Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Runaway: Polish and Ukrainian Courage at Auschwitz

They are the forgotten concentration camp prisoners.  Originally, the National Socialists commissioned Auschwitz to hold Polish POWs and prisoners of conscience.  An estimated 130,000-140,000 perished there due to starvation and inhumane treatment.  Another 15,000 Soviet POWs were also imprisoned there, a substantial percentage of whom were in fact Ukrainians, according to the historical context provided by Rutgers Prof. Alexander Motyl before last night’s screening of Marek Pawłowski’s The Runaway (trailer here) at the Ukrainian Institute of America.

Given the film’s subjects and the co-sponsorship of the host Institute, the Polish Cultural Institute and the Ukrainian Film Club of Columbia, the theme of Ukrainian-Polish cooperation was often expressed. It is not hard to understand why the three cultural organizations shared an interest in the Polish Pawłowski’s documentary.  It tells the story of the filmmaker’s countryman, Kazimierz Piechowski, the sole survivor of the first successful escape from Auschwitz.

It was a risky plan largely formulated by Ukrainian Yevhen “Gienek” Bendera, perfectly executed by the former mechanic, Piechowski, and their two Polish comrades.  However, their clean getaway was just the beginning of the story.  Initially, Piechowski seemed likely to share the tragic fate that befell his fellow escapees.  As was the case for most veterans of the Polish Home Army after the war, Piechowski found himself consigned to a Communist prison on trumped up charges.  While his ten year sentence was considered relatively light, he endured regular torture sessions throughout his incarceration.  When he was finally released, Piechowski went back to the only civilian job he had known in the Gdansk shipyards.  Right, from there everyone should have a rough idea how the story unfolds.

Surprisingly, a good portion of Runaway celebrates Piechowski’s resiliency and modest triumph over two of the Twentieth Century’s most oppressive ideologies. Evidently, Piechowski and his beloved wife longed to travel the world during the dark days of Communism, so now they do as wonderfully spry senior citizens.  (In a way, they bring to mind the lovely parents of our Czech friends, who sort of became home-bodies when their illegally appropriated family home was restored to them after the Velvet Revolution. God bless them both.)

Frankly, it is rather refreshing to get some spiritual uplift in a film that covers both the National Socialist concentration camps and the years of Stalinist oppression. Indeed, Pawłowski pulls off quite a neat trick in that respect. Visually, Runaway has a bit of a TV production look, but the scenes of Piechowski revisiting the notorious concentration camp are powerful nonetheless.  As it happens, Pawłowski’s documentary has had significant television air time in both Poland and Germany (which is a particularly good thing).

Without question, Piechowski is an inspiring figure, well worth meeting on-screen. Clocking in at a disciplined fifty-six minutes, Runaway will broaden many viewers perspective on the harrowing realities of both regimes he outlived.  It also serves as a reminder of the tragic legacy shared by Poland and Ukraine that will hopefully lead to greater friendly solidarity for the two countries (such as that expressed Miroslav Dembiński’s Dwarves Go to Ukraine). Recommended for anyone who might have an opportunity to see it at a festival or academic venue, Pawłowski’s The Runaway really deserves a spot on PBS’s schedule.