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Lena Dunam’s Auschwitz Tour Does More Harm Than Good

An examination of her new movie "Treasure."

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Treasure is a tragicomedy starring Lena Dunham, the 38-year-old behind the HBO phenom, Girls (2012 – 2017). Her co-star is Stephen Fry, a 66-year-old English comedian. Treasure opened in the U.S. on June 14, 2024.

Treasure takes place in February, 1991. Ruth Rothwax travels with her father, Edek, to Auschwitz, where he and his wife had been prisoners. Their chauffeur is Stefan (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a cabbie. The film ends with Ruth and Edek hugging, crying, and apologizing for past failures to express love. Finally, Ruth and Edek unearth actual, buried treasure.

Treasure was directed and co-written by the aristocratically named Julia von Heinz, a 48-year-old German PhD. Von Heinz’s previous film And Tomorrow the Entire World depicts her life in Antifa. Of that film, von Heinz said, “We had to react to society and the rising fascism that we are experiencing here and now.” And Tomorrow the Entire World explores Antifa’s use of violence to oppose those they call “Nazis.”

John Quester, Von Heinz’s husband, fellow German, and fellow former Antifa member, co-wrote Treasure. Dunham, von Heinz, and Fabian Gasmia co-produced. Gasmia is president of the Franco-German Film Academy. He reports that France and Germany “accounted for more than 80%” of the film’s nine-million-dollar budget. “We want to make sure that … all of our films … somehow have the same values and therefore somehow the same identity. At our core, we are often political,” Gasmia says.

During its weekend opening, Treasure acquired a 38 % score at  Rotten Tomatoes. That is more than twice as high as von Heinz received for her 2013 film, Hanna’s Journey, that depicts a romance between a German do-gooder in Israel and an Israeli teacher of the handicapped.

Reviewer Glenn Kenny points out that Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry are celebrities with literally and figuratively larger-than-life personae, and those personae do not disappear into their onscreen roles. Ben Kenigsberg, in a curt New York Times review, says that Fry “never manages to make visceral” Edek’s “masked, repressed trauma.” Edwin Arnaudin says the film “consistently falls flat in all regards.”

Danny Leigh says, “The sitcom notes clang louder” than the Holocaust narrative. The flaws of Treasure “are the same flaws of Ms Dunham’s other work, a strange kind of exhibitionist narcissism that annoys so much it’s hard to appreciate the value of its points,” says Sarah Manvel. “So muddled and misbegotten it’s hard to perform an evidential postmortem … of where it all goes wrong,” says Leslie Felperin. “An uncomfortable experience this: a laboriously acted odd-couple heart warmer … with a sentimentality unsuited to its theme,” writes Peter Bradshaw.

During the first showing, I was one of three people in a normally bustling Paramus, New Jersey multiplex. During the second, I was alone, until a uniformed lad armed with a broom and dustpan entered the theater before the film ended. I wanted to tell him that since no one was seeing Treasure, there’d be nothing to clean up. In its opening weekend, Treasure took in only $374 per theater. It is a box office bomb.

Why, then, bother talking about Treasure? Treasure is part of a genre of media that intentionally distorts World War II history. By extension, this genre distorts our understanding of evil.

First, a summary of the film. Ruth Rothwax is in an airport in Poland. Her last name is from “to wax wroth,” meaning “to become angry.” Ruth is angry because her father, Edek, is late. Ruth hurls the F-word at her father twice in the first few minutes of film.

Ruth addresses Polish people in English. They do not understand. Polish people speaking Polish in Poland angers Ruth further. Loving Polish families reunite at the arrivals gate. Ruth scowls.

Jolly Edek and grumpy Ruth attempt to board the train she has carefully scheduled for them. Edek looks sad and stricken. We understand his response. He is a Holocaust survivor who was transported on a train. Ruth, astoundingly, is oblivious. She reminds Edek that she has worked very hard and spent a lot of money planning this trip. Edek tells her that Polish trains are bad and the bathrooms on Polish trains are really bad. They return to the airport.

