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Polish Playwright Confronts WWII Past: 'You Have to Admit the Truth’

'Our Class’ by Tadeusz Slobodzianek is performed brilliantly in joint Cameri-Habima production.

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The actors come on stage when the hall is still lit. The stage is empty, its back wall a large blackboard, as in a classroom, on which the actors will record the dates of the various scenes, from 1925 to the first decade of this millennium. The stage indeed represents a classroom, and the actors in the first scene depict first graders; they play games, fight a little, and in the end sort themselves and sit in pairs. This is the only scene portraying an innocent children’s game. Later on the games and scenes will be far more complex, both in terms of the children and in terms of the theatrical performance.

The play is “Our Class” by Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek, a joint production of the Cameri and Habima theaters being staged alternately in both. The “class” includes five Jews and five Poles in a small village in northeastern Poland. In the first scene they introduce themselves and announce what they want to be when they grow up, and at the end of the short lesson sing a Polish children’s song together. Each scene in the play is presented as a “lesson” and each ends with a song.

The Jewish girls in the class are Rachelka (Evgenia Dodina) and Dora (Netta Garti), while Zocha (Miki Peleg-Rotstein) is Polish. The Jewish boys are Abram (Alon Dahan), Jakub (David Bilenka) and Menachem (Eran Mor), while the Polish boys are Heniek (Roy Miller) Wladek (Rotem Keinan), Zygmunt (Dan Shapiro) and Rysiek (Alex Krul). I’m listing all the actors now to make it clear up front that all of them are excellent, as individuals and as an ensemble. That’s an extraordinary achievement for all of them, newcomers and veterans alike, as well as for director Hanan Snir.

Horrific ‘lessons’

The events, the “lessons” experienced by the characters – and the audience with them – are what happened to this tight-knit group, with its unique social dynamic, during their joint Jewish-Polish history that unfolds in the 20th century. Please be warned that this review contains spoilers that might ruin the play for you, although in truth, whatever might spoil the play has already been spoiled by history.

There are obviously two major causes of this damage, but they are in the background, not on stage: The Germans, who exterminated the Jews in occupied Poland, and the Russians, whose role in this story is less well known. What we see is the classmates growing up, until in 1939 the town is captured, along with all of eastern Poland, by the Soviets.

This is a historical period that’s not so familiar to Israelis, although it’s well known in Poland. The Poles hated Communist Russia, which had oppressed Poland for years. But the Jews, some of whom were of a proletarian and socialist bent, found their place under the Soviet regime. While Jakub became director of a cultural center that was founded in what had been a church, and Menachem became a cinema manager, the Polish boys in the class established an underground resistance group to fight the Soviets.

That day in July 1941

Then we come to the main part of the play, which takes place in July 1941, during which there are some especially painful and shocking lessons, describing a chapter in Polish history that was long repressed. After the Germans occupied all of Poland in 1941, and even before the Nazis’ “Final Solution” was implemented in the death camps, Poles who lived among Jews attacked their Jewish neighbors and raped, murdered and burned them.

These events came to the world’s attention with the publication in 2001 of the book “Neighbors” by Jan Tomasz Gross, in which the author meticulously documents the murder of 1,600 Jews in the town of Jedwabne to prove that the massacre was perpetrated by local Poles, and not by the Germans as had previously been claimed by the Poles. Gross’ revelations, including evidence of efforts to cover up the events soon after they happened, forced Poles with a conscience to confront themselves and their peoples’ murderous past, after decades in which the Poles had portrayed themselves solely as the Nazis’ victims.

What happened that day is at the heart of the play. Menachem manages to hide in time, abandoning Dora, who’s now his wife, and their little boy. Rysiek, who is caught, interrogated and tortured by the Soviets, is convinced that he was betrayed by Jakub and he encourages his classmates to beat Jakub to death. Then the murderers rape Dora, and in the end she and all the town’s Jews are burned to death in a barn; Dora and her son are inside, while Poles Rysiek, Wladek, Zygmunt and Heniek are outside passing along the gasoline cans. Menachem manages to get to Zocha’s home and hides there. Wladek decides to hide the Jewish Rachelka in his home, and Rysiek becomes a policeman.

The rest of the play deals with how the class’ survivors lived out their lives afterward, in Communist Poland, the United States and Israel, but the play’s central scenes portray those days in July 1941. It must be said that the play was aimed first and foremost at the Polish public, to confront it with the horrible and inhuman facets of its past that it could no longer deny. Staged in Israel, the play merely confirms what most Israeli Jews thought and still think of Poland and the Poles, past and present, in any case.

