The Return of the Stranger

By Joanna Mytkowska, 2012

When Yael Bartana first came to Poland, the country was embarking upon a national debate about the memory of the Holocaust. The very idea that there was a need to revisit this wartime past was deeply contentious. Jan T Gross's Neighbours (2000), which recounted the story of the inhabitants of the small village of Jedwabne who burnt their Jewish neighbours alive during a pogrom in 1941, forced readers to face the traumatic revelation that Poles were not always the victims or heroes of the resistance; frequently they were witnesses or even collaborators in the crimes of the Holocaust. [1] For the first time since the war, a discussion about guilt — individual and collective — was initiated. Painful and heated, the argument stirred up old demons, awakening suppressed memories that opened up old wounds and began to hammer away at the walls of national denial.

Bartana came to Poland with her experience of struggling with life in Israel, where she objects to the state’s discriminatory policies against Palestinians. She brought an understanding of the consequences of such policies, which lead to inevitable double standards — the differential treatment of those who are ‘one of us’ as opposed to those who are ‘one of them’ — thus undermining the essence of democracy. She had already created Profile (2000), a work in which she showed a young woman performing military drills; Trembling Time (2002), her take on the moment of silence for Independence Day in Israel; as well as Wild Seeds (2005), in which she tried to process the experience of removing settlers from the West Bank. In Poland, she decided to tackle the strained Polish-Jewish relations, nascent antisemitism and the roots of the Israeli state, whose founders were largely of Polish descent. The burden of both the Polish and the Israeli trauma was so great that the verdict of history seemed irreversible. The whole subject matter threatened to be either too monumental or too pompous and, therefore, banal. It seemed to be dead and closed, offering nothing but the potential for compulsive repetition. But illumination came — when Bartana decided to delve into the trauma, to take it on and accept it to a certain degree, believing that in time she would be able to achieve a level of freedom that would enable her to imagine alternative scenarios.

The experience of And Europe Will Be Stunned is reminiscent of the therapeutic process, and, like a dream interpreted, the work gradually reveals layers of latent meaning. The complex narrative evokes conflicting associations, ideas and desires that are not easily resolved; it is a study in exposure, revealing the symptoms of a trauma that has not yet been worked through. The trilogy succeeds in creating the atmosphere of an oppressive nightmare through constant reference to familiar matters narrated through a discredited propagandist language which is subversively twisted and distorted.

The title of the first film, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), hints at
the themes that unravel in the subsequent two parts: mary is Polish for
‘bier’, the platform on which the bodies of the dead are laid out; koszmaris a Polish word borrowed from the French cauchemar for ‘nightmare’, which breaks down into the Picard word cauche for ‘press’ and mare (perhaps from the Latin root mors or ‘death’) which is the name of the female demon that afflicts sleepers in Germanic folklore. The action is set amid the ruins of the Decennial Stadium built in Warsaw in 1955 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the communist state. The remains of the stadium recall the ancien régime’s most exquisite propaganda shows. A young speaker marches into the arena, a character both fictional and real, modelled on a communist activist from the 1950s, but who is in fact the leader of today’s Polish New Left, Sławomir Sierakowski. [2]  Filmed in the style of classical propaganda, he delivers to the empty stands a speech he has written, in collaboration with another well-known writer and left-wing activist, Kinga Dunin. Thus the viewer watches both cinematic fiction and a compilation of the authors’ actual views. This delegation of various elements of the narrative into the hands of real people is one of the most effective techniques in the film’s production of a complex field of meaning.

We hear incantations never normally uttered, because they would be impossible to fulfil: ‘Jews, fellow Poles, we entreat you, return!’ Sierakowski exhorts, pleads with and encourages Jews to return to Poland. In the background we see the slogan ‘3.3 million Jews can change the life of 40 million Poles’. His oration is insistently persuasive, raising the ghosts of the dead and thrusting them among the living. We are not quite sure who is to return — the ghosts of those who died? Their offspring? — or who is to help us become Europeans. References to Catholic and communist propaganda are superimposed onto European Newspeak. We have here the deconstruction of one of the darkest and most persistent figures from the Polish collective unconscious — the return of the stranger, the Jew. The film proceeds by inversion — planting images and idioms from the language of propaganda that we expect to incite hatred, only then to communicate a positive message of reconciliation in the name of a shared future.