Ruth goes to a bathroom. An ugly, overweight, unkempt Pole requires her to pay a tiny sum for toilet paper. Communism promised full employment. When I was a visitor to Poland, I suspected that these bathroom attendants were hired by the state so that everyone would have a job. Ruth is annoyed that she has to pay for toilet paper, even though the price was mere pennies in American money.

Ruth finds Edek in the parking lot with Stefan, a cabbie. Stefan will drive them to Lodz. During this drive, and for the rest of the film, director von Heinz films only ugliness, always in the worst light. The sky is always gray. Buildings are ramshackle. Windows are broken. Interior walls are constructed of cardboard and newspaper. Snow is dirty. Roads are potholed. Industrial sites pockmark the landscape. An expensive hotel has garish interior design. While Ruth sleeps, bugs crawl over her body and bite her, drawing blood. She wakes and sees no bugs; never mind. Von Heinz has successfully connected Poland, bad toilets, and bedbugs in the mind.

Ironically, the one sunny day in the film occurs during Edek and Ruth’s tour of Auschwitz. No doubt the crew had to film at a scheduled time on a given day and could not wait for the overcast weather they preferred.

Arriving at their hotel in Lodz, Edek insists that he and his daughter be assigned adjoining rooms. He bribes the clerk. He’s sending two messages with one gesture: Poles lie and are corrupt. They say they have no rooms, even when they do, and you can get them to give you what you want by bribing them. Second, Poland is unsafe. Edek must be next to Ruth to protect her from Poles who, he insists, will otherwise break in and kill her. As Ruth unpacks, Edek tells her to lock her room’s front door. She says she will, but Edek insists she do it immediately.

Edek repeatedly emphasizes what a terrible idea it was to visit Poland. “What Jew goes to Poland as a tourist?” Edek asks. “Your mother” who is deceased “would be horrified that we are in Poland.”

“Why did you come?” Ruth asks.

“I couldn’t let my daughter travel to Poland alone! Too dangerous!”

Before sleep, and also later, while riding in cabs, Ruth reads one of the pile of Holocaust books she is carrying in her suitcase.

In addition repeatedly to telling the audience that Poles are bad, Treasure tells its audience that Poles are ridiculous and frivolous, unaware of the horrors they committed during the Holocaust. Edek and Ruth, obviously both wounded for life by bad Poles, share the hotel with beautiful young women in brightly colored leotards. These are pageant competitors. These young women are made to look ridiculous in comparison to deep, serious Edek and Ruth, scarred by life’s horrors, reading history books, and thinking deep thoughts.

Stefan, Ruth, and Edek stop at an ugly, anonymous, abandoned industrial site. Edek declares this to be the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. He and Ruth ask Stefan to take their photograph at this site.

They drive to Lodz and visit the site of the textile factory Edek’s family owned. The site is filthy. Ruth brushes aside some dirt and finds a lovely mosaic. The message is that there was once something good here, constructed by Jews, but bad Poles turned it to garbage, and buried the good. A surly Pole chases them away.

They visit the apartment Edek’s family owned. The apartment is occupied by four generations of a dirty, sickly, dishonest, and hateful Polish family. During their scenes, a baby is constantly crying. This family claims they have nothing that once belonged to Edek’s family. In fact they have the family’s tea set, silver tray, and winter coat.

Against Edek’s wishes, Ruth returns to the apartment without Edek and purchases these items. The family demands extortionate prices. Ruth is accompanied by Tadeusz (Tomasz Wlosok), a hotel bellhop. Edek is furious. He rages at Ruth that traveling with Tadeusz put her at risk of being killed, because all Polish people are prone to murdering Jews.

Back at the hotel, a sweet-looking children’s choir is singing a heavenly tune. Again, while Jews, Edek and Ruth suffer horribly, Poles are doing frivolous things: insisting on paying to use the toilet, staging a beauty contest, and, now, singing a Christian song.

Edek and Ruth look out onto Lodz’s main street. Edek says that this street was once full of happy people, but now it is deserted.

