A Visitor From the Borderlands Between Theater and Life

Michael Handelzalts
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The theatrical artist Krzysztof Czyzewski Credit: Courtesy
Michael Handelzalts

When theater man Krzysztof Czyzewski arrived in 1990 with a convoy carrying his theater to the town of Sejny in eastern Poland, he was seeking meaning for his theatrical activity after over a decade of success at various international theater festivals. It is doubtful he imagined that almost 25 years later he would attain the sort of stature to make him a winner of the Dan David Prize, along with historians Saul Friedlander and Pierre Nora, in the field of history and memory.

The prize was awarded to Czyzewski, 56, for working for “the integration of the Polish past into the creation of a robust civil society in the present, capable of recognizing and including the complications of the past into the country’s present and future foundations.” Two days before the awards ceremony, which took place Sunday at Tel Aviv University, he is sitting with me in a Tel Aviv cafe, talking about his work. One thing his interlocutor senses immediately is the speaker’s strong but restrained enthusiasm. After talking to him for a while you realize how the strength of his conviction in the rightness of his path enabled him able to recruit and carry with him the society in which he chose to work.

In the 1970s, as a theater actor and director, Czyzewski was a member of the Polish theater group Gardzienice, which emphasized combining theater and anthropology. Members of the group, some of whom were students of theatrical pathfinder Jerzy Grotowski, sought the materials for their work in the communities where they operated, collected stories and folk songs, and created plays from them. In addition, Czyzewski, like many Polish intellectuals, was spiritually drawn to groups opposed to the Communist regime. He describes poetry evenings conducted by candlelight, where classical Polish texts were read, along with subversive and anti-establishment poetry, by actors who had learned the lines by heart in order to disseminate them.

In the early 1990s Czyzewski, with his friends and their families, including children, moved around in a convoy that included a horse-drawn wagon, and traveled all over Poland. As mentioned, he began to feel uncomfortable with the timetable and artistic agenda dictated by the international theater festivals, where his troupe was successful, and mainly felt a need to give back to the society from which he had drawn “materials” for his work. And so he arrived with his friends on their journey to the town of Sejny in eastern Poland.

For some reason — and not at all coincidentally, as we will soon see — I’m returning to contemporary Polish theater. The play “Our Class” by Tadeusz Slobodzianek, which is now being performed by the Cameri and Habima theaters, takes place in the same region, and tells the story of a class in school in the 1920s, through the Polish-Jewish-Russian-German-Israeli history in the 100 years since then.

The play “Antihona” by the Polish Bialystok theater (from the same region), which I saw recently, uses ancient Greek tragedy to deal with the ethnic-religious-human complexity of that region, where for many years Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Jews have lived for many years as neighbors — good and bad, together and separately.

And this place, just because of its complexity and tortuous history (the region passed from hand to hand and country to country, with borders and loyalties changing arbitrarily, Czyzewski arrived at the head of the convoy of his theater troupe.

He says that at first people looked at them suspiciously and thought they were wandering Gypsies, or maybe even Jews who had come to demand their property. Those were the first years of the Solidarity party in Poland, and the beginning of the thaw, after a long period when it was forbidden to speak in Poland about the recent past, in the name of a vision of building the socialist future under the aegis of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s there were no Jews in Sejny. Czyzewski says that in the small town, there were no terrible, bloody incidents between Poles and Jews (like the events of in the town of Jedwabne; Czyzewski and his foundation are connected to the publication of Jan Gross’ story “Neighbors,” which tells the story of Jedwabne, where in July 1941 a massacre was carried out against the Jewish population by their Polish neighbors). Czyzewski and his friends received the Sejny synagogue building (which was an agricultural warehouse at the time) and the yeshiva building for their use. There they began their social-theatrical activity.

Czyzewski arrived in this region with an idea about the essence of “borderland” situations. In a place where borders serve to divide between countries and nations (and the countries and nations fight furiously for their place), Czyzewski saw the borderland as a place that makes it possible to clarify relations and nurture a dialogue among the “others” who differ from one another, out of a recognition of that difference and a willingness to deal with the good aspects, and the much worse ones, of being neighbors.