Mary Koszmary strikes right at the heart of the debate around Poland’s past. Now, perhaps more than ever, Poles are aware that they live in the shadow of the Holocaust. Historical facts are subtly suggested by Bartana, through allusions to striking images or poems from Poland’s collective imagination, such as pillow feathers spilling through the air, a sight typically associated with round-ups, arrests, deportations and pogroms. The image, preserved in Zuzanna Ginczanka’s wartime poem, ‘Non omnis moriar’, will forever be linked to the Holocaust, like the red-headed teenager Rifke, running naked through urban ruins in Władysław Broniewski’s ‘Ballads and Romances’. [3] These are our national biers and our bad dreams. The knowledge of what happened to our Polish Jews has for decades been suppressed. The common view that they were taken and killed in the concentration camps by the Nazis is now being refuted, in the face of much resistance, through testimonies of Polish indifference, passivity and, in the extreme, collaboration with the Nazis.

The jarring juxtaposition of a Stalin-era setting with the young standard-bearer of the Polish left is one more unsettling obstacle we need to negotiate in order to look into the future. The Decennial Stadium is remembered by Poles as the site of a heroic protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets and fellow socialist states — including Poland — and the self-immolation of Ryszard Siwiec. [4] This association opens up yet another stratum of unconscious fears, the Polish 1968, when an orchestrated antisemitic campaign overshadowed the springtime of struggle for emancipation within a communist state. This merging of antisemitic prejudices with anti-communist ones seemingly continues to hold the collective imagination of Poles in its oppressive grip.

The acknowledgement of what has happened, the acceptance of that knowledge and the working through of that trauma are the only way of healing, of expelling the persistent fears that have taken root in the many Polish towns from which Jewish neighbours disappeared, and in the many Polish minds that remain unable to free themselves from the shadow of the communist past — or so psychologists believe. This process, however, is not helped by the position of the Catholic Church, which remains unsympathetic to such a discussion; by the national myths of Polish martyrdom in wartime; by a nationalism fuelled by frustration; or by the ordinary human reluctance to admit guilt or blame. There is not much hope for change in these attitudes, or so claimed Marek Edelman, who as the legendary leader of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 was amongst those most entitled to speak about such issues. [5]

‘No doubt the best method of capturing the essence of an epoch is to focus not on its explicit features — the social and ideological edifices that define it — but on the dispelled ghosts that haunt it, dwelling in a mysterious region of nonexistent entities which none the less persist, continuing to exert their efficacy’, Slavoj Zizek has written in a foreword to the Polish edition of The Plague of Fantasies. [6] Mary Koszmaryshows us the power of Polish ghosts of the past. The film has the effect of dispelling these nightmares; by showing them in the light of day, it strives to strip them of their force. Though this may sound like pathos, Bartana’s film operates like the ghost-raising ritual described by Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, in his classic play Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve), only conducted in the language of modern psychoanalysis.

Bartana performs an analysis of the Polish mentality and the Polish nightmare. Her studies of propaganda began with Zionism, and the films of Helmar Lerski which were commissioned by the Jewish National Fund to encourage Jews to settle in Palestine. The artist used Lerski’s film Âvodah (1935) as a source for her work Summer Camp(2007), which tells the story of a Palestinian house destroyed by the Israeli army and rebuilt by Israeli peace activists, cast as pioneers of the Zionist movement. The same film is referenced by Bartana in the second part of the trilogy — Mur i Wie˙za (Wall and Tower). The pioneers in Bartana’s film — young, beautiful and as passionate about their cause as those of 1930s Palestine — build a kibbutz modelled on an authentic settlement of the time; only now they are doing so in the middle of Warsaw, on the site planned for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The archaic looking settlement is composed of primitive buildings, its basic defence function provided by the wall and tower. But who is it that the settlers want to defend themselves against? Is it the Arabs or maybe the Poles? The romantic fervour has a grotesque cast. A suspicion arises that the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland might suffer from the same stigma as the Zionist project — inevitably leading to an adverse effect of conflict. The simple exercise of reproducing the founding images of Zionism in a contemporary setting forces the viewer to consider the roots of Israel’s current policies. This examination could lead to a final release from the heroic images of the settler, to a revision of the past that would be open to the challenges of today (such as a bi-national state), which call for new founding myths no longer based on fear and violence.