Ruth goes for a morning jog and passes a poor, dirty Polish woman who is selling pigs’ feet, a used toothbrush, and a Madonna statue. Ruth gives the begging woman a large sum of money. In her hotel room, Ruth takes out a primitive needle and begins to puncture her flesh. She is tattooing herself with a number, similar to those Nazis tattooed on Auschwitz prisoners. Children of survivors tattooing themselves in this way is a trend; see here.

Stefan drives Edek and Ruth to Krakow, the Polish city closest to Auschwitz. A smiling hotel clerk mentions the Auschwitz museum. Ruth is enraged. How dare he call Auschwitz a “museum”? “It’s a death camp!” she instructs. This same ritual – a Pole referring to Auschwitz as a “museum” and Ruth “educating” the Pole in the “real meaning” of Auschwitz is repeated three times.

As they drive to Auschwitz, the camera shows a dreary view of Polish countryside scored by barbed wire. The message is clear. All of Poland, including agricultural fields, is stigmatized by the Holocaust; Poland is one big concentration camp. Ruth lectures the guide that Auschwitz is not a “museum” but rather is a “death camp.”

Back in the hotel, Ruth enters an elevator full of people laughing over a shared joke. Ruth screams at them to stop. Once again, Ruth, the Jewish person, is deep and dealing with grief, while those around her in Poland are smarmy, dangerous, or ridiculous. Ruth, who has made clear that she has an eating disorder, eats Polish chocolate alone in her hotel room.

Ruth discovers that Edek had a one-night-stand with Zofia (Iwona Bielska), a Polish woman. Ruth is furious. Zofia is pleasant and Edek is a widower so the cause of Ruth’s fury is not clear. This viewer guessed that we are to conclude that Ruth is furious because Edek slept with a Polish woman.

Ruth, perhaps to remind Edek of the reason for their trip, presents him with his father’s coat, which she bought from the obnoxious Polish family. Edek touches the coat and cries for his lost father, who was murdered by Nazis. Intercut with Edek’s tears is more Polish ridiculousness. Polish models are being photographed in the hotel wearing froofy wedding gowns.

Edek, Stefan, and Ruth return to Lodz. Edek digs up a box his family had buried before the Nazi expulsion. The box contains deeds to the apartment and the factory. Edek tells Ruth she can reclaim family property. In the cab ride to the airport, Edek and Ruth reaffirm their love for each other, and apologize for any failures to express that love.

Treasure is adapted from the 1999, award-winning and very well reviewed novel Too Many Men by Australian author Lily Brett. Too Many Men is a fictionalized account of Brett’s own travels to Poland.

In the novel, Ruth Rothwax describes Gdansk as “the middle of nowhere.” Gdansk is a beautiful and historic city; see here. Given that her parents were survivors, Rothwax sees Poland as nothing but “an abstract stretch of horror.” Otherwise, “everyone is dead.” “You think you are going to someplace important? There is nothing important there. There is nothing there.”

Contrary to Brett’s assertions, Poland is an inhabited country. Also contrary to Brett, Poland includes a significant presence of living Jews contributing to Poland’s culture. Jews living in Poland today express discomfort when Jews from other countries insist that they, Polish Jews, no longer exist. “I want to show [foreign Jews] that we exist and that we are human,” Bozena, one Jew living in Poland today, tells a researcher. “Bozena expresses her disappointment about other Jews failing to acknowledge the existence of a contemporary Polish Jewish community.” Joanna, another Polish Jew, says, “Those groups come here, and they look at you like you’re a monkey in a ZOO … It pisses me off when Israelis say, ‘How can you live in this huge cemetery?'” Poland, to Bozena and Joanna, is not a cemetery. It is their home.

In Too Many Men, Ruth lures her father, Edek, to Poland by promising a side trip to Monte Carlo, a casino resort in Monaco. Poland bad / Monaco good. During World War II, ninety Jews from Monaco’s tiny Jewish population were deported to concentration camps; most died. Summarizing George Kundahl’s book The Riviera at War: World War II on the Cote D’Azur, Wikipedia reports that, “Germany coveted Monaco’s neutrality because its flexible regulations and tax system allowed Nazis to trade with the rest of the world through figurehead enterprises it established in the principality. With access to a neutral country, Germany could obtain foreign currency, which was a necessary component for carrying out ambitious military projects and war-related activities.”

