CUNY Film Professor’s Unlikely Script

Returns to a changed Poland for rare doctorate in directing from Lodz film school.

09/02/14
Staff Writer
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A Polish Jew who lost his citizenship in 1968, Andrzej Krakowski he found success in cinema in the United States. Getty Images
A Polish Jew who lost his citizenship in 1968, Andrzej Krakowski he found success in cinema in the United States. Getty Images

Like the estimated 20,000 Polish Jews who became former Polish Jews during a two-year period of state-sponsored anti-Semitism that began in the spring of 1968, Andrzej Krakowski lost his citizenship, his home and any prospect of growing old in the land where he had grown up.

But unlike most of the other displaced Polish Jews who made new lives for themselves in the United States, Israel and other Western countries, Krakowski was already out of Poland when the government’s “Anti-Zionist Campaign” openly turned against the small Jewish community that had survived the Holocaust.

Which was fortunate for him.

Krakowski, now 67 and a successful movie writer/producer/director who serves as a professor of film and video at the City University of New York, was in Los Angeles in 1968, studying at Paramount Studios on a scholarship offered by the Polish government.

At 21, with visions of a career in cinema, he lost his scholarship when he lost his Polish citizenship; he took on a series of odd jobs, working — and sometimes sleeping — in a factory, teaching himself to drive a truck, learning English at night. Yet, he appreciated the hidden blessing that Poland’s leaders who orchestrated the anti-Semitic campaign had given him. “They saved me a lot of grief; I would like to meet the apparatchik [government bureaucrat] who made that decision and personally thank him,” Krakowski said, sitting in his office in CUNY’s Washington Heights campus that is decorated with posters of the films in which he has played a behind-the-scenes role. “They could’ve left me alone in Poland and prevented me from ever being employed, they could have sent me to Siberia. No,” he said sarcastically, “they chose an especially cruel punishment for a young filmmaker — they sent him to Hollywood. What a brilliant idea.”

In the subsequent decades Krakowski, who lives in the Westchester suburb of Katonah, has directed several dozen films and TV movies (including many with Jewish themes) as well as some commercials. He has returned to Poland for several television projects, received Emmy and Oscar nominations, made an infomercial for the Anti-Defamation League and told the story of 1968 in a 2002 docudrama he called “Farewell to My Country.” And earlier this year he received a Ph.D. in directing from the Polish National Film, Television and Theater School in Lodz, where he had received his master’s degrees nearly five decades ago, before the “March events” of 1968.

He completed most of his course work here during the last four years, going back to Poland in January to pass the oral exams for his Ph.D., which CUNY said is the first doctorate in film directing earned by a faculty member at a film school in this country.

He pursued the doctorate degree, he said, to raise the profile of the school’s film and video program, which is part of CUNY’s media and communications arts department. “To have the only Ph.D. in film art [directing] in the country in its ranks should help the program and the department,” he said.

Krakowski, who in the 1970s was accepted into Columbia Pictures’ Young Talent Development Program and made two films for that studio, grew up in a well-connected Warsaw family. His father was a minister of tourism and head of a government-owned film studio; his mother, a radio correspondent. Prominent artists and actors were frequent guests in the Krakowski home.

When Poland turned against its Jews, in the wake of Israel’s victory over Moscow’s Arab allies in the 1967 Six-Day War and an internecine political struggle and suppression of student strikes in early 1968, Krakowski’s father lost his job, eventually taking a menial position as railroad conductor. Thousands of Poles with Jewish ancestry — many of them, like Krakowski’s father, loyal communists — suddenly found themselves denounced and out of work and, under suspicion of being “hidden Zionists,” pressured to leave the country.

Over the next few years, most of the remnants of Polish Jewry departed, among them many engineers and doctors, academics and journalists, artists and performers.

After communism ended in Poland in 1989, the country’s leaders admitted the excesses of 1968-70. In 2000, President Aleksander Kwasniewsi publicly apologized “as the president of Poland and as a Pole.” In 2008, President Lech Kaczynski offered another official apology for Poland’s “shameful” behavior in 1968, pledging to restore the citizenship of the expelled Jews.

Krakowski became a U.S. citizen in 1975. He flourished in this country, studying at the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills and getting increasingly prestigious directing assignments before branching out into producing and screenwriting, and eventually into academia.

About the success of his generation of émigrés, he said, “We had no safety net. It was swim or sink.” And there was “the importance of good education that our parents instilled in us, and the sound work ethic.”

Krakowski’s story is typical of the Polish Jews who were forced into exile, said Konstanty Gebert, a journalist and longtime Jewish community activist in Warsaw. “Many of the ’68 émigrés went on to have spectacular careers in their new countries.”

“In a certain way we were lucky,” Krakowski said. “Most of the emigrants were young and able to quickly adapt to their new circumstances, wherever they ended up living. Those who stayed behind suffered more than we did. We ended up living in countries that embraced us; in the meantime, they lost their entire social infrastructure and remained in a country that was openly hostile to them. The worst fate had befallen our parents. Most of them had already lost their first families during the Holocaust, rebuilt their lives, started new families and in the twilight of their life, instead of enjoying the fruits of their labor, got kicked out of the country they considered their homeland.”

Was he bitter that his homeland had become his persecutor?

“I had a lot of bitterness,” Krakowski said. He turned his bitterness into a drive that fueled his success in his adopted country. Then he went back, for career and personal reasons, to Poland.

“Polish TV invited me in 1997,” Krakowski said. “By then I had been to Poland several times and made several movies there — American movies.

“The first time I went to Poland was in 1985, to produce a film called ‘White Dragon,’” he said. Known in the U.S. as “The Legend of a White Horse,” it was the first coproduction between an American TV/film network (CBS Theatrical) and a state-owned Polish film studio (Perspektywa).

But he also had personal reasons for returning to Poland. “To help my friends in Poland; they were literally starving,” he said. “The head of the studio was my former professor, Janusz Morgenstern, himself a Holocaust survivor. What has been done to us in 1968 was by the government and the Communist Party, as opposed to particular individuals. Hence, I don’t hold any grudges towards specific people.”

steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

09/02/2014 - 18:33

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