In Warsaw, Night of the Living Dead Ghetto Jews

A play in the Polish capital mixes things that normally do not mix: horror and laughter, the Holocaust and jokes.

Magda Hueckel

WARSAW — A joint production of  Israel’s Cameri and Habima theaters tells the story of 10 Polish and Jewish children who together experience, live and die for nearly a century of Polish history, including the German and Russian invasions during World War II, the destruction of Polish Jewry by the Germans, and the Poles’ active participation. Not all of them, of course — but not so few either — including in the murder of their classmates.

The play, which has had many successful showings all over the world, not just in Israel and Poland, was written by Polish dramatist Tadeusz Slobodzianek. So what made him write a play that presents the very painful truth on Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust? “We first of all need to acknowledge the truth of what happened,” he told Haaretz.

Slobodzianek is the director of Warsaw’s Dramatic Theater, located in the Palace of Culture — a monstrous building from the days of the Soviets in the center of town. His theater, considered to benefit from the Warsaw mayor’s patronage, has organized the Warsaw Theater Meetings festival, which presents audiences in the capital with the best of local theater.

The festival, 34 years old and going strong, features 14 Polish productions and runs from April 4 to 14. It opened with the premiere of a new work by the Dramatic Theater: “Night of the Living Jews” (“Noc Zywych Zydow”). The play is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Igor Ostachowicz; last year it was a main contender for Poland’s most prestigious literary award, the Nike. The play is directed by Aleksandra Poplawska and Marek Kalita.

In both the novel and the play, the protagonist is simply called Noname. He lives in a building that was once part of the Warsaw Ghetto. He is in his 30s and is educated, but he prefers to make his living as a floorer so he can be his own boss and not pay taxes.

Still, he despises anyone else who lives at the taxpayer’s expense. He takes care of his girlfriend, Skinny — she’s anorexic, vegan and does yoga. She hears noises from the cellar. On the Internet, she finds an explanation that  these are the ghosts of Jews in the cellars and tunnels underneath Muranow, a neighborhood once part of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The name of the novel and play more than hints at the “Night of the Living Dead” — many critics of the book didn’t particularly like the comparison between the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto — or the memory of them — and zombies. But this comparison is exactly what the author and playwright had in mind. It’s definitely in the style of grotesque horror a la Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” — the comics that depict the Germans as cats, the Jews as rats and the Poles as pigs.

Pop music and the king of pop

The protagonist with no name meets an anti-Semitic Polish  grandfather who tells macabre Holocaust jokes. (Not everyone finds them funny, but I did. I won’t quote them here.) The grandfather is accompanied by his sexy granddaughter, and of course, the Jews rising up from the cellars are knocking at his door.

Among those rising — and coming up on stage  — are the grandfather, who speaks Yiddish (with an unconvincing accent), the granddaughter Rachel, who doesn’t smile (that’s why she stays in the cellar and doesn’t earn the reward of entering heaven), and David, who’s missing half his face. He later loses his hand in true zombie fashion.

The main things these Jews ask for is to hear modern popular music. David, for example, very much wants to hear Michael Jackson.

Skinny and Noname take the Jews who come up out of the cellars to a place called Arkadia. To understand the macabre humor you need to know  — and I didn’t know until someone explained it to me  — that Arkadia is a huge and splendid mall in Warsaw. The Poles have crowned it the symbol of decadent consumerism.

I was told that groups of Israeli youths who come to Poland for March of the Living Holocaust remembrance trips enthusiastically spend time at Arkadia. At breakfast at a huge hotel I’ve stayed in, I’ve heard March of the Living tourists speaking in the same breath about Majdanek and sneakers in Arkadia’s stores. Shoah or no Shoah, slowly, life goes on.

So Noname takes Rachel and David shopping at Arkadia, and Rachel, who was wearing black, returns from the mall in a miniskirt and a shirt that exposes her arms — and almost smiles. But David, who loses and then finds his hand at Arkadia, finds albums and videos of Michael Jackson. He and Rachel do the Moonwalk to the original music.

But at Arkadia, Polish neo-Nazi gangs also swarm — skinheads, anti-Semites and homophobes who are quickly revealed as closet gays themselves. The play ends with the appearance of a new Hitler, the leader of the neo-Nazis, a sort of caricature. In German, he sings a parody of a Nazi battle cry that calls for the burning of the gay community’s rainbow flag. This happens during the nationalist march in Warsaw that recently took place.

