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Jewish Ghosts in Poland

Ralph Seliger
August 30, 2016

by Ralph Seliger

demonPOLAND IS HAUNTED by the Holocaust and the very charged history of Polish-Jewish relations. This is metaphorically dramatized in Demon, a modern-day adaptation of the dybbuk legend, made famous in a variety of literary and dramatic versions (most notably in Sh. An-ski’s oft-produced Yiddish play, The Dybbuk), in which a dead person’s troubled spirit takes over somebody else’s body.

The film makes its cinematic debut in the United States (September 9) just as Poland is criminalizing the phrase “Polish death camps” — contending it to be a defamation of the Polish nation rather than a geographic designation. It also arrives as the Polish-American (and half-Jewish) Princeton University historian Jan T. Gross is under criminal investigation for “publicly libeling the Polish nation” in scholarly works and interviews about Polish violence against Jewish citizens during and after World War II.

Itay Tiran, an Israeli stage and screen actor of some prominence, plays the lead role (variously called Python, Piotr or Peter) as the bridegroom who comes from Britain to marry his Polish sweetheart, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), the sister of his best friend, only to become possessed. He is said to be British, and I had assumed him to be a Brit of Polish origin, as his Polish is fluent, albeit imperfect. His English was not convincingly that of a native speaker either, however. Oddly, too, the character brings no one to his own wedding — not a single relative or friend. Just who the man really is becomes clear at the end in a flash.

The wedding takes place on the grounds of the country home belonging to Piotr’s prosperous new father-in-law; he, in turn, is giving this fairly large but dilapidated old house to the new couple. A question raised but never explicitly answered is how the house became his father-in-law’s property — how it came to be owned by his bride’s deceased grandfather. Reading between the lines, we can guess that it had belonged to a Jewish family that perished during the Holocaust, and that perhaps Zaneta’s grandfather played a role in their demise.

THERE IS ONE obviously Jewish invitee to the wedding, a little old man who is respectfully referred to as “the professor,” but when his toast to the new couple turns darkly to “memory,” he is politely shunted from the microphone. In a more realistic situation, a wedding guest would not likely “honor” the newlyweds with a discourse touching upon genocide, but the professor is a plot contrivance representing a Jewish community that no longer exists. This is made obvious late in the film when the bride rides through town with him and he pitifully identifies the one-time homes and shops of real people — Jews and their families alive during his youth, but long gone for obvious reasons.

Sadly, Demon’s talented filmmaker, Marcin Wrona, committed suicide at 42, not long after completing this work in 2015. There are circumstances in his life that apparently drew him to the dybbuk story: half of his native town of Tarnow was Jewish before the Holocaust, and his father — who is understood to have violently abused his wife and terrorized his children — worked as an exorcist.

There is one mildly frightening scene and a number of creepy ones, but this is not a horror film. There even are comedic scenes as the wedding degenerates into a confused drunken revelry. Demon is the perfect allegory for today’s Poland — steeped in Jewish history but devoid of a substantial ongoing Jewish presence, and on edge about this disjunction and why it happened.

Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently administers the blogs for Ameinu and The Third Narrative.