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The biases we inherit from those we love are often the hardest to let go of. How can we stop them from being passed on to the next generation?
This is the challenge faced by Brooklyn filmmaker, Menachem, whose Holocaust survivor parents passed on a one-sided view of all Poles as anti-Semites. It is also the challenge faced by the Poles Menachem befriends over his many trips to Poland who protect and restore their country’s Jewish past. The work of these “Memory Keepers” is strongly opposed by ethnonationalists who promote a one-sided view of all Polish Jews as “anti-Poles”, the cause of all their country’s misfortunes and suffering. Memory Keepers dispute the ethnonationalist narrative and teach young people that Jewish Poles were fellow citizens, were an integral part of Polish history and made many important contributions to their country.
Menachem first traveled to Poland in the last year of Poland’s communist regime. He discovered that for many decades after the Holocaust communists adopted the ethnonationalists’ narrative and erased Jews from Polish history, education and public discourse. Jewish cemeteries, often the last witnesses to a town’s Jewish past, were deliberately destroyed. We meet Szymon a striking man with a graying Mohawk haircut who is a legend among fellow Memory Keepers. For over 40 years Szymon has led a group of volunteers that have restored many cemeteries of Jews and other minorities throughout Poland. Szymon started his work as a teenage rebel against the communist authorities. “Communists tried to make our culture uniform. Respect for differences wasn’t encouraged. I felt I had to do something.” Menachem also introduces us to another pioneering Memory Keeper, Ireneusz, who was the only person to protest when communist officials in his town removed all the tombstones from its Jewish cemetery. For the next 20 years, despite three heart attacks, Ireneusz worked alone almost every day to restore the cemetery. He says,” Rumors are spread that I’m receiving huge sums of money from Jews, that I’m trying to help them recover their properties. There are even people who threaten to put me in a sack and drown me in the river. But nothing will stop me from my holy work.” Ireneusz inspired Kamila to restore the Jewish cemetery in her town, the hometown of Menachem’s parents. To honor Ireneusz’s memory Kamila organized the first conference of Polish Memory Keepers. This historic gathering helped transform lone Memory Keepers scattered around Poland into a national movement.
For 25 years after the fall of communism, the once radical view of Memory Keepers, that Jews were an integral part of Polish history, gradually became more mainstream and led to the 2014 opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. But only a year later a rightwing government came to power with the support of ethnonationalists. Memory Keepers responded by intensifying their efforts. Szymon says, “Everything I do now is aimed at making as many people as possible aware that our country was built by many nations and religions and that co-existence is possible.” Kamila tells us, “I would like to live in a Poland which accepts all people. It doesn't matter what language you speak, what religion you believe in or the color of your skin. Right now, this is not my country”
The film will end in a former shtetl that was the home of Menachem’s father-in-law. Many residents in this small rural town are impoverished, poorly educated and devoutly Catholic. It is in such areas that the ethnonationalist narrative is most deeply entrenched. Twenty years ago, Menachem was pleasantly surprised to meet Slawomir who was trying to get the town, especially its young people, to accept and honor its former Jewish residents. Slawomir uncovered and publicized the many positive contributions Jews had made to the town. A few months later Menachem was shocked to receive photos of a battered Slawomir severely beaten by ethnonationalists. Recently Menachem decided to return on the 80th anniversary of the deportation of the town’s Jews. There he will learn whether Slawomir has been able to stop the hatreds of past generations from affecting his town’s future. If Memory Keepers like Slawomir can persuade their fellow citizens to include historically marginalized groups into a shared national identity perhaps they can provide a model for other polarized societies, including our own.
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