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Rob Edelman: Andrzej Wajda and The Holocaust

The death camps were liberated almost seven decades ago. Auschwitz and Birkenau, Chelmno and Dachau-- the ABCD’s of the Final Solution-- have long been silent memorials to the mass murder of millions. But despite this passage of time, World War II and the Holocaust have remained popular topics for filmmakers.

Andrzej Wajda, the Polish filmmaker who as a teenager served in the Resistance while the Nazis occupied his homeland, has since the 1950s been making films concerned with issues relating to the war. And KORCZAK, Wajda’s 1990 feature, has just been released to DVD by Kino Lorber. I saw it back then, have seen it again, and it remains a tremendously moving, real-life story of a gentle, remarkable man: Janusz Korczak, played by Wojtek Pszoniak in a powerful performance.

Korczak was a respected doctor, writer, and children’s rights advocate who operates a home for Jewish orphans in Warsaw during the 1930s. His concerns are people, and not politics. “I love children,” he states, matter-of-factly. “I fight for years for the dignity of children.” In his school, he offers his charges a “humanist education,” but then the Nazis invade his homeland. Given his station in life, Korczak easily could arrange his escape to freedom, but he chooses to remain with his children and do whatever he must to keep his orphanage running and his charges alive-- even after they all have been imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto.

KORCZAK features a simple, poignant script by Agnieszka Holland, who has directed some highly respected Holocaust-related films of her own, including EUROPA EUROPA, also from 1990, and IN DARKNESS, released last year. Films like these serve a necessary, essential purpose. They are tools that can be used to educate young people, Jew and non-Jew alike, and they are monuments as much to the memory of generations past as to the survival of generations to come.

By the way, another more recent Anjrzej Wajda film that also is well-worth seeking out is KATYN, which was released in 2007 and is available on DVD. KATYN is an intense, epic, fact-based account of Poland during and immediately after World War II, when the country was swallowed up by Germany and Russia.

The story opens in September 1939, when the Nazis and Soviets have just invaded Poland and the Polish citizenry are pressed between the Germans and Russians. Then the following year, 14-thousand Polish officers and civilians are massacred by the Russians in theKatyn forest. While they occupy the country, the Germans use this bloodbath to propagandize the Poles. Once the war ends, the Soviets-- who are building their post-war powerbase-- attribute the atrocity to the Nazis, and heaven help anyone who disagrees.

The scenario of KATYN tells of various individuals caught in the chaos. Also key to the story is the role of religion in the lives of these characters, and the faith of the Polish people at this point in time.

As you watch films like KATYN and KORCZAK, it is impossible to forget that the characters either are real, as is the case in KORCZAK, or are fictional, but their stories are based on a real-life atrocity.

Finally, while discussing KATYN, one fact cannot be ignored. This fact informs not just this film, but all the films of Andrzej Wajda. As the world went to war so many decades ago, the filmmaker’s father, Jakub Wajda, a captain in the Polish infantry, was one of the 14 thousand who was butchered in the Katyn forest.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.