The past and the current collide in "Bogdan's Journey."
On Tuesday I had the pleasure of attending the New York City screening of “Bogdan’s Journey” by Michal Jaskulski and Lawrence Loewinger. I was not sure what to expect heading into the film because the film poster looks like it is peddling a postmodern dystopian Sci-Fi flick and not post-Holocaust Eastern European documentary. I was also not expecting the length of the documentary, which it seemed could have ended on a much stronger and more currently relevant note and shortened the film, while also strengthening its emotional and material impact.
The entire film is subtitled from many of the subject’s native Polish and provided a welcome break from some of the visual intensity of the film itself, which centers around a man’s, Bogdan Bialek’s, journey to reconcile a town’s, Kielce’s, past regarding it’s history and current state of pervasive and often subtle anti-semitism, which previously had culminated in a pogrom on Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who had settled and been relegated to a ghetto in the town. For those uninitiated in the language of anti-semitism, a pogrom is soon made clear as a violent event, similar to a riot, where the rioters are the non-Jewish townsfolk and the the violence and riot is directed at the Jews.
The film waffles between moments of beautiful, wide sweeping shots of modern pastoral Polish scenery and choppier, grainier footage taken by people tracking Bogdan’s work, but seemingly before the idea for this documentary coalesced. While this seems like a necessary evil, given the evolution of Bogdan’s work in the reconciliation process, it at time is aesthetically jarring and leaves the film seeming rough, like a really talented student film.
Despite this though, the content is so far from any student film I have ever encountered and is truly moving. The film opens with Bogdan, his mission to bring old shames to light and confront them openly, and a brief introduction to the town of Kielce. A beautiful town full of pastoral beauty, ancient and modern Polish architecture, history, and anti-semitism. Bogdan’s work and his mission is sandwiched by the personal accounts, told by the survivors themselves, of the pogrom in format which has each of the handful of survivors recount what they were experiencing at each hour. The pogrom spanned approximately an entire day and so a quarter of the film or so is dedicated to the survivors re-telling where each of them were and what they were experiencing at 9am, then at 11am, and until the bitter end. This is incredibly powerful, but also incredibly painful, when it becomes apparent that one survivors disfigurements that has left him crippled, blind, and barely able to speak were inflicted during this attack when he was barely a teen, or when the survivors rely on tricks they used to survive the concentration camps to escape the angry violent mobs led by their neighbors, police, and local military. After the entire sequence of events of the pogrom has been completed, it jumps to more modern times, focusing on the town’s history of covering up and denying the pogrom and how a Princeton Professor’s book about the topic reopened unhealed wounds for the community and Poland and renewed friction. This to me, was one of the most relevant parts of the movie.
Nearly another quarter of the film is dedicated to the town, and Poland itself, struggle to confront its history of anti-semitism, especially how it came to such a violent head so soon after the Holocaust. This part of the film featured nears reporters casting disparaging headlines towards the Princeton Professor, Gross, and his book while pulling out lines intended to instill nationalistic protectionism within the Poles watching the newscast; reminiscent of modern Fox News anchors. There are radio announcers, combatively swatting down Gross, whom they have on their show as a guest, and his assertions with historical backing; looking very much like a Polish Rush Limbaugh. Protestors outside of Gross’s book signings accuse him of being antisemitic for writing the book and stirring up ill feelings; drawing eerie parallels to anyone in America who denies that sexism or racism exist and accuse those who dare speak up about it of being the ones who are in the wrong. This to me was just as difficult to watch as the survivors recounting their experiences during the pogrom because it showed how as humans, little we have grown in terms of our ability to deal with and confront the ugly dark side of humanity and how we treat the perceived “others”. It clearly demonstrated that the violent scape-goatism that we are currently seeing all around the world, directed at various marginalized groups, is not new and that the recurring threat to Jews that continuously crops up is not only very real, but has neither gone away nor lessened, it has only become more internalized and accepted.
Had the film ended soon after that, I would have said this was a very strong and incredibly powerful film that everyone should watch, especially younger generations for whom encountering survivors may not be as familiar for them. However, the film went on for another hour or so, showing all the happy healing that particular people went through and the pretty memorials for the pogrom that Bogdan got to help erect. These were all great things and Bogdan undertook great and meaningful work, but I think the true and important message lay at the center of the film. That this is now. This is happening again. We need to learn from the past and not forget it.
To learn more about the film, and to find a screening near future, please visit their site.
Alana Burman is a outspoken activist and politico who writes on issues of food, politics, personality, fashion, and intersectional feminism.