Brett’s dichotomy, of Poland bad / Monaco good does not reflect objective reality. Brett reviles Poland, devastated by German Nazi and Communist Russian occupation and genocidal policies, and rewards Monaco, a superrich resort that was used by Nazi Germany. Brett acknowledges her own skewed approach.

“Jews might express anger or hostility or a fear of Germans, but they didn’t deride them in the same way that they slurred Poles … She hardly ever expressed any hostility to Germans. But given half a chance, a round of aggression would fly out of her if she spoke about the Polish.”

Brett describes Poles. “They look harsh and crushed and wrinkled and old as soon as they hit forty, as though their souls have slipped out of them and turned into skin.”

Brett’s Poland, like the Poland of Treasures, is ugly. There are trees, but Jews, Brett writes, are urban people, and aren’t “meant to know about trees.”

The Poles with whom Brett interacts are obnoxious.

“In restaurants, shops, and offices, the notion of service hadn’t been wholly absorbed. Train conductors, shop assistants, clerks, and waiters seemed to slip from sycophantic to surly with unseemly speed. Most officials could lurch from obsequious to peremptory, in any exchange, with no evidence of what caused the switch. It was hard to like Poles … A lot of Jews disliked Poles. ‘They’re a suspicious and sour people, and they seem to have a monopoly on stained, brown teeth.'”

Brett justifies her hatred of Poles with a particularly ugly scene, She describes a young woman “having a s—” in public. Brett offers a detailed description of the excrement itself – its color and shape. This sight, Brett says, is “so Polish” because it is so “coarse and vulgar.”

Polish women, Brett insists, “are all over-lipsticked. Their bright red lipstick extended way above and beyond their mouths, and the black penciled curves on their foreheads were not in the same place that the eyebrows they were mimicking could possibly have been. They looked harsh and judgmental.”

Polish men, Brett informs her reader, beat their wives.

And, of course, “The Poles were eager to prove their loyalty to the Germans. Heil Hitler, they said. Heil Hitler.”

Brett says that once the Nazis invaded, a Pole who had wanted to “f—” her mother turned on her.

“‘You’ll be sorry you didn’t f— with me … No one will want to touch you now, you piece of s—,’ he said. ‘You missed out on a good f—. You thought you were better than me. Well, you’re not. The Germans know who is s— and who isn’t.'” In just a few opening pages, Brett conflates, in her reader’s mind, Polish people and excrement. She repeats the word “s—” over and over, always in reference to Poles, in several different scenarios.

Jews, in contrast, are clean and orderly. The Rothwax home “smelled of Chanel No. 5 and Christian Dior creams and lotions. Everything was in its place.” Ruth’s mother “ironed and folded towels, napkins and sheets. She ironed handkerchiefs. She stored things in neat, carefully organized shelves. You could see at a glance where everything was kept.”

Within the very few opening pages of her book, Brett cleanses herself of any suspicion of being a prejudiced person by insisting that she is charitable to black people. An ambitious teenager asks her for a job. She hires him.

The black teen’s mother is grateful and seals Ruth’s lack of prejudice. “‘Not many white women would give a young black man a chance … I’m going to pray for you in church, on Sunday.’

‘Thank you,’ Ruth had said. Ruth knew life was hard for young black kids, especially boys. She could see how segregated America was.”

Disclaimer: I am the author of Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture. In that prize-winning book, I describe a stereotype of the Brute Polak, or, indeed, the Brute Serb, Slovak, Ukrainian, etc. This stereotype is deployed to distort World War II history. That war, and the Holocaust, become, not the project of clean, modern, overtly anti-Christian, well-educated German Nazis. The responsible party are dirty, primitive, superstitious, Catholic, backward peasants. This replacement of German Nazis with Polish peasants is typified by a 2009 quote by Stephen Fry, the actor who plays Edek in Treasure. “Let’s face it, there has been a history in Poland of rightwing Catholicism, which has been deeply disturbing for those of us who know a little history, and remember which side of the border Auschwitz was on.”

