This article originally appeared on Haaretz and is reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to receive Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter in your inbox.
The Polish Film Institute has asked for its funding for an Israeli-directed documentary to be returned – or for parts of the film to be censored – because experts on the film said it was rare for Poles to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
The flare-up of Barak Heymann’s film High Maintenance, about Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan, follows a crisis between Israel and Poland over the role of Poles in the persecution of Jews in World War II.
The institute was particularly opposed to the portrayal of complexity in the documentation surrounding Karavan’s planned construction of a Warsaw memorial to the Polish “Righteous Among the Nations” — Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. People interviewed in the film, including senior Israeli historians, said the memorial may present a distorted narrative that says many Poles saved Jews in the Holocaust, when in fact the opposite was true.
The institute wrote in a letter to Haaretz that this part of the film was “obviously inconsistent with historical facts” and needed to be removed, saying the treatment of the subject did not contribute to the Polish-Israeli dialogue the film says it was : “should serve.”
“This not-so-smart fragment… could instead be contributing to a conflict between our countries,” it said.
Heymann said: “I’m afraid the film institute got a bit confused. I’m an independent filmmaker. My film was never intended to “serve the Polish-Israeli dialogue” and I work for neither government. It is sad, upsetting and scary what is happening there.”
Heymann’s award-winning film, which has been screened internationally, accompanies Karavan, who died last year at the age of 90, on his final visits to some of his dozens of works in Israel and abroad.
In a scene in which he discusses Karavan’s plans for Poland’s Righteous Among the Nations Memorial in Warsaw, Polish-Jewish journalist Konstanty Gebert says: “There is a growing movement in the new government that recognizes that the Righteous Among the Nations represented the behavior of all Poles during World War II. This is a historical distortion. Righteous Among the Nations were a minority. The people they were afraid of weren’t the Germans, but their Polish neighbors who they gave up to the Germans.”
Heymann says the director of the Polish Film Institute, Radoslaw Smigulski, told him earlier this year the statement was “a foolish statement by one of the big haters of Poland, Herr Gebert”.
The Holocaust researcher Dr. Yehuda Bauer also emphasized the small number of Polish Righteous Among the Nations. He took the number of such people recognized by the Holocaust Memorial and Museum Yad Vashem – about 7,000 – and said that even if we multiply that number by a multiple, the number of Poles who saved Jews in the Holocaust, would reach 100,000. Then there would be about 21 million Poles who would not do this.
Heymann says Smigulski, in a confrontation with him, called this “a stupid calculation” and said it suggested there were 100,000 good Poles and the rest were Jew killers. Heymann says he replied that no one in the film claims that, to which Smigulski replied, “You don’t understand your film. Much luck. You can do whatever you want. You have freedom of expression – but without the institute.”
In another scene in the film, Dr. Dina Porat, Yad Vashem’s former chief historian, told Karavan that “this is not the right time to erect this monument,” adding that “it doesn’t do well on a Jewish, historical, or national level.” She said: “You, an Israeli and a Jew, will give a seal of approval to one of the elements the Polish government is pumping up – that a large number of them saved Jews.”
Karavan himself responds to such criticism in the film by saying that the monument should help the world “remember these brave people”. He said: “For me, these people were superheroes. You’re putting your whole family, your children, at risk. It’s amazing. Because of that, I think what we are doing here is very important.”
But he also said he understood the arguments against the memorial. “I will not forgive myself for even mentioning it if they are using my work to absolve the Poles – some of them, not all – of the crimes they have committed,” he said.
“I’d rather give up the money”
Heymann said he sent the film to the Polish Film Institute before the premiere, but “they didn’t bother to look at it”. He said they finally agreed to see it when he told them it would be shown at several festivals – and it was at this point that the Institute initially expressed its objections to the film, saying it would be screened under his auspices not approve.
After that, Heymann made a few changes in the film “to calm them down” – for example by shortening some statements by Bauer and Gebert. He then flew to Warsaw to show Smigulski the edited film and “to look for a creative and amicable solution together”. But half an hour into the film, “Smigulski got up in a rage, got angry and stopped the showing,” Heymann said. “He said the film was unacceptable, that it rewrote history, that it made absurd claims about Poles and even showed understanding for Germans.”
Last month came the official request from the state-run Polish Film Institute to repay the subsidy with an additional 10 percent for “non-compliance with the agreement”. In response to this demand, the institute said in its statement: “It was the Polish manufacturer 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 zlotys (about 188,000 Israeli shekels or US$54,000) to the making of the film, and Heymann said he returned 90 percent of that to the institute.
“I’ve worked on about 30 films over the past 20 years,” said Heymann. “This is the first time that changes have been asked of me for political reasons. I have never seen such a case, either in Israel or abroad. I’d rather give up Polish money than my integrity. I would rather be hurt financially than be spineless at some 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 Israel Public Broadcasting; the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts; the national lottery Mifal HaPais; Arta Israel; and Swedish, Canadian and Dutch television.
The Polish Film Institute said in its statement that it initially had “great enthusiasm” at the prospect of co-financing the documentary. The institute’s director is a “big fan” of Karavan, adding that the institute remains willing to co-finance a film about him.
The dispute over the film takes place against the background of revived relations between Israel and Poland.
Last week, the two countries’ presidents, Isaac Herzog and Andrzej Duda, said relations between them had been “put back on track”, including the appointment of ambassadors. The previous conflict had revolved around a series of Polish laws, government decisions and official statements that had caused a stir among senior Israelis in recent years.
Some of these were directly related to the topic treated in Heymann’s film – the debate about Poles’ involvement in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust.