They do not care if they go down in history as barbarians
They do not care if they go down in history as barbarians

My paternal grandmother, Perel, of blessed memory, was hacked to pieces by Cossacks in her tea shop in Lutsk. I am named after her. Perhaps a part of me remembers it all.

When he was eight years old, after miraculously surviving pogroms and civil wars, my father, of blessed memory, was finally rescued and brought to America from Ukraine, in the province of Volhynia, in which Odessa is located. This was during or just after WWI and long before the Holocaust. Thus, in a sense, I am also a daughter of Lutsk, Ukraine, born of sheer luck.

This brings me to the story of the Romanian Holocaust-era massacre of Odessa’s Jews, the subject of a demanding and masterful film on the subject.

Are those capable of violent, genocidal massacres also capable of acknowledging and memorializing their evil deeds? Are their descendants able to do so? And, does it matter? Does unearthing the truth about large-scale human evil bring the tortured and the dead back to life? Does it redeem their descendants (if they have any)? Equally important, does it have the power to limit future racist genocides? If not, what is the point of remembering? Is it only to desecrate one’s great-grandparents? And is there really one “truth” about “complex” war-time realities or are there many?

Also: Why focus on small massacres, even genocides, when there are larger ones to contemplate? Why look at what happened to Jews in 1941 in Odessa or Jedwabne when millions more were industrially exterminated in German Nazi concentration camps? When the Soviets murdered more than a hundred million of their own people? When the Americans dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Why even focus on the past when there are so many contemporary massacres taking place? Consider the late 20th century and early 21st century in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria—not to mention the roving masters of terrorism such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, Boko Haram? Isn’t obsessively focusing on the distant past essentially diversionary? Shouldn’t we instead be attending to the many ongoing massacres in our times that we are obliged to stop?

These are some of the questions (there are many more) that animate the Romanian film I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians by director Radu Jude.

The film depicts a feisty, feminist female director, Mariana Marin, wonderfully played by Ioanna Jacob, who is directing the rehearsals for a public re-enactment of a Romanian Holocaust-era military battle between Nazi Germans, Soviet Russians, and Romanians. Her actors are not professionals.

Her city hall interlocutor, Movila, also artfully played by Alexandra Dabija, has funded the extravaganza and wants her to focus on Romanian heroism, or at least on Romania as a victim of aggression, not as a perpetrator. Movila does not want her to re-enact the gratuitous, Romanian massacre of more than 100,000–300,000 civilian Jews in Odessa/Ukraine in 1941, a genocide ordered by Marshal Ion Antonescu, and for which he was ultimately tried and executed.

Barbarians is a very “busy” film: In addition to the expected and gratuitous “art” film nudity, the film is simultaneously ironic, sarcastic, vulgar, highly literary and intellectual (the works of Babel, Arendt, Wiesel, Wittgenstein, Benjamin, are read aloud and critiqued), pretentious, irreverent, good natured, pessimistic, often confusing, sometimes boring, overly long—but it is also persuasive and devastating.

Movila points out: “All of Europe was anti-Semitic. So we (Romanians) became Europeans.”
A priest rouses the people to murder: “The dirty Jews must be crushed... to not react against the Jews is to doom ourselves. If the Jews win we will be their slaves. If we kill them, we will be purified.”

Movila points out: “All of Europe was anti-Semitic. So we (Romanians) became Europeans.”

Jude’s fictional and contemporary Romanian audience, which views the public re-enactment of the military battle, cheers the Nazi soldiers, boos the Soviet soldiers, and applauds as the fictionalized Jews are being burnt alive. 

The film answers all its questions. One is not meant to “like” the answers. Here they are.

No one wants to remember what, in this case, Romanians did to civilian Jews and gypsies.

Those Romanians who insist on remembering, are vulnerable to censorship (Mariana faces this), and punishment.

People want to remember their ancestors as noble or as victims, never as perpetrators.

Nothing has really changed. Despite all the righteous Gentiles, Eastern Europeans would again probably incinerate the Jews. In fact, in Ukraine today, the city has sold what is a mass grave of Jews murdered in Poltava to a real estate developer. Only last year, the existing monument for the Poltava victims was defaced with “Heil Hitler” and “Death to the Kikes.”

Barbarians is a film of agonized conscience. It reminded me of the film Aftermath which fictionalizes the 1941 pogrom of Jedwabne’s Jews at the hands of their Polish neighbors. Like Odessa, and like Ostroleka, Jedwabne’s Jews were herded by their neighbors into barns and buildings and set on fire. A contemporary Christ figure who tries to do the right thing is literally crucified by the Poles who do not want to be held accountable for their evil, greedy deeds.

Pasikowski’s powerful film Aftermath caused a huge controversy in Poland—it was banned in some Polish towns—as did Jan Gross’s painstaking documentation of this same atrocity. The Polish government threatened to strip Gross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland and his impeccable research was hotly challenged. Something similar happened to Anna Bikont who also published The Crime and the Silence—another superb piece of research on this subject.

Nazi Germans industrialized ethnic cleansing. Catholic priests and nationalist leaders incited their populations to take up their proverbial pitchforks and torches and begin hacking away, burning Jews alive, possessing their tiny apartments and their pitiful crockery. Jedwabne and Ostroleka were both impoverished, agrarian communities, not large cities. The Jews did not have enviable crystal and chinaware.

See this hard-hitting film about the barbarians in our midst. It will be opening in New York City on July 19 at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles on July 26.