As in Fry’s statement, in the Brute Polak stereotype, Auschwitz is not the project of Nazi Germany; rather, it is the project of the Catholic Church. If we want to avoid atrocity in the future, all we have to do is not be primitive Catholics. We just take a shower, go to school, stop believing in God, suppress right-wing Catholics, and learn to be tolerant of difference. Both Treasure and the novel on which it is based, Too Many Men, are examples of the Brute Polak stereotype.

I first began visiting Eastern Europe in the mid-1970s; my most recent visit was in 2022. I’ve been to several major cities and tiny villages. I have slept in peasant homes and expensive hotels. I have never seen the Poland filmed by von Heinz, the aristocratic German former Antifa member, or described by Brett, the Australian novelist. I have seen people defecate in public – in India. Never in Poland.

I have walked Polish streets and shared classrooms, dorm rooms, restaurants and synagogue services with real, live Jewish people, including rabbis, including Hasidim. I have never had a problem with violence. I have read several accounts by Jews in Poland who report that they feel safer there than any place else in Europe. See here.

The Poland I have visited, including agricultural villages, has been – and I’ve been told that this is changing – a rigidly formal place, where women aspire to a delicate and ladylike demeanor, even if they spend their days slopping hogs, and men do kiss hands and insist on carrying women’s bags. I have been rescued numerous times by Polish strangers who approach me at train stations or other public places, buy tickets for me, never allow me to pay them back, carry my bags, buy me treats, and walk with me so that I’m safe and ask for nothing in return.

There are two Poles in Treasure who, superficially, do not fit the stereotype. Stefan, the cabbie, is eager to please. Tadeusz, the bellhop, is a nice young man. Treasure, and also its source material, the novel Too Many Men, though, have instructed us quite overtly that Polish humanity is never to be trusted. The obnoxious family in Edek’s apartment insist that they have nothing of Edek’s family’s belongings. They are lying. The desk clerk says that there are no available adjoining rooms. She is lying. The schoolboy who turned on Ruth’s mother after the Nazi invasion. He had a crush on her – but once the Nazis arrived, this Polish schoolboy turned out to be a foul-mouthed Nazi. Both Edek and Ruth pour large sums of money into Polish hands, including Stefan’s and Tadeusz’s. These two are only decent because they have been paid. They are Polish Stepin Fetchits, groveling for dollars.

In Treasure, Ruth and Edek stop at a random abandoned factory and pretend that it is the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. The anonymity and desolation of the scene communicates what Brett’s book says outright. Poland does not remember its murdered Jews.

The real location of the former Warsaw Ghetto hosts the thirty-six foot tall Pomnik Bohaterow Getta, or Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. This monument was partially constructed of labradorite stone sent to Warsaw for Albert Speer’s planned Nazi monuments. The monument depicts Jewish fighters against Nazism in heroic poses. The central figure is Mordecai Anielewicz, a 24-year-old uprising leader. Anielewicz and his fellow combatants look dignified, determined, and immortal. They stand against a wall, representing both the walls of the Nazi ghetto and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Two menorahs stand in front of the fighters.

This monument was first planned in 1944, while the war still raged. A precursor to the current monument was put in place in April, 1946, less than a year after V-E Day. The current monument has been in place since 1948. Opposite the monument stands the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a large and important site of Jewish culture.

In 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt, in a move he insists was spontaneous, knelt at the Ghetto monument. His gesture made history and it is still a matter of much discussion. “Krzysztof Ruchniewicz, professor of history at the University of Wroclaw” is quoted in Deutsche Welle. “Until then it had always been the ‘evil Germans.’ They were seen as revanchists and warmongers. And then there was suddenly a German chancellor, who knelt down signaling an openness to atonement.” Tens of thousands gathered at the monument during Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1983; see here and here. President Obama visited in May, 2011.

