A scandal in Ivansk

David Blumenfeld’s documentary reveals Polish ambivalence over Holocaust complicity

MICROCOSM OF a much larger story: Director David Blumenfeld (right) spoke with academics and local Ivansk residents (top) (photo credit: COURTESY DAVID BLUMENFELD)
MICROCOSM OF a much larger story: Director David Blumenfeld (right) spoke with academics and local Ivansk residents (top)
David Blumenfeld’s complex and moving documentary, Scandal in Ivansk, will have its Israeli premiere at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on April 10 at 6:30 p.m., in the presence of the director, to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day (which begins Wednesday night).
It will also be shown on this same date at the Hibba Center at 75 Herzog Street in Jerusalem at 8 p.m. Upcoming screenings include one at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on April 12 at 5:30 p.m., the Haifa Cinematheque on April 13 at 5:30 p.m., and the Kiryat Tivon Library and Memorial Center on April 14 at 11:30 a.m. A screening at the Tikotin Museum in Haifa will be scheduled soon.
Those in the US can see the film at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana on April 19 and on May 10 at the Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival.
Co-directed by Ami Drozd, Scandal in Ivansk tells the story of the attempt by descendants of Jews from this Polish village who were murdered in the Holocaust to restore the Jewish cemetery there and to build a memorial. However, this seemingly straightforward project ended up becoming the focus of controversy and ignited a contentious and often bitter debate over the role of Poles in the killing of their country’s Jews during World War II. This controversy was a harbinger of the Polish government’s passage this past winter of a law that criminalizes any mention of Poles “being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich,” which mandates severe penalties for those who refer to Nazi-era concentration camps such as Auschwitz as “Polish death camps.”
Director Blumenfeld didn’t anticipate this controversy when he began making the film. A photographer, he became involved in the project when he learned that descendants of Jews from Ivansk, the Polish village where his grandfather came from, were returning to restore the Jewish cemetery there. He was inspired to join them when he read of the testimony of a Holocaust- era Jewish resident of Ivansk who described how the Jews were told by their rabbi to bury their Torahs in the cemetery the day before they were deported to concentration camps. The rabbi called on all those who might survive to come back and dig out the Torah scrolls – and tell the world what the Germans did to the Jews there, with the help of the Poles.
Blumenfeld and the other volunteers were able to clear the unmarked land where the Jewish cemetery stood. They also managed to locate hundreds of gravestones that were taken by the local residents after the deportations and used for all kinds of purposes: to build fences, public toilets, libraries and every other kind of structure imaginable. Much of the film details their search for these stones and how the locals react to their search and the entire project. Many have positive memories of their Jewish neighbors, although they admit that the Jews’ possessions, property and even gravestones were quickly taken by their neighbors once the Jews were sent to the camps.
These Poles mostly see this as merely an acceptable appropriation, but their detailed memories of often close friendships with their Jewish neighbors reveal mixed feelings, and some Polish residents admit to feeling that an injustice was done. In one of the most fascinating scenes in the film, an elderly man who has saved a Jewish headstone in his home tries to negotiate a fee for returning it to one of the volunteers. The man seems to have some stirrings of conscience as the volunteer tells him firmly that the stone is not his to sell, as one of the man’s younger relatives tries to force him to end the interview, saying “there is no way to tell how it will be used.”
The controversy began just as the story should have been ending, when there was a ceremony marking the placement of a memorial to the Jews of Ivansk. The inscription on the memorial included these words: “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,” precisely what the rabbi had asked the survivors to tell the world. But the use of the word “collaborators” sparked a national outcry in Poland, where, as several historians explain, people can’t accept the fact that Poles of that era were anything but noble resistance fighters and tragic victims.
While no one involved was disputing the fact that millions of non-Jewish Poles were killed by the Nazis, those who cleared the cemetery and erected the memorial had no intention of glossing over the fact that all but 380,000 of the 3.3 million Polish Jews who lived in Poland before the war were murdered by the Germans, but often with the help of the Poles. The wording on the monument made national news throughout Poland; eventually, a compromise was reached and it was changed.
Blumenfeld wrote in a statement, “The recent salvo between Israel and Poland over new Polish legislation, which makes it essentially illegal to accuse Poles of collaborating with the Nazis, has thrust the topic of memory and the Holocaust into the limelight... I believe what happened in Ivansk is a microcosm of a much larger story of how people and nations sculpt memory in order to fit their identity as victim or hero. As decades of neglect were cut away in the overgrown cemetery, a barren field of missing tombstones was exposed, creating a cinematic metaphor for the revelation of long-hidden secrets on both sides of this story. As I spoke with both academics and local residents, I discovered a complex relationship with many layers. Some preferred to leave their memories hidden underneath the brush, while others realized the need to reconcile with their dark past.
“Today, recent news headlines have brought this battle over collective memory in Poland into the forefront and Scandal in Ivansk offers a discourse over an explosive topic confronting Poland, Europe and the Jewish world today.”
For more information about the film: scandalinivansk.com