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The Construction of European Holocaust Memory: German and Polish Cinema after 1989

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Malgorzata Pakier

Is a common European Holocaust memory possible? The author approaches this question by analyzing Polish and German cinema after 1989, and the public debates on the past that have surrounded the filmic narratives. Of all media, cinema has exerted the broadest impact in the formation of collective memory regarding the Holocaust. Despite the distance in time, and especially since the fall of communism, this traumatic chapter in European history has come into ever sharper focus. Film makers have refracted evolving public awareness and in turn projected the dramas and images that inculcate mass opinion. This work examines these dynamic trends with regard to selected Polish and German feature films. The author shows how cinema opened hitherto taboo aspects to discussion. She reveals both a deep divide between the two countries, as well as significant similar trends in the memory of events.

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CHAPTER IV. Collective Portraits of Poles and Germans.The Narrative of “Ordinary People”in Just beyond this Forest (Poland, 1991),Burial of a Potato (Poland, 1990),and Jewboy Levi (Germany, 1999)

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CHAPTER IV Collective Portraits of Poles and Germans. The Narrative of “Ordinary People” in Just beyond this Forest (Poland, 1991), Burial of a Potato (Poland, 1990), and Jewboy Levi (Germany, 1999) After 1989 the notion of “ordinary people” assumed major importance as a category of discourse about the Holocaust. Its growth marked fundamental changes in both the German and Polish historical discussions. In Germany, this category was related to a shift in approach on the issues of perpetration and responsibility for the Holocaust, initiated by discussion around the book Ordinary Men (1992) by the American historian Christopher R. Browning and by the exhibition “Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944” (War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944), organized by the Hamburg Institute of Social Research in 1995. In Poland, the problem of “ordinary people” with regard to their negative role during the Holocaust was introduced into public debate above all with the publication of Neighbors (2000) by the Polish historian Jan T. Gross. This work has come to epitomize the revision of dominant historical narratives about the noble and heroic wartime behaviour of Poles. Although the attention to ordinary people occupied different contexts in Germany and Poland, a commonality did emerge. Within both countries the debates challenged an all-too-neat delineation between perpetrators and bystanders, by drawing attention to aspects of complicity in the Holocaust that had hitherto been aired rarely if at all. A critical portrayal of ordinary people and their role vis-à-vis the Holocaust can...

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