As you may have figured out, the novel and play concoct a complex dish of motifs from popular, grotesque, macabre and postmodern culture. This raises painful and disturbing issues in Polish life today, including remembrance of the Jews who were wiped out and the guilt complex (not unjustified, to say the least) of the decent Poles of our day.

The prime minister’s role

All this was in the book, which was a great success. And the play also attracted a lot of attention before its premiere (and in this case the premiere really was the first performance before an audience because the rehearsals took much longer than planned).

It turns out that the author, Ostachowicz, is a behind-the-scenes adviser and close friend — without any official position — of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who sat through the entire three-hour performance next to the author. His visit to the theater aroused interest also because he and the members of his cabinet rarely appear at cultural events, unlike their predecessors.

Co-director Kalita adapted the book for the stage; he also plays the main character. (Kalita also recently directed a Polish  production of Hanoch Levin’s "Icsh Fischer").
 The stage is a box with metal walls in which the opening and slamming doors make horrifying noises.

In the tradition of theater director Krzysztof Warlikowski, for example, the scenery and lighting work overtime, as does the music, which includes hits from Polish popular culture, both contemporary and past. The cell phone of one character plays the Polish national anthem as its ringtone.

I was surely an involved spectator — I’m a professional theater critic, an Israeli Jew and a Pole as far as understanding the language and the culture is concerned, even though I lack a deep emotional involvement in Polish life today. I found the performance interesting both regarding the issues and its style, which did not fear to mix things that normally do not mix:  horror and laughter, the Holocaust and jokes.

But underneath the theatrical tumult I heard things that made me wonder. For example, when Rachel is asked (by Noname, if I remember correctly) why they are still living in basements under the houses built on top of the ghetto; she answers:

“It varies. The only people who are left under Warsaw are the ones who’ve gotten something wrong – most of them are in shock. They can’t pull themselves together. Some of them are angry with God and refuse to take another step forward, some are horribly afraid they’ll understand it all, or even worse, that they’ll have to forgive.

A process of self-examination

“There are also people who worked for the police or as Sonderkommandos – those guys have other reasons, but either way, they’re all stuck here. They’re waiting for some time to go by, and once you’re dead time passes in a different way. My father is another story – he’s a tough guy, he’s not in shock at all, he was in the Jewish uprising, then the Polish one, and everyone respects him. He stayed behind for my sake, because he didn’t want to leave me here on my own.”

For me, this justified the entire performance, since Rachel understood — it seemed to me — something very deep from the lives of Poland’s Jews. In general, the play seemed — with all its successes and faults (including the crudely overworked gay motif) — to be the continuation of the process of self-examination for the Polish intelligentsia. It also seemed that the theater-goer had to do his own self-examination.

Toward the end, long red flags dropped down over the stage, like those that waved over Nazi parades. This was cliched symbolism, I thought, but then I noticed that in the center of the flags flew the head of Mickey Mouse. At the reception after the premiere, the designer told me that this aspect (a very successful one in my opinion) had been added just that morning.

Before I sat down to write this review, I read in Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the most respected Polish newspapers, a brutal review of the play. It didn’t spare its criticism of the novel, either.

It said the voice of the Jews was represented by a sort-of intellectual, out-of-touch and apathetic character who represents the sane Polish middle class in a not very flattering way. The critic also scorned the almost entertainment-like workings of the play, calling it a “miserable and embarrassing musical.”

Even if I saw flaws in the piece, its length and its easy solutions (including the gay aspect, which is almost mandatory in Poland, as far as I understand), I think it was an important experience. It addresses unsolved questions of historical and contemporary experience — questions that may be unsolvable.

The play ends with a short film in which Noname runs with a metal pipe through the streets among the masses to protect Poland from the rise of a new Hitler, a grotesque caricature. I think this was the way to say that even decent and sane people are capable of being carried away by racism, nationalism and violence amid real dangers, even if most of the dangers are imagined and distorted. This is a lesson for both Poles and Israelis.

I assume that changes will continue to be made to the play before it returns to the stage at the end of April. In the meantime, I plan to read the book.

I hope the author whispers the right advice to the prime minister. I also wonder when Israel’s prime minister will have advisers who are writers unafraid of complex and painful issues.

Magda Hueckel