Conversations with the Dead: On Demon, Ghosts and Jewish Cultural Memory

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Conversations with the Dead: On Demon, Ghosts and Jewish Cultural Memory

Zekher tzadik livrakha, or “May the memory of the righteous be a blessing.” This is a phrase I heard my rabbi say near the end of every Shabbat service, assertively spoken as though this were the most vital, immutable truth of the ceremony. You can take or leave all that God stuff that came before if you must, I took it to mean, just as long as you don’t forget those who came before you, for their memory is sacred.

Modern Judaism, both cultural and religious, is in constant conversation with the dead, and maintaining connections to the past is at the core of what I consider to be the Jewish outlook on the world. The Talmud features Hebrew scholars in debate with one another despite living literally centuries apart. The Ashkenazi (Eastern European) tradition is to name children after deceased relatives, not the living. Purim and Passover, our most festive holidays and the two most worth the price of conversion, make meaningful and resonant connections between the moment of the ceremony and events going back thousands of years.

The spaces between these connections, however, are anything but direct for most Jewish families, and our long cultural memory has as many practical dimensions as spiritual ones. Recently, my family has been working to assemble our family tree, a process that for many Eastern European Jews can lead to macabre riddles of reconciling inconsistent records in multiple languages while looking for locations that have either been renamed or simply no longer exist for one horrifying reason or another. Forced relocation, arbitrary name changes, violent persecution and pogroms, and outright extermination are also a part of the Jewish story, both ancient and modern. The names of the dead are frequently lost in the mix of soulless statistics, and entire villages are reduced to memorial plaques. This process of retracing my lineage often feels more like chasing ghosts than communing with the past, sometimes leaving me with an even more unclear sense of national and ethnic identity than when I began.

This is the context in which I viewed Demon by the late Polish director Marcin Wrona, a film rightly celebrated by critics as one of the year’s most fascinating and audacious. Demon depicts the chaos that follows a supernatural occurrence at a rural Polish wedding between an English groom, Piotr, and a Polish bride, Zaneta. After the gruesome discovery of human remains on property belonging to Zaneta’s late grandfather, Staszek, Piotr becomes possessed by a dybbuk, the spirit of a deceased person in Jewish folklore. As the reception progresses, Piotr behaves more and more erratically until he fully becomes Hana, a young Jewish girl who was buried in an unmarked grave on the property many decades ago. The more mystifying and unexplainable Piotr’s condition becomes, the more the guests commit to ignoring or explaining away the truth of the matter, dancing and drinking themselves into a collective, frenetic stupor. Throughout, Zaneta’s father doles out increasingly contrived dismissals on Piotr’s behalf—too much alcohol, food poisoning, you name it—until, when the party finally reaches full surreality, he outright denies that there ever was a wedding or a groom in the first place.

In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is the spirit of a deceased person that inhabits a living body in order to attend to unresolved business on earth. Dybbuks are often seen as malevolent forces and ill omens, yet are chiefly concerned with completing a task rather than terrorizing the living. In recent fiction, dybbuks typically represent a spiritual or moral imbalance. You may recall the opening scene in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, an original Yiddish story in which a man and wife are visited by a dybbuk in the form of a recently deceased rabbi. Though the Coens’ dybbuk is indeed supernatural, its unexplained nature appears to mirror the film’s central theme—that the universe does not operate by laws and moral systems that humanity attempts to impose on it, and looking for patterns in chaos is not only foolish but ultimately self-destructive.

Wrona’s dybbuk, on the other hand, is at least partly inspired by S. Ansky’s 1914 play The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds, and its subsequent 1937 film adaptation. Ansky, an ethnographer, meticulously researched the customs of Eastern European Jews so the story would accurately reflect the beliefs of their culture rather than the expectations of the audience, much like Robert Eggers’s film The Witch. In The Dybbuk, an ambitious young Yeshiva student summons forces beyond his control by carelessly practicing Kabbalah, resulting in his own death after invoking Satan directly. As a spirit, he possesses the woman he loves at her wedding to save her from marrying a man she does not want. This entire disruption of the natural order, it is revealed, was made possible by the lovers’ fathers who made a pact to promise their children to one another, which went unfulfilled due to the deaths of the groom’s father and the bride’s mother. The possession, therefore, is not altogether an act of evil but the result of disorder and matters left unresolved. The 1937 film adaptation of The Dybbuk is an underseen masterpiece of Yiddish-language fiction and German Expressionism from which Wrona appears to have drawn in creating Demon, flipping the point of view to primarily non-Jews without losing any of its source mythology.

