Ida Lubenstein’s redemption


The novice Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) comforts her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).

Paweł Pawlikowski‘s Ida has bagged a zillion awards this year – but I hadn’t heard of the film until Marilyn Yalom, fresh from a trip to Poland, told me I must see it. It’s been called a grim “road movie” about two women – one an 18-year-old girl about to take her vows in a convent; the other her aunt, a judge and former state prosecutor called “Red Wanda,” who sent “enemies of the people” to their deaths during the show trials of the Stalin era. The two meet for the first time, and Wanda Gruz tells the convent-reared girl that she is in fact Jewish, born Ida Lubenstein, the daughter of her sister. It’s 1962, and the two take off into the drab Communist era towns to find out what became of Ida’s family during the war. The answer is not a happy one (spoiler alert): the German occupation inspired many murderous atrocities among the occupied; the Lebensteins were butchered by the people who were sheltering them, and their property seized. The baby Ida was dropped off at a convent doorstep.


Family reunion.

I won’t recap the many reviews, except to note a few Polish nuances that are likely to be missed by the Western audience. One viewer was surprised that the disillusioned commie Wanda’s taste for music extended to Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony” – but that’s no surprise in Eastern Europe. It’s more interesting to me that jazz played such a big role in Communist Poland  – there’s a lot of John Coltrane. American jazz was also big in occupied France, as a defiant symbol of resistance and freedom. Props to jazz-lovers everywhere.

More subtext: few in the West know how those who had resisted the Nazis, the Polish patriots, were harrassed and persecuted by the Communist government – hence Wanda’s social isolation, both Jewish and Communist. There are other distinctively Polish cues in the film – during a flashback to one of courtroom a man who protested the social state by whacking down with a saber the red tulips planted by social scouts. The saber had belonged to his grandfather, who had served with the out-of-favor Polish patriot and statesman of the interwar period, Józef Piłsudski. One Pole told me that every erstwhile Polish aristocrat has a plot of land, a title, and a sword under his bed. Well, here’s the sword.

ida3Some critics have taken issue with the film’s ending. So do I, but for entirely different reasons. It seemed to me a modern solution plopped onto an earlier era – one I happened to have lived through, so I have some firsthand memories.  The idea of a virginal 18-year-old novice dropping her drawers (literally) to have a one-night-stand with a saxophonist in a band is as likely as her twerking her way to Silicon Valley and making a killing in a start-up.  Many critics have also spoken about Ida’s return to the city need to “find herself,” live a little, daring to imagine another future, and experiencing a “fuller life” – all the usual clichés. They forget she has a funeral to go to. In any case, the sex scene hardly represents passionate abandon – it’s pretty joyless, tentative, and rote. Others have deplored Ida’s eventual rejection of romantic love – they are the true idealists, thinking that a traveling young jazz musician would have had an enduring fascination with the inexperienced teenager.

Others comment that both women’s are psychologically shaken by their experiences together, and that Ida begins to question her faith. I didn’t even see it touched, let alone bruised. Was I watching a different movie? Alright, alright – I’ll give you one suppressed giggle at the solemn and silent convent dinner, but otherwise it seems so much wishful thinking and projection on the part of Western viewers who don’t understand Ida’s choices. Wanda is a different case. Brittle and about to break, despite her apparent toughness, she jumps to her death.


Now we know.

Let me offer an alternative interpretation, perhaps just as fanciful: with the suicide of her aunt, the only relative she has ever met, she decides, for a day or two, to re-inhabit that lost, abandoned life – not just to accompany Wanda on her solitary path to death, to immerse herself in it, to revivify the life and to redeem it.  She wears her aunt’s clothes, stays in her apartment, plays her music (very like the redemptive “substitutions” in Inkling Charles Williams‘s writings.) Wanda’s taunt to Ida, vis à vis sex, has been frequently cited in the write-ups about the film: “You should try. Otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?” Perhaps Ida took it to heart on a far deeper level than Wanda had intended. She experiences it, so that she can renounce it consciously, rather than blindly. (This, of course, reduces the saxophonist to a mere object or symbol, but there’s really not much way around that in any reading of the film.)

Oh yes, and one more thing Western viewers are likely to miss. When Wanda deals the photographs of her family like cards on a table – Director Pawlikowski includes one photo that would not have been a family member, someone who was almost totally unknown in Poland at the time because, as a Polish patriot, she was persecuted by the Polish government and her reputation suppressed. Irena Sendler, with her team of women in Żegota, the underground council to save Jews, saved 2,500 Jewish babies and children in the Warsaw Ghetto. Every Pole knows that. The women of Żegota said not one convent refused to shelter a child.

Psssttt!!! Check out the comment selection below. Pretty interesting stuff about the woman who may have been the prototype for Wanda.

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6 Responses to “Ida Lubenstein’s redemption”

  1. David A. Goldfarb Says:

    Another interesting nuance–Pawlikowski mentions in an interview that Wanda was in part inspired by the figure of Helena Wolińska-Brus, who had been a ruthless prosecutor during the show trials of the early 1950s, sending leading figures in the Home Army to harsh sentences and even death. She left Poland for the UK with her husband, an economist who obtained a post at Oxford, during the Soviet-driven anti-semitic campaign of 1968. In 1999, Poland sought her extradition for her participation in the show trials, but the British refused all requests citing her age and the long passage of time since the events in question.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for this, David. I have to say I kinda related to her in the film.

  3. Helena Brus Says:


    From truly first hand perspective, I can assure you that Wanda in no way resembles the real Helena Wolinska (known as Lena and only more recently as Brus), except perhaps that the very same person could be involved in high-level brutal politics at one time in her life while be, overtly, a timid old lady at another stage in her life, dispensing tea-bag made tea and biscuits to guests in my father’s apartment in Oxford. For the record, Wolinska was not a prosecutor in the trials of leading Home Army personalities but she had signed arrest warrants (including that of Emil Fielsdorf) and had the ear of her common-law husband, Jozwiak, who was a top level Stalinist. While she was perhaps ruthless and even vulgar in her behavior in those ugly days (please see the so called Mazur Report where she has been criticized and degraded), her professional role as a chief lawyer has been highly exaggerated. By mentioning the connection to Wolinska, Pawel Pawlikowski (whom I would like to talk to) has undoubtedly wetted the appetites of many in Poland and of Polish descent.

  4. David A. Goldfarb Says:


    I take it you are Helena Wolińska’s daughter. Thank you for this additional information, and my apologies if I’ve mischaracterized the facts of your mother’s case. I would be very interested to hear your perspective and a dialogue between you and Pawlikowski. The interview I had in mind has appeared in various venues in the Polish press (e.g.,57428,name,Pawel-Pawlikowski,osoba_wywiady.html?T%5Bpage%5D=2&ticaid=113033) and in fact the reference is not so different from what you have written–that he had met her and recalls her as a pleasant elderly lady, and that he was shocked to learn of the accusations against her, and had used the idea of this double identity as the starting point for imagining the character of Wanda.

    Best regards,


  5. Adora B Says:


    “The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.” ― Jim Morrison

    “The ORDINARY RESPONSE TO ATROCITIES is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.

    Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. Murder will out. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims (…) ― Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery

  6. Adora B Says:

    An interesting read:

    This is a battle not over territory or borders, but for control of something more intangible and, for the continent’s political health, more important: memory and historical justice.