YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute. I had already submitted brief queries in writing to the institute regarding the origins of both sides of my family.
Now I wanted to peruse the Memorial Book of Pinsk to try to find names of murdered family. I forget whether the Yizkor book was in Hebrew or Yiddish. I found many of the dead with the name “Plotnik,” my paternal grandmother’s maiden name, but found only two “Kavon” names, Sarah and Abraham. Had I been older and wiser I would have gone directly to the sources regarding the Motele shtetl. Perhaps I would have gleaned more information there. Weizmann’s autobiography, Trial and Error, was able to provide me with a picture of my grandparent’s world in the Pale of Settlement.
All the while, I had no idea that murderers of Jews in cities like Pinsk and villages like Motele were actually living as American citizens across the river from me in New Jersey.
And they were not German. I will return to that story in a moment.
Ten weeks ago, Menemsha Films contacted me to screen the film company’s latest offering, Aftermath.
I was one of a number of rabbis in Palm Beach County in Florida who were asked to speak after showing of the Polish film.
My wife and I watched this powerful film at a movie theater in Delray Beach. I returned on my own on two occasions to Movies of Delray to watch the film again and to discuss this important movie with the audience. Aftermath, written and directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, tells the story of two Polish brothers who, together and almost against their will, uncover the dark secret regarding the local Jews – presumably murdered by the Nazi occupiers during WWII – that haunts their native village.
Franciszek Kalina, estranged from his family for decades and who lives in Chicago, returns to Poland to find out why his brother Jozef has been abandoned by wife and family. The film’s tension builds as the estranged brother learns that his farmer brother has been rescuing Jewish tombstones from the village cemetery that the Germans used to pave a road. This leads to the mystery that the brothers unravel concerning the fate of the town’s Jews. Maciej Stuhr delivers a powerful performance as Jozef and he has been the focus of anti-Semitic slurs and death threats in Poland although he is not a Jew. But the performance that drives Aftermath is that of Polish film and stage actor Ireneusz Czop. His portrayal of estranged brother Franciszek is understated and brilliant.
The character he portrays is not sympathetic or heroic – and is no friend of the “Yids” that he has encountered back in Chicago. Franciszek’s quest is not one carried out because he loves Jews. He is a man on the search for the truth. And the truth he discovers about the town and his family’s role in the destruction of the Jews is very ugly. Czop’s tense and riveting performance reminded me of actor Zbigniew Cybulski in one of Poland’s cinematic masterpieces, Ashes and Diamonds, directed by legendary filmmaker Andrej Wajda. Even with English subtitles, the performances of all of Pasikowski’s actors portray a stark reality of evil and courage that the best films can convey to an audience.
It took great courage to make this film and act in this film. Pasikowski’s story of the brothers, while fictional, is based on Neighbors, historian Jan Gross’ 2001 study of how Poles murdered their Jewish neighbors in two villages in Poland in World War II, without the participation of the German occupiers.
The original study and the movie upon which it is based have been the center of controversy, especially in Poland. Pasikowski’s film serves as a great modern myth that represents the reawakening of Poland to the reality that Poles were not just victims of Nazi occupation, not just bystanders to the murder of Jews – but even killers themselves, driven by a long history of hatred of Jews as murderers of Christ.
But the aftermath of the film’s title is not only how Poles will deal with an ugly legacy of Jew hatred. Nor is it a just a wake-up call to Europeans from Vichy France to Ukraine to Hungary regarding denial of their own complicity in the murder of Jews in the Shoah.
The aftermath of a Holocaust legacy must be addressed by my beloved nation, America. This takes me back to the spring of 1977 and my journey to YIVO.
Five years after my bar-mitzvah, Knopf published The Belarus Secret by John Loftus. At the time, Loftus had just served as a trial attorney for the US Justice Department Office of Special Investigations and was in private practice. His book is a shocking revelation of how a secret section of the US State Department actively recruited former Nazi collaborators from Belarus as anti-Stalinist partisans fighting the Cold War in the period following World War II. After the clandestine operation was infiltrated by the Soviets, the FBI continued to protect men with the blood of thousands of Jews on their hands – and these collaborators became US citizens.
Radislaw Ostrowsky, the highest ranking Nazi ever to receive American citizenship, served as president of a puppet government of the Germans during the war. His tombstone in a New Jersey cemetery modestly celebrates his service to Belarus. He is buried in this graveyard with his fellow Nazi collaborators – most of them died in bed as US citizens and were never brought to justice. These men lived across the river from me. I did not know that at the time I was looking through the memorial book of those they assisted in murdering.
America, in its legitimate fight against repressive Communism embodied in Stalinist tyranny, forfeited its moral duty to bring Nazis to justice. That was due to the reality of power politics. Realpolitik stifled justice. That is the aftermath of World War II that we must confront as Americans.
As for the dead and murdered, their blood continues to cry out to God – and to a civilized world that must confront its demons and its past.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.