The third part of Yael Bartana’s trilogy is titled Zamach (Assassination). The footage follows the funeral of the leader of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, whom the artist decides to have killed (in an assault of which we only hear) so that, following suit to so many before him, he can become mythologized through death. In this film, the artist once again uses the technique of including real people. There are Zionists, such as Yaron London, who oppose the vision of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, claiming that Jews belong in Israel; there are Jews who were expelled from Poland in 1968; and there are also those who have stayed. [7] The funeral ceremony is attended by a multicultural crowd. The seemingly new element to the trilogy is the challenge to the notion of national identity or, more generally, to the idea of belonging to a particular state. What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to be a citizen of the state of Israel? What does it mean to be a Pole? Is it possible to imagine a contemporary Europe and a contemporary world if countries remain enthralled by national myths? This is the challenge facing Polish society as it begins to work through the past, and it is still unclear how well it will manage the new ethnic and cultural minorities or the new global challenges. The same question applies to Israel — is it possible to depart from the policy of discrimination and master the threat by means other than military?

Somewhere in the crowd there is another presence too — the ghost of Rifke introduced in Mary Koszmary, reappears and approaches the stage. She may only be a phantom but she still evokes much fear. The equilibrium between fiction and reality, ghosts and living people, is one of the greatest artistic achievements of this trilogy. We do not really know whether the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland is a genuine party (even if it is to convene at a congress in Berlin in 2012) or whether it is a political hallucination. It is in films, after all, that fiction constantly mixes with reality, the living with ghosts, and facts with fables. This is a process akin to the activity of the collective unconscious, where imaginings and fantasies can be forged into actions. Bartana emphatically suggests that politics and history are still governed by the myths made up ‘once upon a time’ — tempting new ones to be made on the model of the old. Although Bartana’s work produces a certain anxiety, forcing you to confront your contradictory feelings about the subject matter, it also retains the persuasive effect of real propaganda. We — or at least some of us — are willing to listen to it and let ourselves be lured. As much as it recalls our shamefully hidden complexes and digs into the painful wounds of suppressed guilt, it also gives us the promise of an illusory catharsis. It is a promise that our faults may be erased and that a common future is possible. ‘We can fly to the moon together, if you want’, the new dictator in the first part of the trilogy tries to convince his listeners. This is where the most extraordinary element of the work lies: that though built of imperfect parts and immersed in dark associations, the trilogy also offers a different language and the prospect of a fresh discussion about the future.

And Europe Will Be Stunned was created in rhythm with the changes that have shaken the Polish mentality over the past ten years. The pace of Bartana’s project sometimes ran ahead of and sometimes followed on from changes that were already afoot. The artist has watched the process of a country grappling with its own provincialism, struggling to emerge from the cocoon of its own over-mythologized history. The trilogy is a testament to this process, revealing its own mechanisms while shedding light on a murky social subconscious.

1. Jan T Gross, Neighbours: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). 

2. Sławomir Sierakowski (born 1979) is a journalist and sociologist, the founderand editor-in-chief of the review Krytyka Polityczna. Sierakowski has gained a wide-ranging audience of students, journalists, literary and theatre critics, artists and social activists around his publication, making it the most intellectually significant institution of the Polish New Left. 

3. Zuzanna Ginczanka, ‘Non omnis moriar’ (c. 1942); Władysław Broniewski, ‘Ballads and Romances’ (1945).

4. Ryszard Siwiec (1909–1968) was a soldier in the Polish Home Army, a philosopher and accountant from Przemysl. On 8 September 1968, in protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, he performed a self-immolation in Warsaw’s Decennial Stadium in the presence of the leadership of the Polish communist Party, diplomats and 100,000 spectators.

5. Marek Edelman (1922–2009) was a Polish Jewish political and social activist, who fought with the undergound People’s Army during the Warsaw Rising in 1944, was a member of the anti-communist opposition in the Polish People’s Republic and was knighted in the Order of the White Eagle. 

6 Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (Wrocław, 2001). 

7.Yaron London (born 1940) is an Israeli journalist and active participant in publicdebates about Zionism.