Ghosts in fiction and folklore, like dybbuks, represent past misdeeds, injustices, or bonds so strong that they transcend mortality. They are the past that lingers despite our best efforts to leave it behind. Humanity has a tendency to move on from important questions and events once they are no longer immediately relevant, yet these problems do not simply go away after the living world chooses to ignore them. This idea is central to most ghost stories, from A Christmas Carol to Unfriended.

Hana is certainly the victim of injustice, as it is very strongly implied that she was murdered by Staszek, or that he was at least complicit in concealing her body. He is described by one guest as a pure snowflake that unwittingly fell into a muddy puddle, a troubling way to describe the way a person might be affected by the wickedness around them. Hana is all but forgotten, save for an elderly Jewish professor who attends the wedding but is laughed at and ignored by the other guests. These are the only two Jews in the film, which might seem strange for a story about a Jewish ghost, but centering the story around Poles rather than Jews helps focus the central metaphor of Demon, concerning the long-term damage caused when a society attempts to bury its transgressions instead of confronting them head-on.

As the descendant of Jews from modern-day Ukraine, Lithuania and Germany, the fact that Hana would have remained undiscovered had it not been for pure chance is what hits the hardest, far more than any mawkish Hollywood Holocaust tearjerker ever could. Someone must have mourned Hana when she first disappeared, yet just two generations later, no one knows her name or where to find her. And even after she forcefully makes her presence known, the world tries even harder to ignore her. Worse yet, the man likely responsible for or at least an accessory to her fate is remembered in glowing terms. How many more Hanas are there in the world, their fates unfulfilled, their stories untold? How many Staszeks are there, men held in high regard with awful deeds they never answered for?

Complicating matters even more is whether, even if the wedding guests did acknowledge Yiddish-speaking Hana, would even regard her as Polish? Many American Jews describe their ethnicity based on where their last European ancestors lived, yet due to constant resettlement and redrawn borders, the descriptor they choose may have little historical or genetic basis. My great-grandfather, Louis Rudolph, came to the United States in 1906. There are two draft registrations from him on record, from World War I and World War II. On his first draft registration, he lists one place of birth: Bogopol, Russia. On the second, he lists Bapolia, Russia. The best we can tell is that both names refer to the same location, the former a Russian name and the latter Yiddish. Bogopol was part of a heavily Jewish region known as Podolia, which, while never officially a government or province, was located in what is now Eastern Ukraine, bordering Moldova. Bogopol was incorporated into Pervomaysk in 1919-1920 along with two neighboring municipalities. The decades that followed Louis’s emigration saw brutality upon brutality by a number of occupying forces, with the total Jewish population dropping from just under 10,000 in 1926 to approximately 2,200 in 1959, with many of the remaining Jews leaving in the 1990s. I would very much like to visit Pervomaysk one day, though it is no longer where my grandfather came from, not even in name. And with many horrific atrocities already on record in great detail, I can’t help but wonder how many stories like Hana’s remain untold, forgotten forever. If my great-grandfather were alive today and had witnessed what transpired in Bogopol after he left, would he still call himself Russian or Ukrainian? Would Hana consider herself Polish?

The very first image we see in Demon is that of an excavator driving through the empty streets of the local village, foreshadowing the truth that will soon be uncovered. It is the same excavator that Piotr is driving when he accidentally discovers Hana’s remains, and they are the same streets that the Jewish professor drives through while describing the village’s prewar life that now only exists in his memory. This was intentional on Wrona’s part, but the events that followed The Dybbuk’s release in 1937 could not have been predicted by those involved. That life still existed at the time The Dybbuk was made, only to be all but erased in ghettos and concentration camps only a few years later, leaves one with an eerie feeling not unlike looking at my great-grandfather’s draft registrations that name a town that only exists in historical record.

Wrona took his own life last year while Demon was still on the festival circuit, a terrible loss of a true visionary. It would be improper to speak for him in his absence, but it’s also hard not to see Demon as his warning for us of the consequences of burying the past without first learning its lessons. The dead are very much with us—it’s up to us to listen to what they have to say.

Wrona, Hana. The Dybbuk, members of its cast, and the artistic movement it led. My great-grandfather Louis, Bogopol, the countless lives lost there and throughout Europe. Zekher tzadik livrakha … may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.

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