THE BLOG

'Ida' and False Controversy

03/02/2015 04:14 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

"Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind." -- Albert Eisenstein

I would like to make a distinction between two terms -- terms that are often used interchangeably, but in actuality, while connected in some ways, stand as unique and separate from one another. The terms are "patriot" and "nationalist" with their corresponding concepts of "patriotic" and "nationalistic."

A "patriot" according to my copy of Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary is:

  1. "a person who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests;" and
  2. a person who regards himself or herself as a defender, especially of individual rights against presumed interference by the federal government."

A "nationalist," according to my dictionary is 1. "a person who has devotion and loyalty to one's own nation;" and 2. "a person who has [and here we see the crucial difference] excessive patriotism or chauvinism, which is a zealous and aggressive patriotism or enthusiasm for military glory, a biased devotion to any group, attitude, or cause."

I perceive many people in the category of "nationalism" failing to acknowledge the complexity of their nations' histories, especially as it relates to the more negative and reprehensible actions and political concepts followed in the past.

For example, recently former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani questioned President Obama's love of country. Guiliani believes that the United States is "the most exceptional country in the world," but he "never felt that [coming] from [Obama]" even though the president announced the country's exceptionality in front of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013.

Similarly, since the release of the Polish film Ida in 2014, which garnered the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year, controversy has followed with some critics claiming that it projects the Polish people in a bad light. Some even assert that the film is anti-Polish.

The scene is the early 1960s in Soviet-dominated Poland as a young woman, Ida, is about to take her vows as a Catholic nun at the convent where she was abandoned as an infant and raised. She is visited by a previously unknown aunt, Wanda Gruz, who informed her that she is Jewish. Throughout the film, Ida and Wanda attempt to discover what happened to Ida's mother Roza (Wanda's sister), father Haim Lebenstein, and little brother during World War II. They eventually visit Wanda and Roza's family farm, which is now "owned" by another family.

Under the condition that Wanda and Ida legally relinquish the property to the current occupant, the farmer admits that he killed the family and stole their land. He brought the infant Ida to live with the nuns since she was fair-skinned and did not look Jewish. (One needs to have merely a basic knowledge of the Nazi persecution to understand that their anti-Jewish laws made it a criminal offense to aid Jews.) The farmer took Ida and Wanda to the site where he buried the family in the woods. Ida decides later to return to the convent.

Major criticism of the film centers on the notion that though some Poles did, in fact, rob and kill Jewish people before, during, and following the war, some current-day Poles would like to have seen, instead, a profile of Polish Catholic rescuers hiding and saving Jews, as some did during the war as well. This seems like arguing that instead of showing the brutality and barbarism in Twelve Years a Slave, the filmmakers should have concentrated on white people who served as conductors on the Underground Railroad. There is a time and place for all perspectives in film, but to deny the bad and the ugly distorts the truth.

I know personally the disparate and checkered history of Poland in terms of its Jewish population. While some, indeed, did serve among the righteous, many others were complicit in the Nazi horrors.

In my ancestral home of Krosno, farmers Jakub and Zofia Gargasz who practiced the Seventh Day Adventist faith, risked their own lives to shelter from Nazi troops and to nurse back to health a Jewish woman, Henia Katz, and her daughter. A neighbor, though, betrayed them, and Jakub, Zofia, Henia, and her daughter were arrested and sentenced to death on 26 April 1944. At the trial, Zofia affirmed that she and her husband took this courageous action motivated by their religious faith. Hans Frank, the governor of the occupied Central Polish government decided to commute the death sentences to incarceration in a concentration camp. Jakub and Zofia survived the camp, which was liberated by the Allies. Henia and her daughter did not survive.

I recently read my friend Alexander Białywłos-White's book on my way to Krosno last summer where he was going to be speaking to the residents. From Krosno, he survived the Nazi horrors as a 16-year-old on Oskar Schlinder's "list." While reading the book on the plane flight, I had a profound shock and surprise. On page 92 of his book, Holocaust Memoirs: Be a Mensch. A Father's Legacy, he wrote:

The story of my own cousin, Malka Fruhman, is perhaps typical of the fearful treachery of those days, when it seemed that qualities like trust ceased to have meaning. A [non-Jewish] friend promised to hide Malka, but this 'friend' instead turned Malka over to the Gestapo, who shot her without compunction. Many years later, Malka's brother told me that Malka's boyfriend, a man named Trenczer, located the traitorous friend in Krosno after the war, and avenged my cousin's death.

As I read these words, chills stung my entire body because I knew that I am most certainly related to this "Trenczer." My Krosno-born Great-Grandmother's name was Bascha Trenczer. I informed Alexander about this, and he asked me to tell him what I know about the Trenczers of Krosno. He did not realize that Bascher, whom he knew, was a Trenczer.

I asked Alexander to tell me more about this story. Evidently, Malka's boyfriend, our Trenczer relative, was in the Polish army and fled east following the Nazi invasion. After the war, he investigated Malka's death, and he found the women who had betrayed her. He walked up to her and shot a bullet into her head instantly killing her. As someone who opposes the death penalty, I surprised myself when I felt a sense of righteous relief upon hearing how he "avenged [Alexander's] cousin's death."

Since his liberation by allied forces, Alexander has come back to Krosno three or four times with his wife and son, and they have generally been welcomed back enthusiastically by Polish residents. However, he returned immediately following his release to locate possible family members who might also have survived. He walked to the house owned by his parents where he grew up, but Polish people soon confiscated it once the Nazis evicted Alexander and his relatives. Talking then with the current residents, one angrily quipped to Alexander: "Oh, we thought you would be dead by now and the Nazis had made you into soap." He knew he could no longer live in Krosno.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is still alive and well in Poland, but I see bright patches. Some Poles experience their homeland culture as diminished and currently not as rich and vibrant with so few Jews remaining in Poland, from approximately three million before the Nazi invasion to about only ten thousand today.

No Jews have resided in Krosno or in the surrounding Subcarpathian region of southeastern Poland since the 1940s. Since then, a dynamic tension has developed between those, especially in many of the older generations, who bask in the monoculturalism evidenced by the longstanding Polish Catholic cultural heritage. Others, though, many in the younger generations born after the war have dedicated themselves to stamp out the hatreds of the past, and have been determined to resurrect Jewish history and Jewish culture, which may make it safer and more welcoming for us one day to return in ever increasing numbers; for it is our home too!

Coming back to this concept of "exceptionalism," I believe it represents a tired and dangerous myth that we are taught throughout the nations of the world as soon as we exit the womb. All countries have their strengths and weaknesses. This lie of "exceptionalism," though, separates countries and their residents from people of other nations. Rather than envisioning a country as "exceptional," I would have world leaders promote their countries and act as partners in an interdependent community of great nations.

We can liken history to rose bushes with many beautiful and fragrant blossoms in a wide array of colors and hues. Taken holistically, the bush represents one of the many natural splendors filling our world. If, however, we continually imagine the rose blossom without its thorns, each time we embrace the bloom by the stem, we will come away with bloodied and painfully throbbing hands. Rather than expressing our outrage against the truth tellers who remind us of the razor-sharp protrusions growing alongside the blossoms, we must venerate those perceptive and insightful among us who serve to guide us around the dangers to ensure we do not bloody ourselves again.