Q: HOW DID THE FILM BEGIN FOR YOU? WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO DO IT?
A: It really started as a total accident, like most of the good things. You can plan for years and finally something comes to you. A guy called on the phone and said that he's Nathan Kaplan and he's been watching my films on PBS for years and that he wants to meet with me because he thinks that we have similar senses of humor, similar outlooks on life, etc. He wants to talk about my film. I recently was telling this story in Paris, and people couldn't believe that a television producer would have an unpublished number. So only in America can you call anybody. So he came to my house and I told him the story of my other films. And then at the end, he tells me about this young gentile with whom he had this relationship. And showed me the letters. The letters were all nicely typed.
And when I saw those letters, I couldn't believe it. And I immediately had this quick association -- that that is the story. That it's about a gentile that enters the Jewish world. It's not another film by a Jew about the Jews with the Jews. That is something that we badly need these days -- to go across the groups and show how one group is seen by another. And it rang all the possible bells, because my personal life is a life of trespassing, of going to another camp, to Catholic, to being converted, to being hidden by them, etc.
So I thought that that's the idea and I knew that the next thing that I have to do is to see Zbyszek, whether he's camera-ready, whether he's really a good subject. And so I went to Poland. And I filmed some Hi-8 and I talked to him and I immediately had this vision that he's on a collision course with his interest. So really, from the very beginning, there was a film about Zbyszek. However, in the process, Zbyszek was the most difficult to film because he's shy.
So the dilemma was, what film are we doing? Are we using Zbyszek as primarily one of the elements and then we are telling other stories of the town? Or really, is it the film about Zbyszek? But it was absolutely clear that the most attractive part of this material is the story of this gentile. So the way that we were shaping the material was that we were excluding the most dramatic scenes of the supporting cast, if you want, the Jewish survivors and their memories. Instead we were shaping the film around how it affects him, knowing that at the end, we have a climax. Because over the period of two and a half, three years, in my filming, he considerably changed. And that's what actually makes the story move forward and makes a film like a who-done-it, a kind of psychological thriller.
Q: HAS ZBYSZEK SEEN THE FINISHED PRODUCT?
A: Three times. However, with a limited knowledge of English, so not everything he says is really based on an understanding. But his reaction is very mixed. On one hand, he likes the way that I treat him and his research. On the other hand, he is disturbed by what he thinks is a lack of balance in showing the good and bad attitude of Poles. And he thinks I need more interviews where people would bring examples of good stories. And when I tell him that Jack Rubin is a live person whose life was saved by the Poles, and that is really much stronger than any amount of interviews with people who would say, `I was helping someone.' Then it doesn't work with him very well, because he still is concerned about how much time we spend on this, how many people actually in the film represent good and bad examples. And he has this concept about how Bransk was at large a good place, not a bad one. He says that this is not a good example for anti-Semitism. That the Bransk people were exceptional and exceptionally good.
And the thing is, a life and film are basically the same thing. He is confused and there are really two people in one. On the one hand, he wants to be a researcher but he's not ready to face another agenda. As angry, again, he sounds, to hide the fact and to whisper around Jews. As much he's appalled by what he learns later, that the world considers Poles blatantly anti-Semitic. And he thinks that his research proves that this is a very unfair judgment. So, his politics tell him to do everything to promote a good image of Poland. So he likes, of course, the fact that he is a good hard character, but he doesn't want to be alone because he's afraid that if he's alone, and he's confronted with the rest, the bad people, that finally the stereotype about Poles will still remain. So he's not very happy with it.
Q: DID THE PRESENCE OF A CAMERA CHANGE THE WAY THE INDIVIDUALS ACTED IN CERTAIN SCENES, SUCH AS THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN ZBYSZEK AND THE ISRAELI HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS? HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO GET SO CLOSE AND NOT AFFECT THE SPONTANEITY OF THE INTERACTION?
