A Surrealistic Film Tackles the Ghosts of Poland’s Jewish Past

Sept. 12 2016

The recent Polish-language film Demon, a joint Polish-Israeli production loosely inspired by S. An-Sky’s classic play the The Dybbuk, tells the story of a foreigner named Python who comes to his Polish fiancée’s hometown for their wedding. (The two met while living in Britain.) Upon arriving, he discovers, or believes he discovers, human remains on the estate of his father-in-law-to-be, and is subsequently possessed by the spirit of a local Jewish woman killed during World War II, possibly on the day of her own wedding. J. Hoberman writes in his review:

Demon is more a Polish than a Jewish story. The land where Python finds himself is variously visualized as a massive construction site, in which things seem more likely to be buried than excavated, and a mysterious ruin wherein revelers reenact intricate folk rituals. . . .

An-Sky’s play is the ur-text for a tendency in Jewish art and literature that the Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler has called “haunted modernism.” Literary examples include [the works of] Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Isaac Bashevis Singer; the best-known painters [to exhibit this tendency] are Marc Chagall and Natan Altman who, at least in their early work, were possessed by an uncanny past. Even before the Holocaust, the displacement and violent destruction of an ancient collective past prompted many writers, artists, and performers to view the vanished or vanishing traditional communities in which they originated as essentially ghostly—and therefore to reimagine these rural towns and urban ghettos as fantastic landscapes or haunted graveyards. . . .

This Jewish intimation of a past that, however lost, will not remain buried has also been experienced by some non-Jewish Central European artists.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Film, Poland, Polish Jewry, S. An-sky, Yiddish literature


Understanding the Background of the White House Ruling on Anti-Semitism and the Civil Rights Act

Dec. 13 2019

On Wednesday, the president signed an executive order allowing federal officials to extend the protections of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to Jews. (The order, promptly condemned for classifying Jews as a separate nationality, did nothing of the sort.) In 2010, Kenneth Marcus called for precisely such a ruling in the pages of Commentary, citing in particular the Department of Education’s lax response to a series of incidents at the University of California at Irvine, where, among much elase, Jewish property was vandalized and Jewish students were pelted with rocks, called “dirty Jew” and other epithets, and were told, “Jewish students are the plague of mankind.”

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, U.S. Politics