The film, "Image Before My Eyes," reviewed in yesterday's Style section, was produced with the help of the National Endowment for the Humanities and not the National Endowment for the Arts as stated.
The picture flickered across the screen. An open touring car; the occupants jaunty, prosperous in a 1930s, European manner. The narrator was saying something about the successful Jews in pre-World War II Poland. Good grief, I thought, that man at the wheel is my father.
I called Josh Waletzky, who made "Image Before My Eye," an absorbing new documentary about Jewish life in Poland in the years before the Holocaust. After all, my parents were Polish, Jewish and living comfortably in Warsaw at the time. Could he possibly find out who was in that car?
He could. He did. And it was my father. One of the women sitting in the back seat turned out to be, on close inspection, my mother.
So there, but for the quirks of history -- in this case the horror of Adolf Hitler; the aftermath of Stalin's communism -- go I. I could be in Poland now, the affluent Jewish son of affluent Jewish parents, part of the Polish "Our Crowd." Instead, I am an American. So are my parents. Their world, my world, in some sense, is obliterated.
"Image Before My Eye," which opens today at the Inner Circle for a limited run, was produced with help from the National Endowment for the Arts under the auspices of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. A book of the same name and covering much of the same ground was published in 1977.
Though its ethnic appeal is strong -- sort of an old family album -- the film was made with a wider audience in mind. The narration provides essential context for what people are saying and why. The 1930s home movies taken by emigres returning to Poland from the U.S. for the first time are particularly enjoyable. The reproduction is surprisingly good and the editing is skillful.
The mood of the film is understandable nostalgic, even cheerful in places. There is a cavalcade of colorful figures -- Hasidic rabbis, tradesmen in long robes, the strapping young at summer camps, markets, streets, the victims of pogroms. The soundtrack is composed mainly of recollections told in earthy, guttural accents; one elderly woman under interview bursts rapturously into a Yiddish song. This is not, though, a celebration of Jews in Poland. It is a commemoration.
In 1931, there were 3,114,000 Jews in Poland, about 10 percent of the population. Today there are, maybe 7,000. I know a few of them. They are about as Jewish in identification and sensibiltiy as Lech Walesa. The fact is that the "Image Before My Eye" has no other reality. All that remains of that society are images: photographs, memories, some documents.
That's what this movie is about: preserving in 20th-century archeological fashion a society that no longer exist. Hitler lost his war but he succeeded in largely eliminating -- one way or another -- the Jews of Eastern Europe. Many of those who survived have since trickled out, bedraggled refugees of yet another hostile ideology.
To Americans, including, I suspect, the descendants of many Jewish immigrants, the prevailing image of Polish Jews is a people living Tevye-style in little villages, fiddling on roofs until they perished in the gas chambers. From the shtetl to the Holocaust: poor, helpless, weak people.
But there was much more to that lost world. There was an intensely varied political and cultrual life, a multitude of political parties and factions, poets, artists, writers; scientist like my mother, entrepreneurs like my father, a richly interlaced Polish-Jewish-Russian-Yiddish-Lithuanian civilization shaped by its unique circumstances. There was vibrancy and vitality; beautiful women, dashing men, a past to be proud of.
Today in Warsaw there is a pathetic Jewish cemetery, overgrown, unkempt, visited only be those who return to examine, as I did, the imposing headstones of their ancestors. A single aged watchman tends the cracked and crumbling rocks that are the remnants of whole families. And near Poland's second city, Krakow, there is Auschwitz, now a monument to depravity. For a variety of reasons the present regime has played down the significance of the old concentration camp as the crucible for Polish Jews. A battered burial ground. An antiseptic prison camp. And memories. jThat's all that's left.
True, there are transmutations of that civilization in Israel, the cacaphonous politics, the mix of orthodoxy and secularism, the defensive sense that surrounding peoples range from wary to murderously hostile. But Israel is the Middle East, a land of Moroccans, Georgians and Syrians as well as Poles. It is evolving as a society that is peculiarly Israeli.
So for anyone who is interested in what was and is no longer, "Image Before My Eye" is the way to catch a glimpse backwards, the modern-day equivalent of wall paintings, bits of pottery and gothic columns.
The film's significance is that its portrayal of Polish Jews captures a far broader spectrum than the Tevyes. What sociologists call the "acculturated" Jews, the ones who took on the cosmopolitan life style of interwar Poland, are rarely heard from. Most of the Polish Jews who left for American did no before World War I when the Polish state was reclaimed from Russia and Germany. They identified themselves as Jews, not Poles, Yiddish-speakers whose communities were separate.
Those who chose to stay on either died in concentration camps or survived through extraordinary courage and/or good luck. There are, alas, few of these. At the preview of "Image Before My Eyes," Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), a son of survivors, who was himself born in a displaced-persons camp after the war, made the point that looking beyond the Holocaust to the world that existed before is worthwhile and rare. There was, after all, life before death, a good life.