A: Well, at least from my own experience, a running camera never changes the truth about people. Camera is makeup. It enhances, basically, something that already exists. Camera challenges people to be more forceful, more intelligent, and more to the point. So I think that we could have exactly the same conversation outside the camera. It probably would be longer and would not have this type of energy. But no, I don't think that he fabricated anything else for the camera. And I also don't think that he was so surprised-- having so much experience with Israelis who told him, during his stay in Israel--people from the street, not the people from Bransk who loved him --but regular people whose reaction of him being Polish were very negative. He really came to this meeting with Israeli students already angry. He was not surprised at all. And therefore, he was handling himself pretty good as far as he knew his lines. Because he said those lines many times before.
And so for us, that's why it was such a perfect scene. Because for us, it looks like a surprise. But for him, he expected it. He was most surprised from me. I thought that those young people would be much more open-minded. Because young Americans would not react like that. But then again, if you understand that those are the Israeli youngsters that grew up in this whole tension of Israel and that they had just freshly come from the tour of the concentration camps in Poland, which is really ill-advised by not allowing them any time to talk to anybody else, than the camp. They were angry. They were angry because what usually happened when they were leaving the camp, some youngster would yell after them, Jews to the gas, or things like that. And those are where pranks that you find in every city. It's not that the whole population was condemning them or anything. But they were very disturbed by that.
Q: DO YOU FEEL THAT YOUR OWN POSITION AS A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR AND A JEW MADE IT EASIER OR MORE DIFFICULT TO MAKE THIS FILM?
A: Well, I would say both. You know, there is nothing better for a documentarian to have a knowledge. But there is this interesting element of document to it. Because on one hand, when you really feel your own personal life, you go to the place where your family was killed, then your personal commitment, especially involvement, emotion, that you have, it's really bad for your capacity to handle the story. But on the other hand, a knowledge of the subject and an experience with people similar to those that you film, it's really helpful because then you are not shocked.
Q: WERE YOU DISAPPOINTED BY ZBYSZEK'S TRANSFORMATION? WERE YOU SURPRISED BY THE OUTCOME OF THE STORY?
A: I was disappointed. But it was perfectly logical to me that this could happen because I knew the country and I knew that from the very beginning, that he was doing something that was bigger than him. He could not handle this subject. I mean, his intellectual foundation and his moral standards, which are pretty good I would say, but they are not great enough to sustain this type of pressure.
And it's not only the pressure from the town. It's also the pressure from me and other Jews that I brought to him. Because when I was not with him, he would be doing very innocent work, finding family roots, finding family names. The Jews who would visit him were very happy, he was happy. He was guiding them around. Of course, the neighbors were gossiping about it. But there was nothing controversial about that. He developed with every Jew that visited Bransk the greatest relationship. And they would send him $35, $50, they would bring him little presents here and there. And it was eventful for him, but not very dramatic.
When I came, I, of course, wanted to confront him with everything and attack him with everything, attack myself. You know, I have to make a movie. He already felt that he worked for the other side. Although he hated those people who say that he's a Jewish agent. But he felt somehow that he had to stop this whole thing, that if he's going to talk publicly about his involvement, then people in town will simply think that he is mental. It's not like he was afraid that they would kill him or that they will cut him or anything like that. Here he was in this town -- somebody that 50 years after the war spent so much time on finding the true stories about Jews. It's not normal.
Q: WHAT KIND OF FEELINGS DO YOU WANT TO LEAVE YOUR VIEWERS WITH? WHAT KIND OF CONCLUSIONS DO YOU THINK THEY WILL WALK AWAY WITH?
A: That's a very loaded question. And what actually were the words that the high school students said--'what would happen if this happened again?' I think that is the essential question of the film. If I was a viewer of the film, my answer will be, we are better off as far as assuring ourselves that this will not happen again, than we were before. Because we have a young generation of people, like Zbyszek, they have got to ask the questions. Not necessarily confront the answers, but at least ask the questions.
And I think that we have a big difference today from things like that to happen again.
