But a new documentary draws on a patchwork of amateur camera footage shot mostly by American Jews visiting relatives in the 1930s in Polish towns and provides a window into what once was.
It makes its debut in Canada, Germany and Ukraine in Polish next month, and an English version will be ready for the US market later this year, Polish producer Miroslaw Bork said Friday.
"Po-Lin, Slivers of Memory" was conceived by Polish camerawoman Jolanta Dylewska, who was inspired to make the 80-minute film after coming across one of the home movies in Jerusalem archives in 1996 while working on an earlier project.
"That movie had an enormous emotional value for me," Dylewska said. "People in it reacted with great warmth to the camera because it was in the hands of a family member, a close person. The camera transported that warmth onto me, watching the film 60 years later."
Film snapshot of Jews from the town of Zareby (Photo: AP)
The word "Po-lin" in the title is Hebrew for "You will rest here" or a "Place of safe refuge," but it also means "Poland." It was Poland where Jews expelled from other parts of Europe settled during the Middle Ages, making it indeed a place of refuge for 1,000 years.
But the specter of the Holocaust to come haunts the film. At one point, the narrator notes that the children in the movie have only 10 more years to live.
Only a few hundred thousand of Poland's prewar population of 3.5 million survived the Nazi genocide. "The message of loss is in the end stronger because we see what has been lost," Bork said. The 1.4 million zloty ($380,000) Polish-German co-production opened in Polish art-house cinemas in November.
Leaving a recent showing that she attended on her sister's recommendation, 24-year-old Malgosia Kruczek said as a non-Jew, she found the film "invaluable": "These are the people who lived here, who lived together with us, exotic, but also very close," the Warsaw University student said.
After finding the initial home movie, Dylewska found more footage in Israeli and American archives, and added commentary – based on Jewish history books – in Polish with English subtitles.
At the same time, she said she took great care to preserve the original atmosphere of the black-and-white films in hope "the viewers will carry these people in their memories."
She also filmed the places from the home movies as they are today, and found witnesses to talk about their former Jewish neighbors and friends.
"It moves you to the core of your soul," Israeli Embassy spokesman Michal Sobelman said. "And it fits into this trend in Poland's culture now of searching for traces of former Polish citizens, the traces of Jews."