Poles Apart

Plays with themes such as shame and guilt are not always about us Jews, but when they are performed in Poland, it's hard to escape that feeling.

One of the perks - and potential predicaments - of being a theater critic is that once in a while you get to travel to other countries. My latest such junket involved attending the 26th convention of the International Association of Theater Critics (or AICT; the acronym is based on the French name of the association, that's how international it is ), which took place in Warsaw at the end of March.

Meeting colleagues from other countries in such frameworks gives you a chance to compare notes on your working lives, but it also usually involves attending performances in languages that most of the participants don't understand. Being seasoned pros, we often claim that "theater is an international language." But, as Ephraim Kishon once noted, after attending a performance of a Norwegian play staged in Italian, sometimes we conveniently overlook the sad fact that none of us understands "international" either.


On this particular occasion I was one of the lucky ones, with an advantage over my colleagues: Having been born in Poland after World War II, I could both understand what was going on and was being said onstage, and enlighten my colleagues - some of them Jewish - when they were particularly puzzled.

During this of all weeks, I don't have to explain why a Jew might be very sensitive to any tone or overtone he or she perceives when visiting Poland. Suffice it to say that on Polish soil about three million Jews - and about three million non-Jewish Poles - were killed between 1939 and 1945, most of them (but not all ) by the Germans. And although the main "villains" in the Holocaust were the Nazis, and the German people, even today many Israelis still bear a bigger grudge against the Poles than against the Germans.

Indeed, at the conference I met a young Israeli-born choreographer who told me she hates being in Poland because she always finds herself wondering what her interlocutors' parents did in the war. She, her Polish-born theater-director husband and their children live in Berlin. In my experience, she represents the rule, not the exception.

The day after I arrived in Warsaw, some of my Jewish theater-critic colleagues described a performance they had attended, entitled "About Motherhood and Fatherland." It had left them uneasy because of what they thought were allusions onstage to the issue of Jews and the Holocaust.

I went to see the performance and was able to put their minds at ease: The play was about a mother-daughter relationship, and was presented by five women and one man, all in dresses. The plot centered around a "victimhood contest" between mother and the daughter, and the various scenes took place during the 70-plus years of contemporary Poland's history, with words like "Jews," "Hitler" and the like mentioned only en passant. Nothing to feel uneasy about, I told my friends. It is not about "us."

But then we all went to see a play entitled "The Furies 3," about a Polish peasant woman who hides - during World War II - a Polish professor's wife, clearly a Pole, not a Jew, who is dressed in a fur coat. The peasant woman wants the coat in return for giving shelter to the fugitive. When she does not get it, she summons a Gestapo officer who shoots the fugitive, and she ends up with the coat. Many years later, the granddaughter of the peasant woman gives birth to a deformed baby, which is taken from her and regarded and "revered" by all as a symbol of the Poles' shame and guilt over the way they behaved during and after the war. Furthermore, the son of the turned-in fugitive turns out to be a communist security services officer, who ruthlessly persecutes and executes both guilty and innocent Poles for their actions during the war and thereafter.

Of course, I'm oversimplifying the goings-on in the play, which were much more dense and detailed. The performance also featured rock music, saints and whores, language sacred and profane, spoken by characters alive and dead, and all the paraphernalia of modern theater.

What bothered me long after the performance ended was as follows: It was about Poland, and about World War II and its aftermath, and had to do with themes like the national/collective sense of guilt, shame and soul-searching, in general - yet, for two whole hours, the issue of Jews and the Holocaust was not even mentioned. Granted, the Poles have much to say about their past and present, with and without the Jews. It does not have to be always about "us" or the Holocaust, even when it's about what happened in Poland in 1939-45. But still ...

Somehow, what bothered me there did not raise the eyebrows of my colleagues. We all had many more shows to attend and many other matters to discuss. Our revels eventually ended and we all went our separate ways. But I was left wondering: Was I being over sensitive, even if I don't believe that Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler?

Then I got to reading "Thinking the Twentieth Century," by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, a new and deeply thought-provoking book, based on a series of wide-ranging conversations between the late historian Judt (then in advanced stages of ALS ) and his colleague, on intellectuals, ideas and politics.

There, in the first chapter, entitled "The Name Remains: Jewish Questioner," I found the following statement by Judt, which put many things in the proper perspective for me: "It can be very difficult ... to convey how far the Holocaust was from the center of people's concerns or decisions during World War II. I don't mean by this that it did not matter, much less that it does not matter today. But we cannot, if we wish to give a fair account of the recent past, read back into it our own ethical or communitarian priorities.

"The harsh reality is that Jews, Jewish suffering and Jewish extermination were not matters of overwhelming concern to most Europeans (Jews and Nazis aside ) of that time. The centrality that we now assign to the Holocaust, both as Jews and as humanitarians, is something that only emerged decades later."