On the other hand, you can say, and I think that this is almost like a decision between the pessimist and the optimist among audience, and since pessimists, I think, out number optimists a great deal in this world, I think, and judging from the press actions, especially in France and we had articles in "Le Monde" and "Liberation," the major newspapers, that people take the film as a trip into the darkness of the human soul in general. Which is something that I like as a reading and as a warning.
But in addition, they all draw the conclusion about the hopelessness of Polish anti-Semitism. And they sort of have a pessimistic note. I know that at the end of the film, that everybody's embarrassed and everybody's disappointed on both sides. But the question is -- I work very hard in the film to indicate that my sympathy is still with him. And that's why I cut it at the very end with the last picture of him. Because I didn't want to discard him or say he was good, but, how he fell.
Q: AND POLAND TODAY?
A: That's again the question, how is Poland today? Of course, this is a country where anti-Semitism exists but, in the absence of Jews. So it's a difficult type of anti-Semitism. But one could say that it exists despite the absence of the Jews, that that is very frightening, too. So what if the Jews would suddenly materialize? Well, I don't know the answer to the question.
I think that if Jews were to materialize, it probably will help the Poles. I think that the Polish problem is that before Jews disappeared, they didn't have the time to understand what Jews were about. And they largely still don't know. But they know that the Jews were killed by the Germans. And there is something in the human soul, that we have this killer instinct. And when somebody is being killed, and massively, the people that are not killed try to rationalize. There must be something to it.
When I was making my previous film, RETURN TO POLAND, and I was interviewing schoolchildren in Warsaw who were doing some project about the monument of the Warsaw Ghetto, I asked them, what do they know about Jews? And the answer was that Jews were the people that did something wrong to Germans and therefore they were killed by them. So the idea is that if you are killed by someone, you did something wrong. All right.
Q: WHAT'S YOUR NEXT PROJECT?
A: Well, I'll try not to do another Jewish project for a while. The big drama is not necessarily the best project for me. They're too tiring for me. And I am at the point of my life when I'm not looking for more aggravation.
And I don't particularly enjoy making people sad. And when I see that people out there might feel sad and puzzled, maybe more than they were before,I just worry a little about it. Even if they say that they like the film. And I'm by nature an optimist. And by nature, I would like to tell stories that will make people upbeat. And I always tell the audiences that I wanted to be the Woody Allen of documentaries. And my next film that is just finished, I was making it during the same time more or less as SHTETL. It has a very different mood. It's called THE EDUCATION OF YOUNG KIMOTO.
Q: ARE YOU STILL IN CONTACT WITH ZBYSZEK?
A: I actually visited him after the film to take some promotional pictures. He has seen the film three times and wrote me a letter saying that he is generally very grateful for the film and he thinks his portrayal is right and good and will help him in his research.
He thinks the film is wrongly balanced as far as Polish anti-Semitism. He thinks that Bransk is a bad example for Polish anti-Semitism because it's the place where so many people were helpful and I should have included more interviews with people talking about incidents of help.
And I answered him that I know that the most vivid and dramatic cases of Bransk people's collaboration with Germans are not even in the film. They were cut out. Because this is not a film which I am interested in accusing people. I am interested more in comforting people than accusing them.
But the whole issue here, and my disagreement with Zbyszek, is that he is following his home team. His team is Polish. And for him, it's really a game. It's a competition between the good Poles, the bad Poles, between the Jews and the Poles. And he doesn't understand that the one murder does not wash out one hero, that it doesn't work that way. This is not mathematics. And I think that he was not capable of having this type of look at it, coming from the little town that he comes from.
But I hope, as being an incurable optimist, that you can see from my film, that this film will teach him a lot. I'm pretty sure that those three viewings of the film will also demonstrate to him that he has to have a larger scope, a larger view. And I'm sure that people like him in the big cities like Warsaw and Krakow would have different perspective. This film is among many other things about the little town and how it affects someone that has a mind bigger than the town. And in a sense, it's no longer a Jewish film only. It goes beyond that.
Q: HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE YOUR LIFE AS A JEW IN POLAND IN THE PAST TO LIFE IN POLAND FOR JEWS TODAY?
