the Holocaust in Poland and Hollywood...what's the connection?


the Holocaust in Poland and Hollywood…what's the connection?

(there is one, I promise).



Nearly the entirety of the Jewish community in Poland was exterminated during the Holocaust. While 66% of Jews in Europe were murdered during World War II, 90% of Poland’s Jews were killed. 

Prior to the Holocaust, in 1939, Poland had the largest Jewish population in the world, at about 3.3 million, or 10% of the total Polish population. By 1945, 3 million Polish Jews had been slaughtered. Thanks to the Holocaust, 800 years of continuous Jewish life in Poland nearly came to an end.

During the Holocaust, the Nazis and their collaborators operated a network of 457  concentration camp complexes, including labor camps, transit camps, and death camps. About 1.1 million Jews were deported to the most infamous of these camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau; 900,000 of the 1.1 million were gassed immediately upon arrival.

Prior to their deportation to the camps, millions of Polish Jews were segregated in ghettos, where they died of disease, starvation, executions, and more. The most significant Jewish anti-Nazi revolt during the Holocaust was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

In many cases, Polish citizens also perpetrated anti-Jewish massacres during the war. For instance, in 1941, non-Jewish Polish civilians engaged in a premeditated mass murder in the town of Jedwabne, when at least 340 Jews were killed in grotesque displays of violence.



“Righteous Among the Nations” is a term used by the State of Israel for non-Jewish people who saved Jews during the Holocaust without expecting anything (e.g. money) in return. This honorific dates back to 1953 and the establishment of the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum, Yad Vashem. Since 1963, a commission under the Supreme Court of Israel is responsible for awarding the title of “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Holocaust-related media would have one think that Righteous Among the Nations — that is, the good guys who saved Jews — were everywhere, but in reality, Righteous Among the Nations were exceedingly rare. Most people in Nazi-occupied Europe — including Poland — were complicit.

Antisemitic sentiment in Europe prior to the Holocaust was rampant, and Poland was no exception. Poland gained independence after World War I. With this independence came a wave of Polish nationalism. Poles considered Jews foreign and untrustworthy, and as such, this nationalism made Poland an increasingly hostile place for Jews. It’s estimated that 5% of Poles actively collaborated with the Nazi regime.

There are over 7000 Polish Righteous Among the Nations, the highest out of any country, though this can be explained by the fact that the Holocaust was most “active” in Poland as opposed to anywhere else in Europe. One of these Righteous Among the Nations was Irena Gut Opdyke. More on her on slide seven.



The origins of Hollywood can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Jewish immigrants to the United States were subject to employment discrimination. To make ends meet, Jews resorted to making their own opportunities. Some started as peddlers and later became shopkeepers. Others migrated west — to Hollywood.

Many Jews joined Hollywood in search of employment that they couldn’t find elsewhere, but there was a significant effort to diminish the Jewishness of the early film industry. For example, Jews worked under “white” pen names and films purposefully avoided Jewish stories. 

Similarly, Jewish women in vaudeville would change their last names to sound less “ethnic.”

Unfortunately, to this day, Jewish representation in Hollywood remains largely whitewashed. Some examples include: 

  • Casting non-Jewish, generally white characters to play Jewish characters
  • Reducing Jewish characters to stereotypes
  • Jew-coding characters without explicitly stating them as Jewish
  • Depicting a one-dimensional, whitewashed, assimilated version of the Jewish experience 
  • Ignoring the diversity of the Jewish community  
  • Casting white people as Jews while passing up Jewish actors because they look “too Jewish” or have Jewish-sounding names 

Given this history, it’s no wonder that Jonathan Glazer made an Oscars acceptance speech for a Holocaust movie that completely neglected to mention Holocaust survivors, the Israeli hostages of Hamas, or rising antisemitism worldwide. It’s no wonder that most Hollywood celebrities have been completely silent regarding the hostage crisis or even antisemitism in the Diaspora.



Since the October 7 Hamas massacre of 1200 Israelis, the response of most Jews in Hollywood has been deeply disappointing, and, at times, troubling. For an industry with such a large and historic Jewish presence, it’s astonishing that Hollywood has largely remained silent at best, or has, at worst, demonized Israel.

There is one man, however, who refused to remain silent: Dan Gordon, writer of The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington, and the upcoming film Irena’s Vow.

After the Writers Guild of America chose not to condemn Hamas following the October 7 killings, Dan Gordon publicly resigned from the Guild. 

“We had no trouble, as we should not have had, weighing in after George Floyd was killed. We had no problem, as we should not have had, weighing in on the #MeToo movement. No one said at the time, ‘I don’t want to offend Bill Cosby. And yet you’re witness to nothing less than the worst slaughter of Jews since Nazi Germany and you can’t find a word to say to condemn it,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

Given how disappointed I’ve been in the Jews in Hollywood since October 7, I know that I’m eager to support those who are taking a vocal stand. What’s even better is that the creators of Irena’s Vow are Jewish and are publicly and vocally committed to the release of the hostages.



The film IRENA’S VOW tells the story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish nurse who was caught in a Nazi roundup to be used as a slave laborer. Working as a housekeeper for Nazi officer  Eduard Rügemer, Irena hid and saved the lives of a group of twelve Jews in Rügemer’s cellar. In the vein of Schinder’s List, Irena’s Vow is based on a true story. The screenplay is based off a play with the same name, also written by Dan Gordon.


IRENA’S VOW is ONLY in theaters April 15 and 16 and is a must see for both Jews and non-Jews. Get your tickets here!




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