Dunham was Woke before the term gained widespread currency. She positions herself as an oppressed fat woman, sharing oppression with oppressed others. She famously, repeatedly, appeared naked in Girls. Dunham shared images of herself naked, in a public restroom, sitting on a toilet, eating an entire birthday cake by herself. As the Daily Mail put it, “Lena has been praised not just for her writing, acting and directing talents, but also for her willingness to openly parade her larger figure in front of the camera, in defiance of the Hollywood pressure on women to be thin.”

Like novelist Lily Brett, Dunham uses black people as a badge of her participation in the struggle. In the final season of Girls, after  the show was criticized for being too white, Dunham’s character became pregnant with and gave birth to a black baby. She also announced her attraction to rapper Drake. Drake is the son of a black father and a Jewish mother. “No one would be calling me a racist if they knew how badly I wanted to f— Drake,” Dunham has said. Her desire for a dark-skinned man is meant to prove her virtue.

When Dunham has lost weight, that too is part of the struggle. “Donald Trump became president and I stopped being able to eat food … Everyone’s been asking like, ‘What have you been doing?’ And I’m like, ‘Try soul-crushing pain and devastation and hopelessness and you, too, will lose weight,'” Dunham said in 2017.

When Dunham posts, as she has several times, photos of herself on the toilet, and others react negatively, that negative reaction is proof that she is oppressed – see here.

During the publicity tour for Treasure, rather than focusing on the October 7 attack on Israel or worldwide antisemitic manifestations, Dunham has chosen to place an Auschwitz story in the same box with “Islamophobia.” “It’s not just antisemitism that’s on the rise,” Dunham says. “it’s Islamophobia. It’s racism in America. It’s about fear of difference … And I think it’s really, really important for us to share the story not just for Jewish people.” “I also hope that it encourages a message of really, really strong opposition to any form of racism, xenophobia or hatred,” she says.

Lena Dunham is obese in Treasure, as is Stephen Fry, who reportedly weighs about three hundred pounds. Dunham wears a knee-length, dark brown, leather coat throughout Treasure. From the back, Dunham’s appearance calls to mind a marine mammal. I am not making a cruel joke. I’m a popular culture analyst telling you what I saw, and what I saw matters for the larger point when discussing a Holocaust film starring an obese celebrity who has politicized her appearance.

The fat, naked, food-and-excretion-obsessed Lena Dunham of Girls is the fat, naked Ruth Rothwax of Treasure. In Girls’ first episode, Dunham takes food and drink into her mouth, twice, releases it, and then consumes it again. She does the same in Treasure. She takes chocolate into her mouth, spits it out, and then, later, eats more chocolate. In Treasure, Dunham is wearing a sleeveless, translucent t-shirt that renders her breasts clearly visible. Her father, whom she knows is sharing a hotel suite with her, walks in on her. She protests that she doesn’t want him to see her exposed breasts – but of course she is the one who has chosen to go braless in her father’s presence. In another scene in Treasure, Dunham is naked in a bathtub, her breasts exposed, and she is eating.

Instead of enjoying Polish hotels’ free breakfasts, Ruth ostentatiously unpacks multiple cannisters of food and slams them down on tables. Since Ruth refuses to eat Polish hotel food, one must ask why she doesn’t eat in the comfort of her room, rather than making a spectacle of herself in the dining room. Ruth / Lena is making a statement.

I experienced these scenes of Dunham eating / not eating / spitting up / as acts of passive aggression, exhibitionism, and narcissism. The movie tells us that Ruth has an eating disorder because her parents were Holocaust survivors. Inherited trauma is real and eating disorders among children of survivors has been the subject of serious study; see here. But Treasure doesn’t treat the topic with the compassion and honesty it deserves. Rather, we have Ruth / Dunham exhibiting to a roomful of Polish diners, “I will not eat your food.”