A: There is a very little connection with Jews living today in Poland and this story. The reason is that the older generation of Jews either is not alive or intermarried with non-Jews, because the Jewish synagogue in Warsaw has about 20 people at the holiday.
And those are the people who are usually married with non-Jews. Some of them are former active party members. They are mentally totally screwed up. And even talking to them, they're confused about what to be interested in and what not.
On the other hand, there is a new phenomenon of a young new Jewish community that is arising. You heard about Ronald Lauder, who is helping financially the new congregation, the new Jewish community of also mixed marriages. People in their 20s and 30s, they only learn that there were Jews in the 1970s. And of course, those people will have a lot of sympathy for the film but again, no connection. So basically, the memory is not in Poland. The memories don't say Poland. It's in the United States and in Israel. Six people have died from the people that are portrayed in the film. So there was a feeling that this is the last word they were able to say. If you go today to Bransk and would like to make a film like that, the sources, the resources shrink tremendously. Maybe there's one or two.
Q: WERE YOU ABLE TO DO ADDITIONAL INTERVIEWS WITH OLDER POLES WHILE MAKING THIS FILM? AND DID YOU FIND THAT THEY EXPRESSED REMORSE?
A: Well, you know, we are talking about people in their 80s, people with no education. Well, no, I didn't get around to those people. There are only a few that really remember. Well, I think there is remorse here, but not directly, in this daughter of the head of the village. I mean, she expressed doubt. It's not indirectly.
But after what you asked me, there's another thing that comes to mind. Because there will be the Polish-Jewish controversy after this film. There is already a symposium organized by the Polish Congress in Chicago called "Polish anti-Semitism as Defined by Marian Marzynski in his Film SHTETL." And I was not invited. So, it's not a big group, but I can hear already their voices. There will be again the same thing. They failed already once with SHOAH and they're going to probably fail a second time, I'm afraid. And that is about a group of people that is not capable of saying simply sorry. As little as this. Nobody expects anything more. Just have a little distance. And a film that is a story about the human soul. And why do they think that everything amounts to Poland?
My point was always that first of all, I believe as a filmmaker that if you want to make a good film about Boston, you have to make it for Seattle. That you cannot really respond to people who are insiders of the story, hit them with a revelation. They will be always checking small things that they think are the truth about their life. And in the case of Poland, this is a complex of being wrongly accused of being anti-Semite. So they cannot allow themselves to be the viewers really. They see in everything a repetition of that.
Although they may like the film, they still think that politically, it's a very ungrateful job for someone who was saved by the Poles. And one of them said that the most vicious thing -- my friend, actually, Polish friend -- said in this film - why do I cut to, after telling the story that I went to a communion and was told by Pole at the end, that this woman said, 'You finally do not smell Jew.'
Because, I said, I was not telling the story for 25 years. I always censored myself at this point. Even in RETURN TO POLAND, my previous film, I didn't say this last line. But I think that since I don't have that much time left, I should tell the whole truth now and this is the whole truth.
Q: HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU CAME TO THE UNITED STATES?
A: 34. I came 25 years ago.
Q: WHY DID YOU NAME IT SHTETL? DID YOU CONSIDER OTHER NAMES?
Why the title SHTETL? Because for non-Jews, it means nothing. And the short titles are always best. And by the short title, it's a catchy title. You create it all with an interest. And my hope is that SHTETL become a new household word, not only for Jews, as it already is, but for the non-Jews. And it will mean more than the 'a Jewish little town,' but everybody's little town. So purposely, we are promoting the word SHTETL in the film.
Q: HAVE YOU EVER SHOWN THE FILM IN POLAND, OR ARE YOU PLANNING TO?
A: No, but the film will probably be acquired by Canal Plus, the French-German European cable, which is something like the Discovery Channel, which has a contact in Poland. And we think they will be shown it for the first time. But it also will be sent to the festival in Cracow and probably will have a huge controversy. And the Polish press for a week will be full of the discussion about it. And it will be very interesting how much the Polish press, which is very, of course, pro-Jewish these days. And there is no anti-Semitic press, obviously. [It] will, in my estimation, censor very heavily anti-Semitic letters that will come to them.
