Franek had immigrated to Chicago in 1980 and did not even return to his homeland when his parents died. Then suddenly, in 2000, Franek arrived back on the family farm without explanation and found the locals were not talking to brother Jozek. What terrible thing could Jozek have done? Only the wise old vicar (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) knew for sure.
Jozek's speech was full of casual anti-Semitism. Yet he had carefully reclaimed the tombstones of Jews massacred during WW2, before he was born, to give the dead a place of eternal rest. The incoherent and lonely Jozek did not know why the tombstones were being used as pavers on the road, nor did he know how the Jews had died in WW2. So he taught himself to read a little Hebrew, to familiarise himself with the names and places on the old tombstones.
As a result, Franek thought his brother was a raving lunatic. It was only as the two men struggled to rekindle their brotherhood that they uncovered a terrible secret; this secret in turn forced them to confront the history of their individual family and of their entire home village.
Franek is confronted by the villagers on one hand and the police on the other
The massacre in question really did occur in Jedwabne N.E Poland in July 1941. Every single Jewish Pole in the village, man woman and child, was locked into a barn and set alight by their Catholic Polish friends and neighbours. A couple of Jewish babies had been thrown out of the barn to save them from being burned to death, but the babies had been scooped up by the Catholic Polish neighbours and thrown back into the barn. By the year 2000, only the oldest citizens in village still remembered the brutal details... only they had been watching the massacre back in 1941.
I saw Aftermath in a Jewish film festival in Australia where some 90% of the audience were Jewish Poles or the children of Jewish Poles. It is a powerfully acted, morally ambivalent and brutal film. And Pawel Edelman's cinematography is stunning.
But I don’t think the film was written for Jewish Poles. Rather it was written for Catholic Poles. Just as the two brothers had to break the conspiracy of silence about the war-time massacre of the village’s own citizens, so do modern Poles have to face the terrible events of 1939-45.
Together the brothers dug up and examined everything from the titles-office to bodies, and they painfully discovered that their knowledge of the war, about Nazi genocide and Jews intent on returning to reclaim their family’s lands, were lies. And exactly as the brothers progressed with their research about the past, the majority of villagers were turning against them. Violently. Firstly they were beaten to a pulp, then their farmlands were burned and not saved by the fire brigade, and finally Josek was killed.
Film reviews in modern Poland have run the same risk – the film was ridiculed and finally banned in many places. Wladyslaw Pasikowski is one of Poland’s best directors but that did not protect him from the wrath of Polish nationals who “have accused the film of being anti-Polish propaganda, as well as a distortion of a sensitive piece of Polish history”.
An elderly witness to the 1941 massacre finally tells the brothers the truth
3 million Jews Poles were alive and well in 1939. Although the Holocaust occurred largely in German-occupied Poland, most modern Poles have argued there was little collaboration with the Nazis by its Catholic citizens against its Jewish citizens. At best, Polish nationalists are saying, there was active resistance against Germany; at worst there was passive silence. Aftermath, however, is showing that complicit Catholic Poles could be just as anti-Semitic and brutal to their Jewish Polish neighbours as the Germans were.
In the end, the same question is always asked. If I was a Catholic Pole in 1941, would I have passively cooperated with the Nazis and saved my own family from execution? Or would I have tried to save my Jewish Polish neighbours and risk retribution from the Germans?