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How Communist Poland battled Lanzmann's 'Shoah'
In this file photograph taken on May 23, 1985, French film maker Claude Lanzmann poses after receiving le Prix des Arts et des Lettres in Paris, from the president Jury de la fondation du Judaïsme français. Lanzmann was the director of the film "Shoah". 92 year-old, Lanzmann died on July 5, 2018, according to his publishers. JOEL ROBINE / AFP.

by Michel Viatteau

WARSAW (AFP).- Delving into the painful issue of Polish anti-Semitism during the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann's epic 1985 Holocaust documentary "Shoah", sparked outrage among Poland's then communist authorities who unleashed a campaign against him.

However, the cool-headed French filmmaker -- who died Thursday in Paris at the age of 92 -- seemed to know how to handle the regime and his film was finally broadcast in Communist Poland in the autumn of the same year.

The regime may have been trying to distract Poles still traumatised by its brutal 1981 martial law crackdown on the anti-communist Solidarity trade union and suffering from shortages when it launched its campaign against Lanzmann and the documentary he shot mainly in Poland.

The communists also targeted France for what they termed the "shameful chapters" of its history concerning the fate of French Jews during the Holocaust.

The presence of French President Francois Mitterrand at the film's Paris premiere "provoked surprise and indignation", the regime-run Polish PAP news agency wrote at the time.

Communist authorities even summoned the French charge d'affaires in Warsaw and requested him to prevent Shoah being broadcast on France's main TF1 public broadcaster.

They accused the film of "containing insinuations that are outrageous for the Polish people about their alleged collaboration in the Holocaust".

With a predictable 'No' from France, the Polish press, tightly controlled by the communist regime, subsequently unleashed a campaign directed more against France than against Lanzmann.

The state-controlled Zolnierz Wolnosci daily was at the forefront of the operation, insisting that "by tarring the image of the Poles in the eyes of the French public, the French (authorities) want to whitewash the image of the Germans.

"If France obviously needs its rich neighbours and allies, it can on the other hand easily besmirch the Poles from whom they get nothing".

Claude Lanzmann was unfazed by the uproar. He said he was "extraordinarily surprised" that Warsaw had asked for the film to be banned on French television.

"Polish officials should come to see my film after they can talk," he said in an interview with AFP.

It remains unclear whether it was Lanzmann's cool composure or the growing awareness among Polish officials of the negative impact their behaviour was having on Poland's image abroad that led Warsaw to reconsider its position.

Within months, the communist authorities did a complete U-turn and all nine hours of the documentary were broadcast in selected Polish cinemas and excerpts were aired on state TV.

They did not, however, invite Laznmann to a televised debate that was aired along with the documentary.

Participants on the panel who were selected by the communist authorities accused Lanzmann of "manipulation" and making a "tendentious" film.

They recognised that anti-Semitism was present in Poland before the war, but rejected any Polish responsibility for the Holocaust.

'Nothing anti-Polish'
The late Dr Marek Edelman, one of the leaders the doomed 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising by Jewish partisans against the Nazis, once said that he saw "nothing anti-Polish in this film", calling it "boring".

The late Pope John Paul II, whom Poles regard as an unquestioned moral authority, underscored its positive impact.

"You have probably seen the movie 'Shoah'," the Polish pope once said, as he welcomed a large group of former French and Belgian resistance fighters at the Vatican.

"The author, by diligently gathering the testimonies of the survivors and even tormentors, wanted to help the human conscience to never forget, to never get used to the evil of racism and its monstrous capacity for destruction."

More than 30 years later, the row over "Shoah" in Poland has become a thing of the past.

But the issue of how Poles treated Jews desperate to survive Nazi German genocide during the Holocaust remains explosive.

Earlier this year, Poland faced international criticism, especially from Israel and the US, over a Holocaust law that imposed jail terms of up to three years for anyone found guilty of ascribing Nazi crimes to the Polish nation or state.

Polish lawmakers amended the law last month, dropping the prison terms after Israel expressed deep concern that Holocaust survivors could be prosecuted for their testimony should it concern the involvement of individual Poles for allegedly killing or giving up Jews to the Germans.

Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II. Six million of its citizens died including three million Jews.

© Agence France-Presse

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