My grandfather told my mother we were Jewish on his deathbed.

That was the observation I fixated on as I watched Dekalog: Eight. My maternal grandfather’s family name is Swartz. “Swartz” was the Anglicization of the very German and very Jewish “Schwarz”, and it was the name that my forebears were given when they immigrated to America in the early 20th century. My narrow line of the Swartz tree settled in West Virginia, and at some point between the 1910s and the 2000s, our Jewish identity had become such a point of shame and was covered in such secrecy that my mother — a devout Evangelical Christian — was in her 40s before she found out she was Ashkenazim.

I don’t know if my initial German Jewish ancestors came to America out of fears of the rising antisemitism in Germany or because of imagined economic opportunities or both, but they wound up in the heart of Scotch-Irish Appalachia, and either by choice or necessity (or both), their Jewish heritage disappeared and was eventually colonized by Protestantism, 20th century capitalism and militant American imperialism (many of the men in my mother’s family being proud participators  in the latter).

American antisemitism and white supremacist cultural hegemony devoured millennia of tradition from my family’s identity until they co-opted the identity of their oppressors to survive and eventually later generations had no idea what had been given up.

That fate — to be devoured entirely by another culture until you are thoroughly digested and incorporated into its systems — marked my family as one of the more fortunate group of Jews of the 20th century. At least for the line that had come to America, they were safe from the horrors of the Shoah.

Dekalog: Eight is Krzysztof Kieslowski’s parable of the necessary push and pull of deontology and utilitarianism in the face of the extinguishing evil of the Holocaust. Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska) is an elderly ethics professor in Warsaw. During the war, Zofia and her husband helped to smuggle Jewish children into Catholic homes. However, of the many children they were unable to save during the war, one stood out because they had been so close to saving her as well. Zofia and her late husband, a resistance fighter, were helping with paperwork for fake baptisms for Jewish children. There were rumors that the family the little girl, Elzbieta, was being sent to was actually Gestapo agents, and so Zofia claimed that she and her husband couldn’t lie about the girl’s faith because of their own Catholic beliefs, and Elzbieta and the adult helping to smuggle her had to leave and try to find someone else to take Elzbieta in.

Elzbieta was hidden away with a family of farmers and survived the war. The reports about the family that had wished to take her in were false but the resistance had already harassed them before their innocence was discovered. Elzbieta left for America and learned of all of the good Zofia had done for other Jewish children during the war. But she hadn’t been able to save her. Elzbieta only knew that for some reason she wasn’t worth saving. She didn’t know the rumors about the secret police (or that they weren’t true to begin with) until she finally confronted Zofia who had no reason to believe that little girl from the war had survived the Holocaust. She was just a little girl that didn’t want to die and the adults who were supposed to protect her turned her away.

If you wanted to be reductive, you could look at Dekalog: Eight as a maximally horrific embodiment of the trolley problem, but Kieslowski is not the filmmaker for those searching for neat moral decrees. Zofia has come to terms with the decision she made. She knowingly chose to keep saving other children even if it meant almost certain death for this one girl. The truth of that choice — the girl’s death and the death of millions of girls like her — weighed on Zofia her entire life.

Zofia became an ethics professor. She dedicated her life to teaching young adults about the necessity of moral thinking and personal responsibility. Her resemblance to Hannah Arendt would be uncanny if it weren’t for the fact that Arendt was a German Jew who escaped Europe through France as a child instead of a younger woman saving Polish Jewish children in Warsaw. What was the ultimate point of Arendt’s work if it wasn’t to instill in her readers a concern that the power structures of modernity (which to Arendt was 1950s/60s capitalism/Soviet Communism) were robbing the individual of any agency to resist injustice because it removed the need a person would have to even ponder if these injustices exist or if they are complicit in these injustices.Those questions are the foundations of ethical philosophy and you’re lucky to have ever had a formal class in it, even if you have a bachelor’s degree (and I haven’t and I do).

