In Darkness, Poland’s nominee and a finalist for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (being rolled out in New York and L.A. on February 10), immediately plunges the viewer into an unrelenting world of thuggery and mass murder in Nazi-occupied Poland: a house is looted and an inhabitant bludgeoned; terrified naked women running in the distance are soon rendered into corpses on the forest floor; and a ghetto is “liquidated” (that bloodless term of art for massacre and deportation) in an orgy of random shootings and beatings, as defenseless victims are reduced to their animal selves, desperate for refuge from predatory beasts in uniform.
At first, we are distanced from the violent imagery, as the victims are not people we know. But slowly, gradually, we identify with the surviving characters and care about their fate.
The first of these is Leopold Socha, a sewer worker and petty thief. He finds a hiding place within the sewers for a small number of Jews and sustains them there for cash, while frequently berating them with anti-Semitic taunts. Yet later, he continues to feed them even when they have no more money, out of a sense of human compassion and at great risk to his life and that of his wife and daughter.
His wife Wanda is a good-natured soul who tells her doubting husband that Jesus and the Apostles were Jews and that it makes no logical sense to persecute today’s Jews for supposedly having killed Jesus nearly 2,000 years before. But he’s the one who loyally sticks by “his Jews,” as he proudly calls them after their city is liberated, for fourteen months, even after she had threatened to leave him for risking his family in the face of overwhelming danger. In the end, however, she embraces them as well. Both are honored as “Righteous Gentiles” by the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem.
Why tell this story now? As it is often said nowadays, the survivors are in their final years; this is based on a true story documented in an out-of-print book published in 1991 (In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall). While some characters and episodes are invented, the movie has been praised by Krystyna Chiger, the sole survivor still living, as capturing “how it was” when she and her little brother, their parents, and a handful of others endured their ordeal.
One of these others is Mundak Margulies, a gutsy street-wise operator, who eventually bonds with Leopold Socha, his unlikely savior. Margulies is portrayed by German actor Benno Fürmann, resembling Daniel Craig here (I recall him in the memorable role of an ill-fated mountain climber in the politically charged German-language drama, North Face). Language is an interesting footnote in that the Jewish characters mix Polish and Yiddish (often in the same sentence) with occasional German, while the non-Jews variously speak Polish, Ukrainian, and German, an authentic reflection of this polyglot bygone world.
What is perhaps most significant is that it’s a Polish film. Poland is undergoing a wave of nostalgia for the culture of Polish Jews lost when most were murdered during the war and others forced out afterward. Klezmer music is celebrated in popular festivals, while Jewish subjects are studied in universities—something not known when Poland had a large and vibrant (but also “otherized”) Jewish community.
Although Poles were occasionally violent toward Jews during and after World War II, their anti-Semitism was more usually on the level of Leopold’s ignorant prejudice. The Ukrainians of Western Ukraine / Southeastern Poland, where this story is set, were more trusted by the Nazis to carry out their lethal designs. Hence, Ukrainians formed the pro-Nazi militia in this ethnically mixed region, and it is they who policed the Lvov Ghetto and aided in its liquidation.
Lvov, now known as Lviv within the independent state of Ukraine, was one of the largest cities in pre-war Poland. It was the de facto capital of the region of Eastern Galicia where my parents hailed from and where my mother scrimped and struggled to live far from home and graduate from a Jewish gymnasium (high school, pronounced with a hard g)—an achievement rare for anyone then, let alone a girl from a small town in the 1920s; Poland had no free secondary education at the time.
This film is dedicated to the late Marek Edelman, the last surviving Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commander and one of the few Jews who chose to remain in Poland even after the “anti-Zionist” purge in 1968. Tens of thousands of other survivors emigrated to Israel, the United States, and other Western countries. Their decision is made all the more understandable by a closing note on the screen that when Leopold Socha was killed by an out-of-control truck in an accident shortly after the war, some of his neighbors took this as God’s punishment for helping Jews.