How the Non-Jewish Director of the First-Ever Holocaust Movie Resisted Communist Pressure to Write Jews Out of the Story

September 17, 2019 | Ofer Aderet
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On Sunday, the 1947 Polish film The Last Stage was shown at a Tel Aviv theater. Its director, Wanda Jakubowska—a Gentile Polish Communist—was imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1943; after the war, she became one of her country’s foremost filmmakers. Using former prisoners and townspeople from the nearby hamlet of Oswiecim as her cast, she filmed the movie at the camp itself. Later Holocaust films would splice in its footage and even imitate some of its shots. Ofer Aderet writes (free registration required):

The film centers around a Jewish heroine, Marta Weiss, who is deported to the camp with her family. [Upon arrival], she translates the commander’s instructions for the other prisoners and is chosen to serve as an official interpreter. Later she exploits her position to help her fellow inmates smuggle supplies and information, and eventually escapes with a friend, Tadek, in order to tell the world about the plan to “liquidate” the camp. But the two are caught and sentenced to execution. . . . Marta Weiss is based on . . . Mala (Malka) Zimetbaum, a Polish Jew who moved to Belgium with her family as a child and was deported to Auschwitz in 1942.

Reexamination of the film all these years later clearly reveals its historical weaknesses; after all, it’s a Communist propaganda film. Praise for the Soviet Union, Stalin, and the Red Army is woven in. They are depicted as the prisoners’ only saviors—without any mention, of course, of Stalin’s cooperation with Hitler at the start of the war. . . . In the film, all resistance to the Nazis is led by Communist women.

Nor is there anything about how Jewish prisoners were harshly discriminated against by prisoners of other nationalities; this wouldn’t serve the message. . . . Also, in the film one hears Polish, Russian, German, and French, but no Yiddish. This is no coincidence. Produced under the auspices of the Soviet Union, the film deliberately avoids any mention of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and instead emphasizes the universality of the war’s victims. In this, the film betrays the truth. Most of the 1.1 million victims at Auschwitz were Jews.

But unlike other works produced under the Communist regime, the Jews aren’t completely absent from this one, thanks to Jakubowska’s stubborn insistence. Describing it years later, she said she was pressured to alter the plot and remove any mention of Jews.

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