Treasure is daring us to notice, and remark upon, its leads’ weights. Starvation and simple hunger was a major issue in Poland. Galicia was nicknamed “hungry Galicia” because of famines there, famines that drove immigration to the U.S. Jews and non-Jewish Poles starved to death during World War II. Under Communism, getting enough food was a time-consuming pursuit involving long hours in food lines and the point of numerous jokes. In visits to Czechoslovakia and Poland, I never saw an obese person. Treasure reflects this reality. Its onscreen Poles are slim. The choice to feature two very large performers as visitors to Auschwitz says something. Dunham and Fry’s obesity announces to everyone around, “We have more to eat than you.”

Viewers are dared to interpret Dunham’s obesity negatively. If we do so, we are “judgmental;” we are fatphobic. In fact, though, at the same time that the movie uses Ruth’s refusal to eat Polish food as proof of her superiority to inferior, filthy Poland, we are told that, after all, Ruth’s obesity is not only a bad thing, it is a bad thing that is Polish people’s fault. She has an eating disorder because she is the child of a Holocaust survivor, and the Holocaust is Polish people’s fault.

People outside of Poland tend to be completely unaware of what Nazi Germany and Communist Russia did to Poland, and why. Nazi Germany and Communist Russia crucified Poland. The Ribbentrop – Molotov Pact divided Poland; the Third Reich and the U.S.S.R. would erase the local population through mass deportations and murder, and replace Poles and Poland with Germany and Russia, respectively.

For most of my life, I’ve been trying to talk to uninformed people about the complexities of Poland, and how stereotypes distort truth. This effort matters, because the quest to understand evil matters. At times, I imagine myself in an elevator. I have just a few brief moments, not to introduce my interlocutor to every key fact; that would be impossible. Rather, I try to isolate the one or two facts that will cause my interlocutor to realize that he has been mislead, that he doesn’t know what he thinks he knows, and that he would benefit from discovering more.

Should I tell them about the Polish women in Ravensbruck, the so-called “Rabbits,” subjected to Nazi medical experiments? Or the cattle cars that transported a million Poles to Siberia under conditions so harsh that half died within a couple of years? Or the Einsatzgruppen who committed mass shootings of any Pole who might lead a resistance? Or the lapanki, the roundups, that victimized thousands of Poles. Nazis arrested Poles randomly, with no warning, and killed them, or sent them to concentration camps, or forced them into sex slavery, or slave labor in Germany. Should I tell them about the concentration camp for Polish children, or the Polish children beheaded by Nazis in front of other children as a form of terror?

Should I just tell them about the family of one man, American poet John Guzlowski, whom I quote in my book. “John Guzlowski’s Polish Catholic grandmother, aunt, and cousin were murdered by Nazis and Ukrainians. They raped John’s Aunt Sophie and broke her teeth; they stomped his cousin to death. With his bayonet, a Nazi sexually mutilated John’s Aunt Genia. John’s parents were Nazi slave laborers; his father was in Buchenwald. John was born in a displaced persons camp after World War II.” Should I quote historian Michael C. Steinlauf, the son of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors, who said that Poles, “after the Jews and the Gypsies [were] the most relentlessly tormented national group in Hitler’s Europe”?

World War II began in Poland in 1939 with blitzkrieg, a kind of warfare so horrific that even Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, who accompanied invading Nazi troops, was traumatized by the mechanized slaughter of defenseless civilians. Throughout the almost six years of Nazi occupation, occupiers obeyed Hitler’s order. “I have placed my death-head formation in readiness … with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the Lebensraum which we need.” Himmler echoed Hitler’s goals in his speeches in occupied Poznan. “All Poles will disappear from the world … It is therefore necessary that the great German nation focuses on annihilating all Poles.” The war did not end in Poland on V-E Day. Russian Communists invaded, again. Poles fought and died for years after 1945.

In Treasure, Lena / Ruth lectures Polish people, including an Auschwitz guide, that Auschwitz is not a museum, it is a death camp. Watching these scenes, I thought of a Christmas I spent in Poland. A lovely Polish woman barely knew me but invited me to her home. Her family apartment was cramped and primitive. But yes they had the complete Wigilia supper laid out, including hand-made uszki, pierogi shaped like “little ears.” The phone rang. My hostess chatted for a bit, and then hung up. “That was my grandfather,” she informed me.