Czyzewski and his friends realized that what could renew the connection among the segments of communities living together is the next generation. Therefore, during the formative event in the Sejny synagogue, representatives of the various communities and nations gathered. The children served as the connection among the various communities. By candlelight, in the house of the Jews who are no longer there, the older people handed down their stories and poems to the next generation, and the children were the ones who brought the developing story from one group to the other.

As a result of this activity, the play “Senjy Chronicles” was eventually created. It is performed by the local young people, who received theatrical training from members of Czyzewski’s group. The play is being performed to this day, with actors being replaced as they grow up. The play changes over time, adds new stories and poems, is alive and kicking, and is performed each time in the community from which it emerged.

But the almost total absence of Jews in the region — and the present of the historical monuments to their existence (such as the synagogue building) — is still a blatant fact, which the Czyzewski foundation had to deal with. And it was no coincidence that the same foundation was the one to publish Gross’ book about the revelations at Jedwabne, which in the end, and not without opposition, led to profound Polish soul-searching (by the educated and enlightened circles; not by all Poles) regarding their part in the tragedy of Polish Jewry, which climaxed with the Second World War and their destruction.

And so, even within the effort to achieve a productive, connective discourse among the various communities in the region, which are at loggerheads even without the Jews, Czyzewski and his friends felt the absence of the Jews. Maybe that was why a few years ago they began working on a production of “The Dybbuk,” aware of the fact that the play was written by S. Ansky in the very same region, and as the result of Ansky’s anthropological journey among the Jews of the “borderland” region.

During the rehearsals, in the former synagogue, the actors were surprised by a visit from an elderly man who entered the building, walked around inside, and prayed devoutly. It turned out that the man, Max Furmansky, is a native of Sejny, and was transported from there with his family to Treblinka, survived, emigrated to Argentina and then to Israel. And although he swore never to return to Sejny, he came nevertheless, as a result of his family’s maneuvering.

The encounter aroused great excitement because Furmansky, a rabbi and cantor, joined the musicians of “The Dybbuk” production in singing the Jewish melodies. He himself was unofficially crowned the “last Jew” of Sejny, and in another moving encounter he stood and sang the Polish national anthem, with all the words — together with then-Israeli ambassador to Poland, Szewach Weiss.

Czyzewski’s social initiative aroused great interest in Poland and worldwide. It was quite helpful that the Polish poet, Nobel Prize laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who inherited a family estate in the region, Krasnogrod, transferred it to the Borderland Foundation for promoting dialogue. For quite a few years Czyzewski has been not only a man of the theater, but a social philosopher and activist, who travels frequently all over the world to promote his idea, who sees “borderlands” not as dividing lines but as a path to dialogue and discourse that promotes understanding, and is not afraid of harsh or unpleasant memories, for the sake of a better future.

Czyzewski emphasizes in the conversation that a big part of his activity today is artistic: The plays performed by his theater have to conform to artistic criteria, and the young people of Sejny who come to work in that framework are receive training for professional theater work — in addition to gathering materials, stories and poems.

At the same time, he admits that he too already feels the need to return to genuine theater. Now he is working with his troupe on a version of “Medea,” which is basically a story of someone who violated the unwritten rules of the obligations of a guest to his host, the basic rules of neighborliness and local identity, which are distorted by politics, ethnicity and race.

This is not Czyzewski’s first visit to our region. He was here once as a guest of the Samaritans, and is well aware that in this region too there is fertile ground for the activity of conscientious theater people like him. But it seems that any borderland — which is both a divider and a bridge — requires that local people do most of the work. And Czyzewski, who is knowledgeable and wants to share with anyone interested in his insights — has a lot left to do on his borders.

Czyzewski, right, receiving the Dan David Prize.Credit: Israel Hadari

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