Q: HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN WHAT MOTIVATED ZBYSZEK?
A: Well, I think again, it's for your interpretation. I can give you a few facts. He loved the election as a vice-mayor of town but mainly because of the political situation, they changed. He was a religious Catholic and then the left people won, social democrats. But also, he is a man who has a very specific professional career in mind. He's working on his master's degree on the history of Jewish community in Bransk. He wants to do the Ph.D. in the future. He wants to publish. He's totally isolated from his town. He studies at the local university. And he wants to write books and he is therefore very grateful for the film. Because this film describes the man. Now he can bring this film to the Warsaw University and he can get a job as a researcher. And I think that two years from now, Zbyszek will probably get to the bigger city and get maybe the influence of other Poles and be very proud of this film. And will be actually fighting the critics of this film.
So far, he is telling me to come to Bransk, I don't know if it's irony or a real request, and to show the film to Bransk people. And he said, you will see that they will hate the film. And my answer to this is that, listen, since they already hated you, and the film is truthful to reality, then obviously,don't expect them to like the film.
Q: HOW WAS YOUR FAMILY ABLE TO LIVE IN POLAND AFTER WHAT HAPPENED TO IT?
A: On the one hand, it was extremely painful to live in Poland after the war for the Jews. But really, for the same reason that most of the Jews left the country, those who survived, I think it was about a quarter million who survived, or maybe 200,000, and I think that the majority left because they couldn't stand life, you know, in the cemetery. But for some people, staying with the cemetery was also the reason to stay. And I would say that the decision after the war was basically that most of the people could not take it anymore. And those are the people that left. And the people that stayed somehow were mentally in better shape, I may say. Or had other reasons, you know. My step-father, for example, spent the war in the German officer camp and didn't actually experience the Holocaust. My mother was a young woman that had pretty dramatic experiences.
But the thing is that when you survive, you are victorious. You won. So what you do with this survival, you either continue or you survive or you go out because you cannot stand the absence of your family and other people. you cannot imagine your life. So, most of the people could not imagine, really. But it was not my decision, of course. I was a kid. But my father and his parents never thought about leaving until I made the decision of leaving Poland for good in `69 with the anti-Semitic campaign of the government. Lived in Ludwig, first to Denmark, then to Providence, Rhode Island and then to Chicago.
Q: WERE YOU ABLE TO EXPRESS YOURSELF CREATIVELY WHEN YOU LIVED IN POLAND? DID YOU EVER CONSIDER ESTABLISHING A CAREER AS A FILMMAKER IN POLAND?
A: In Poland? No. That's exactly why I left Poland in '69 because I just realized that even in the best case, what I can do in Poland is to try to not follow the censorship line or the party line or to be a party member and treat controversial subjects. But by no means, could I speak my mind and talk about my Jewish stories. It was absolutely out of question. It was both impossible from the time of censorship, and it was a self-censorship, I would say, on my part. But the idea was that you were supposed to be like anybody else. And the government never encouraged anybody, unfortunately, to analyze the past. It was like a silence. This whole subject was taboo, because the government didn't want to ignite the anti-Semitists. The government was on the surface, actually, very supportive of Jews. The government was made of many Jews. And anti-Semitism, basically, was outlawed by the Communist government. That doesn't mean it didn't exist.
But until `69, the communist government with its ideology of equality of people and internationalism and anti-religious stand actually thought that everybody was equal. And all religions are bad. And Catholics, first of all. So in a sense, all the religious were equally treated by the system, but all the people were supposed to be treated equally. So for calling someone dirty Jew, you could be arrested, if somebody turned you in to the police. So there was a lie under this umbrella, but there was actually a lie that I didn't want to continue and I didn't want my children to continue. So when I was 32, and I was on the top of my career, I just realized that no matter how good my career was, I was not able to speak my mind. And since I emigrated, especially to the United States, I think that's all changed. So in the last 15 years, I'm just undoing what I was not able to do in Poland.
