In 1968, the Communist government of Poland began an orchestrated and often vicious campaign to expel its last remaining Jewish citizens. Andrezj Krakowski, who was among those thrown out of their own country by an anti-Semitic government, has created an unusual, yet absorbing documentary called “Farewell to my Country,” which recalls this horrifyingly surreal story of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing.
Prior to World War II, Poland was home to the world’s largest Jewish population. However, most of Poland’s three-and-a-half million Jews perished during the Nazi occupation. Those who survived and returned to Poland were greeted with a new wave of anti-Semitism, including a pogrom in 1946 (the first government supported campaign of Jewish extermination after the war). As Poland fell under Communist rule, Jewish culture was officially suppressed and the open practice of the Jewish religion was forbidden. For the remaining Jews in Poland, the deprivation of religious freedom was matched with an unusually high level of religious intolerance, not only from government edicts, but also from many ordinary Polish citizens.
By 1968, the Communist leadership found its control threatened by a new climate of political liberalism and a desire for democracy that was sweeping across Eastern Europe. While this radical political environment was more pronounced in Czechoslovakia, the Polish government nonetheless found that many people were beginning to grumble for greater freedoms. Using the nation’s Jewish population as a scapegoat (less than 30,000 Jews remained by this time), the Polish government began a campaign that branded Poland’s Jews as the root of the country’s political and economic problems. Coupled with charges that Poland’s Jews were working in espionage-related collusion with Israel (which had defeated Poland’s Arab allies in the Six-Day War of the previous year), Jewish people were forced out of their jobs and homes and were suddenly encouraged to leave the country in high numbers. By the time this purge ended, Poland’s Jewish population had virtually disappeared.
The story of the Polish purges of 1968 has curiously dropped from the memory of many people. This is somewhat understandable, as 1968 had more than enough happenings that some crises have been given lower precedent than others. And for many people, the story of Poland’s Jewish population seems to end with World War II; many individuals simply assumed that Holocaust survivors went to Israel or America rather than return to a country where many people did not want them. For bringing this story back to life, “Farewell to my Country” is one of the most invaluable documentaries in release.
In creating “Farewell to my Country,” Krakowski successfully overcame many obstacles that are required to relate a story of this magnitude. For starters, there is very little available film footage from this period that would cover the wide range of indignities and humiliations heaped upon the Jews of Poland. Most of the surviving footage is blurry television news clips of the Communist hierarchy giving double-talk speeches in which they claim tolerance for all people, but then suggest the Jewish population might be better off elsewhere. (Strangely, there is no footage of Jewish leaders in the U.S. or elsewhere condemning the Polish activities. Whether this was an oversight or whether no such footage was even shot is not answered here.)
Furthermore, much of the film is based on the oral histories of the people who were uprooted into exile. It would seem that many of these people were not comfortable relating their tales on camera, so “Farewell to my Country” instead substitutes actors for these survivors. While the words being used come directly from those forced out of Poland, the actors (who are not identified as such until the closing credits) deliver their memories in a moving and highly sincere tone. Not openly identifying the on-camera witnesses as actors may strike some as being curious, but the power of the words relayed here outweighs the process of bringing them to life. Many of the stories related here, from miserable adults subjecting children to anti-Semitic insults to children being assaulted daily because of their faith to university-educated professionals being forced to work in menial jobs, are astonishing in their depth of evil. “Farewell to my Country” sadly provides an inventory of petty and profound hatreds, which should have no place in any civilized society.
Some of the actual exiles appear on camera, including Krakowski himself, who relates how he and his sister immigrated to Los Angeles while their father was left behind in Poland. The film includes passages from letters written by their father, who was falsely told by the Polish authorities that his children abandoned him and renounced their Polish citizenship (when, in fact, the Polish government stripped them of their citizenship and denied the elder man’s emigration).
Krakowski was originally supposed to produce this film in 1998, on the 30th anniversary of the expulsion. He was invited by the post-Communist era government in Poland to film on location, but the invitation was abruptly canceled under the pretense of budget cuts for cultural projects. Mercifully, “Farewell to my Country” was produced and is presented as a testament to a country which placed such a high value on ignorance and intolerance that it created untold misery for thousands of people, disfiguring its own heritage with a scar of shame.