We all know how important it is to keep the memory alive about the Holocaust. It must not be forgotten. We can’t consign it to the dusty pages of history, because it’s too important for our children and grandchildren to know what happened. So it won’t happen again.
But you go to a Holocaust Museum (such as the one in Dallas , Texas ), and it’s too overwhelming. The voices of 6 million Jews cry from the realm of the dead, and yet the chorus of grief and wailing is too cacophonous to be discerned clearly. You watch “Schindler’s List,” and it’s too overwhelming. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” was a start, because it began with a modest story about one family, though the specter of the monstrosity was pervasive and oppressive. “The Book Thief” was an excellent attempt to tiptoe past the unspeakable horrors through the filter of a child, and a luminous one, at that (young Sophie Nelisse was a stroke of perfect casting by veteran Director Brian Percival).
In “Ida,” we have the Polish version, by veteran Director Pawel Pawlikowski. Again, we bump up against the darkness without ever actually entering it. And we see it all through the eyes of a child. Or at least a waif who’s as innocent as a child, because she’s a novitiate, about to take the lifetime vows of becoming a nun: poverty, chastity, obedience. She’s been raised in a Catholic orphanage and knew nothing of her family. She only knows the starkness and severity of cloistered nunnery. Until the day her Mother Superior informs her that she has an Aunt, and she needs to go visit her before committing her life to sequestering.
Ida is in for a shock. First of all, her name’s not Ida, it’s Anna. Leibowitz. Her parents were Jews, killed during the War. (The film is set in the early 1960’s, when many of the Polish citizens, stricken survivors, still had sharp memories of those dolorous times.) Her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking Communist Party judge, who sits in tribunal trying people for various acts of anti-socialism, like destroying tulips. She seems cynical and angry, and is particularly critical of Anna’s Catholic habits and garb. Of course, Ida/Anna (Played compellingly by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) has never known anything else, so of course she wears her distinctive habit, and of course people treat her differently. Though religion is no longer encouraged in the Communist state, still, there are roadside shrines. Mothers stop her and ask her to bless their children (presumably because priests can no longer baptize in public). Aunt Wanda is aghast at all this misplaced zeal, and can’t understand why her lovely niece insists on covering her beautiful red hair, which is so like her Mother’s.
Anna, for her part, asks Aunt Wanda why she didn’t pick her up from the orphanage. But she didn’t understand the full extent of the terrible pogroms. The people who live in the family house now don’t want to talk about anything or knowing anyone, for fear that their squatter’s rights will somehow be jeopardized. (Remember that the Gentile survivors were the beneficiaries of all those abandoned houses…and possessions.) Nobody really wants the past to be dug up, but that’s literally what Wanda and Anna must do, as they try to find the graves of Anna’s parents, and the dark secrets buried with them.
Meanwhile, Anna experiences a kind of sensual awakening. After they pick up a hitchhiker, he turns out to be a jazz musician, who introduces them to Coltrane. He’s attractive, but Anna literally doesn’t know what to do with herself. At one point he says to her, “You don’t have any idea of the affect you’re having, do you?”
No, but she might find out. And the self-awareness might startle her into making decisions about her life that are very different from the ones she’d always assumed.
This black-and-white, stark, simple story is so small-scoped that it doesn’t overwhelm. But it does leave a doleful, soulful impression. Especially considering the unspeakable context, which we can never forget.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas