Sunday, December 5, 2010

Her Father's Eyes, Her Yearning

Christmas Eve in Auschwitz. Source

"Burning Questions: The Story of Catholic Poles in the Holocaust," a multiple-award-winning documentary, offers all the rewards of a home movie: it is stunningly intimate and heartfelt. The title and subtitle are unintentionally misleading. The documentary could better be titled "An American Daughter and a Polish Father Explore His Family's Suffering During WWII."

Mishael Porembski and her father, Jan. Source

"Burning Questions" tells a simple, easy-to-follow story: the relationship between a very beautiful, young, American girl, Mishael Porembski, and her mysterious, very handsome, foreign-born father, TV cameraman Jan Porembski. As Mishael puts it: "My father's eyes hid a world I'd never fully seen … Even as a child, I could sense that my father wasn't altogether happy. There was a somberness that would wash over him. This quiet sadness would create a yearning in me … One area of my father's life was off limits – his homeland, Poland … My father was interned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I've always wondered. Was my [Polish, Catholic] father a survivor of the Holocaust?" One of Mishael's aunts was in Ravensbruck; the other was in Auschwitz.

The film follows Mishael's earnest attempt to understand both her father's hidden pain and American media's lies about Poland. The viewer gets a sense of what confronts Mishael five minutes into the movie. She is attempting to film her father. He glares at her. His face is utterly unforgiving and remote. This is a man who has seen the worst. One can only applaud Mishael's courage.

Viewers who are themselves of Polish descent, and whose family members remember WWII, will recognize their own loved ones in this film. I recognize the stoic, apparently emotionless faces and tightly compressed lips that greeted my attempts to understand that cataclysm. I recognize the casual way with which a former Auschwitz prisoner rolls up her arm and displays her tattooed number, as if it were of no import. On an undistinguished Warsaw side street, what might appear to be nothing but a brick wall is marked by a small cross. Jan reminisces about walking past this wall as a small boy, and seeing German Nazis executing Poles against it. Some Poles sang the National Anthem as they died. I recognized the previously tough, granite-like facial features melting into tears as victims, decades later, suddenly hit upon a new memory of their own victimization. I could only nod when Aunt Stefania forces Mishael to eat more than she wants, and when Mishael reports that her aunt walks in on her while she's in the bathroom. Privacy? What's that?

While watching close-ups of Aunt Maria's casual recounting of her days as a prisoner in Auschwitz, and her father's initial lack of on-camera emotion, I was reminded how more celebrated filmmakers, Claude Lanzmann in "Shoah" and Marian Marzynski in "Shtetl," used Poles' stoicism to indict them as without feeling for Nazi victims. In fact, Poles were victims of Nazis, too, and Polish stoicism is a coping mechanism, not a badge of Polish indifference.

Mishael's grandfather, Henryk Porebski, looks like a delightful, carefree man in the one photo we see of him. This handsome young dandy is wearing a straw hat and carrying a cane. He is imitating the American film comedian, Charlie Chaplin. Nazis took Henryk, and he was never heard from again.

Jan, Henryk's son, now an old man himself, stares at the camera coldly. "Someone will ask, 'Tell me about your father,'" Jan says. His face is not cold because he does not care. His face is cold because he has lived with this pain all his life, with no comfort, not even knowledge of the location of his father's remains. Later, Jan is shown reading the Polish national epic poem, "Pan Tadeusz." Jan reads but a few lines before he is choked by tears. "I thought I was over certain things but I guess I'm not," he confesses.

Mishael visits with Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland. Schudrich is compassionate and questioning. How do you explain this suffering, this pain, he asks? It is natural to want to lash out, he says. This is a great tragedy, he says, "because the anger is being misplaced." Hope can be found, Schudrich says, in "feeling someone else's suffering." Schudrich also says, "If people don't know about your suffering, it's your obligation to talk about it. It's nobody else's obligation." Poles, Schudrich alleges, have not made their suffering known to the world. Schudrich is right. Polish Americans are especially at fault in this regard.

Szymon Szurmiej, Vice President of the World Federation of Polish Jews, points out that Poland was the only country where Nazis mandated the death penalty, for the entire family, for the crime of aiding Jews. In spite of this, he points out, several thousand Poles, more than any other nationality, are honored at Yad Vashem for saving Jews.

"Burning Questions" is not a systematic, theoretically-based presentation of Polish suffering during WWII, and it is not a systematic refutation of the charge, frequently encountered in American media, that Poles are the equivalent of, or even worse than, German Nazis. Because of the sometimes less-than-Hollywood production values, and the lack of systematic, theoretical scaffolding, I might award this documentary four out of five stars. I award it five stars, though, for this reason – no one else has done what Mishael Porembski has with this film. The Polish story is untold in America. Yes, there are writers, and I am one of them, but we have not successfully brought our work before significant enough audiences. We Polish-Americans are unknown, as Porembski demonstrates, even to our own selves. She deserves the extra star not for technical excellence or deep background, but for having the courage, and determination, to tell a story that has, so far, been silenced and ignored – including by those who have lived it, and their American children and grandchildren.


  1. Thank you, for that review, Danusha. I want to say Amen to your last paragraph. We are slowly coming out of the woodwork. By "we" I mean the children of Polish WWII survivors like John Guzlowski, yourself, Mishael and others. We are almost at the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the war, and the stories are just now slowly coming up to the surface.

  2. Hi, Andy! Thank you so much for reading and posting.


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