“Oh,” I said, not thinking. Any random comment might stumble on bones in Poland, and my next question did just that. “Did you get to talk to your grandmother, too?”

“No,” she said. “My grandmother died in Auschwitz.” My hostess said this so casually.

In every visit to Slovakia and Poland, without trying, I encountered those who survived, or descended from those who survived, or who witnessed, atrocity. I saw reflections of horror in my loved ones’ eyes. I saw tattoos on the arms of Polish revelers at a picnic. I met rumpled looking people who were recognized as Righteous by Yad Vashem. My charming aunt who served us lavish meals was gang-raped by the Red Army.

I don’t have to travel to Eastern Europe to have these encounters. A generous Polish-American accountant who does my taxes is the daughter of a woman who survived one of those Communist cattle cars. Her husband was sent to Kolyma, a Gulag name that should be as notorious as Auschwitz. An English friend is the daughter of a father who fought the Nazis, escaped from Poland, and was never able to return, because Communists would have arrested him. Thus, my friend never met her own grandmother.

Auschwitz was first constructed, and remained, for its first eighteen months, as a camp to destroy Poland. Its first inmates were Poles arrested, imprisoned, tattooed, tortured, and killed as Poles. One such victim was fourteen-year-old Czeslawa (ches WAFF ah) Kwoka. You can see her photograph here. Czeslawa died in Auschwitz because she was Polish and Catholic and the Nazi plan was to eliminate or enslave her and everyone like her.

There are difficult issues between Polish non-Jews and Polish Jews. There were, for example, an estimated 140,000 Poles sent to Auschwitz, about half of whom died. There were an estimated 1,100,000 Jews sent to Auschwitz; a million died there. Both in terms of raw numbers and percentages of overall population, Jews suffered worse. We have yet to master honoring the different suffering of both populations adequately.

Also, while Poland, under the absolute worst conditions in occupied Europe, produced the most Righteous and one of the largest resistance movements, too many Poles committed atrocities against Jews. Poles, for their part, don’t want it forgotten that under occupation some Jews, as well, behaved badly, for example Chaim Rumkowski, and some Jews participated in Communist crimes against Poles, for example Jakub Berman. The point is not to create a false image of equivalency. What happened to Jews in Poland in the twentieth century was an atrocity of world historical significance and there is no excuse for criminal Poles or for antisemitism. The point, rather, is that all populations produce good and bad elements and singling Poland out as the guilty party so that we can write the Holocaust off as a crime committed by alien people unlike us clean, modern, educated types, so that we can revile Poland and enjoy Monte Carlo, is to participate in a failure to take responsibility that we all share for human evil.

Many very good people, Jewish and non-Jewish, have traversed this ground. They include Eliza Orzeszkowa (1841 – 1910), a novelist who almost won the Nobel Prize for her work on Polish-Jewish life; Harold B. Segel (1930 – 2016), a Columbia University Scholar and compiler of Stranger in our Midst; Jan Blonski (1931 – 2009), an essayist; Pope John Paul II; Ewa Hoffman (b. 1945), a memoirist; Menachem Daum (1946 – 2024), a documentarian. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski (1922 – 2015) and Zofia Kossak-Szczucka (1889 – 1968) were both Polish Catholics. They were both Auschwitz prisoners. They worked together to form Zegota, the only government-supported organization dedicated to the rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Lily Brett, Julia Von Heinz, Lena Dunham, and Stephen Fry march past the essential work of these thinkers and activists and resort, only, to the Brute Polak stereotype. They announce themselves as part of the struggle against “Islamophobia,” “fatphobia,” “fascism,” and “stereotyping,” even as they are oblivious to their own bigotry. Had Dunham, Fry, Brett, and von Heinz exposed themselves to the truth of Poland they would have, as I did, without even trying, encountered non-Jewish victims, and non-Jewish heroes. They chose to ignore those victims and those heroes because attending to them would have revealed the falsity of the Brute Polak stereotype and the folly of their own arrogance and easy answers. The Brute Polak stereotype flatters Germany and France, the financial backers of Treasure.

Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery

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