Playwright/theater manager

Playwright Slobodzianek is not Jewish, although he says that one of his grandmothers may have been. He’s a big man in his mid-fifties who manages one of Warsaw’s largest theaters, the Teatr Dramatyczny (The Dramatic Theater), which incorporates three theaters that were merged under a financial reorganization plan.

He was born in Russia and grew up in Bialystok in northeastern Poland.

“I knew the type of people who lived there,” he said in an interview during a recent visit to Tel Aviv. Like many Poles he was shaken by Gross’ revelations about Jedwabne, and together with journalist Anna Bikont worked to track down surviving witnesses. Among those they met were people on whom the characters of Wladek and Rachelka were based.

One of Slobodzianek’s inspirations was “The Dead Class,” the famous play by Tadeusz Kantor, which takes place in a classroom in which the characters who move about are black-clad ghosts. “People in Kantor’s generation knew why that class had died and who had killed it, but they didn’t talk about it. People of my generation didn’t know,” said Slobodzianek. “The idea to write the play so that it takes place in a classroom came to me during a train ride, and that produced – as was revealed to me by the Polish director who directed it – the idea that the whole perspective of the play should be the children’s.”

When I asked him why he had chosen to write a play about this subject, he replied, “Because you have to admit the truth. Without doing so there’s no chance of preventing such acts in the future.”

Near-premier in Israel

In one of those interesting historical coincidences, the play’s near-premiere was actually in Israel, with a staged reading of the play by Habima actors as part of Polish Theater Week, organized by the Polish Cultural Institute at the Tmuna Theater in 2008. That was when Slobodzianek first saw an audience react to the play. Afterward it was staged by the British Royal National Theater, where it was very successful, and only then did it have its Polish premiere in Warsaw.

“We’ve already staged the play [in Poland] 160 times in halls with 350 seats. Naturally we suffered an onslaught from right-wing and nationalist circles,” Slobodzianek said.

I met him the day after he’d seen the dress rehearsal of the Israeli version. He regards it as one of the best and most unique productions of the play, which has been staged in numerous cities in the United States, Lithuania, Scandinavia and Japan.

I, too, can attest to the quality of the performance. The secret power of the play is its unique style, with the characters telling us what they’ve done and relatively few moments of dramatic interaction between them. This creates a distance between the actor, the character, the action on stage and the reporting dimension, and enables one to cope with what might have been described as “the pornography of death.”

Dora tells us how she was raped by her classmates. We hardly see her; she is lying on the stage, a chair between her legs, with two people – Heniek and Zygmunt – holding her legs splayed. She and Rysiek, who stands near her head, report the horrible facts in an almost dry tone. Afterward we hear from her inside the barn, and from her friends outside, what is happening there, in all the gruesome detail. But the staged story never lets you forget that people did these things to other people.

A personal observation

Allow me a personal observation. I’m an Israeli, a Jew, who was born in Poland. Almost since my childhood I have lived in Israel, surrounded by the hatred Israelis have for all things Polish, and I’ve tried to explain that despite the awful facts, the truth is more complex than it appears to the victims’ descendants. This performance, therefore, was in no small measure a test for me as a viewer and as a professional: Which part of me would respond to it most strongly - the Jew, the Israeli, the Pole, or the man of the theater?

From the professional-artistic perspective, the strength of the play is totally clear, as is the risk of that pornography of death that the play successfully overcomes. The play was tough for the Pole within me, but I agree with Slobodzianek: There are truths that must be told.

One last comment on the plot. In the end, only two characters from the class survive – Abram, an American rabbi who has raised a splendid family after his own parents perished in that barn, and Rachelka, the convert spending her days in front of the TV, watching shows about animals and learning from them about humanity. Based on the play, it seems as if any other Jewish life option was doomed to failure. Slobodzianek says that one needn’t interpret things that way, since the play is merely the story of 10 private individuals. Perhaps.

But by any possible measure, this is an important work. It’s hard to say it delivers an enjoyable night out, but it portrays a significant human experience. I believe it is even more meaningful than the missions of Israeli youths to the Nazi death camps, because it reminds us what people are capable of doing to each other, even if they were once classmates.

Performance of "Our Class."Credit: Daniel Kaminski
How the fates of classmates diverged. Credit: Daniel Kaminski
Playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek. Credit: by Piotr Wacowski Daniel Rudzki

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