Capitalism discourages the necessity for any moral thinking outside of the accumulation of capital, and Stalinism discouraged the necessity for any moral thinking outside of the narrow-frame of Marxism-Leninism (and I say this as a Marxist-Leninist). Arendt had seen fascism nearly destroy the world, and she saw both political hegemons of the mid-20th century fostering populations that thought about the state and power in the cold, cruel ways that had driven fascism. I’m a socialist. I would never compare the Soviet Union to fascism (or to capitalist empire). However, Arendt believed in a philosophy that centered the self and holding the self accountable for your actions and holding your self accountable for your moral philosophy and holding your self accountable for cultivating a moral philosophy that the bureaucratic inhumanity of both the birth of finance capitalism and also Stalinist socialism actively repressed.

Elzbieta confronts Zofia because she believes Zofia has answers.

Zofia has reasons. She has explanations. But she knows and owns the fate she thought she had consigned Elzbieta to and has to live the horror and guilt of that choice all over again when Elzbieta resurfaces in her classroom even as she knows this means Elzbieta lived. Zofia knows nothing can justify what she did. It was a choice and one she had to live with and carry til she was an old woman, who tries to keep in shape but is getting to be so old, willpower isn’t going to keep her going. Elzbieta, the lost little girl of Zofia’s memory, has turned into an ambitious, resilient woman and it was able to occur despite the choices Zofia had to make, not because of them.

At a summer camp I went to in high school, I got to listen to a talk given by a woman, Nesse Godin, who had survived the Holocaust and internment in a death camp. She had dedicated her life to making sure no one ever forgot how real and recent its horrors were. I didn’t know I was Jewish when I saw Nesse talk. That revelation was a couple years down the road. But I had remembered so acutely watching Schindler’s List in high school the semester before the camp and the kids laughing at inappropriate moments in the film and realizing that what they were watching just wasn’t real for them or if it was real, they found it comical. Any time someone asked “how could this happen” in class, I knew what one of those root symptoms looked like. People dissasociating to a place of comfort in the face of injustice and suffering because they had a way to other those suffering. And here was Nesse Godin, a woman who knew she couldn’t sleep at night unless she was doing everything she possibly could to ensuring another Shoah never occurred.

I tend to piss off other Jews because I don’t feel comfortable talking about my heritage without addressing that I’m a Jew who actively denounces the state of Israel. One of my closet friends (as well as a former romantic partner) stopped speaking to me because I criticized Gal Gadot’s support of the Israeli military (and her own unapologetic service in that military). It did not help that I said that supporting Israel was equivalent to supporting South African apartheid and that I support a single Palestinian state. An intense and meaningful (and complicated) friendship ended because I said Zionism was imperialism. I was told I was an anti-semite and I haven’t heard from this person since. They aren’t the first Jew (or Christian) that has stopped speaking to me because I think Israel should be held accountable for the suffering and oppression it has wrought.

And when I think about the Holocaust and all of its evils, all I can think about anymore is how the people who should know better than almost anyone what the price of colonialism and racial and religious violence is are the people who are inflicting some of the most cruel injustices of the contemporary world. I think about how a history of western imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and historical Zionism “solved” European and American anti-semitism by committing to the genocide and subjugation of the Palestinian people.

If you’re Jewish and you’re okay with the state of Israel, you’re a bigot. If you’re Israeli, you’re an occupier. If you’re a Gentile American, you’re a collaborator with apartheid. In Dekalog: Eight, Elzbieta’s outburst in Zofia’s classroom is caused when Elzbieta gives a lesson that places the welfare of a child above the concerns of any adult. Elzbieta knows when Zofia sacrificed the welfare of a child and wanted to know why she was the child that had to suffer?

Zofia could at least provide an answer to that question even if couldn’t assauge Zofia’s guilt or Elzbieta’s existential rejection as a child. There is no answer that explains the suffering of the Palestinian people. Why Palestinian children are the ones that have to live without their homeland and without autonomy or rights or welfare. There is no answer that explains the cruelty of the Israeli state, the apathy of its occupying citizens, and the convenient blindness of so many Jews across the world.

You can not choose an innocent’s suffering as an antidote to your own. And you have to hold folks accountable that support and embody that violence. If you don’t, you are a collaborator.

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