Q: WHAT DID THE JOURNEY OF THIS FILM MEAN TO NATHAN KAPLAN?
A: Absolutely made his life incredibly exciting for him. He had a cancer and a very sudden cancer. And I don't know the reason, I have no idea how the cancer operated. But it certainly happened after the very high period of his life when he was totally consumed by this research and perhaps when he finished this research, in other words, when he came to normal, that maybe his body developed something that was there for some time. I don't know. But I know that when I observed him over the period of three years he was a very young 72-year-old man. I never expected that he could have any illness of any sort. He was unbelievable -- sharp and physically fit.
Q: WHAT DID NATHAN MEAN TO YOU?
A: Well, a great deal. I think he's my adopted Jewish uncle. I mean, my father would be a little older. But actually I started living among Jewish only when I emigrated to the United States. And I came probably as close as possible to a Jewish man when I traveled with him. I never had, because my mother was a Jewish mother, but in a sense that she carried all the Jewish tradition, but my mother was not religious. I was not brought up religious. And so, I lived in this world of Holocaust memories and I always said that if there ever was a religion, Holocaust was our religion. But he had a few words. Your typical American Jew, born in this country, brought up with religion. I never knew anybody so close. So it meant a lot to me. And the same thing with Jack Rubin, with whom I am a friend until today.
Q: DO YOU THINK THAT THIS FILM WILL BRING YOU CLOSER TO JUDAISM?
A: No, no. It's too late for me, I'm too busy. It's a very strange thing for me and religion. I just realized that my mother was one of the Holocaust Jews that felt that if God existed, the Holocaust would never happen. That's my mother, you know, saying.
It's a disappointment with God, that's what it is. And since my parents did not introduce me to it, and I married a non-Jewish woman who has tremendous interest in Judaism, but what can she do, not even being Jewish?
I made a film in Israel called JEWISH MOTHER, which was just a crash course on religion that I went to. And some people said that this is one of the biggest films--with a fascination by the religious. I'm truly fascinated. ButI never took the time to learn. I think sometimes that I would have liked to end up in a yeshiva and started very late. Because I wanted to know and I wanted to be part of religion and the synagogue. I'm impressed by it and I love to be in the synagogue. But it's like when people learn how to swim. My life was such that I lost my childhood totally. I was brought to one religion that I abandoned completely, overnight almost. So once you already were deeply involved as a child in one religion and you abandon this religion and you don't need it for life later. I mean, there was no occasion to start another one. Because my family, for three generations, was observant to the minimum level. Big holidays once a year or two, something like this, seder. But no Shabbas, no kosher. They didn't even belong to a synagogue before the war. So I was born in 1937. I had the war. There was nothing and I was in a society that basically banned religion. So there was a few people that went to the synagogues for sure, but not very many. There were small groups, usually uneducated people.
And in Poland after the war, if you had a college education that meant 100% sure that you were never going. The whole result of the war was that your religion disappeared from people's lives. Because most religious people were educated only in the religion and those were wiped out and killed. The people that survived were somewhat assimilated. They stuck practically without access. They had higher education like my parents. You had my grandparents with a bent for that. But I am the third generation of the educated Jews in Poland. That was not the majority of Jews, that was as small group in a big city.
My father was a journalist and an engineer, mechanical engineer in the wood industry. He finished the technical university also. And my stepfather also was a construction civil engineer and my father's father was a dentist and on my mother's side, her father also finished higher education, you know, in the university. So those people naturally moved out of the SHTETL to the big city and had some Polish friends, you know, and of course Germans were killing them as much as they were killing the religious Jews. But my survival personally was possible because of the connection with my father. My family had a non-Jew and as a result of the fact that the sister of my mother married a non-Jew-which was a big scandal in the family-but because of that, we had connections. So whenever you talk to a survivor today, you always find the non-Jewish connections. Otherwise there was no chance.
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