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Polish Play About Anti-Semitism Debuts in America

A Class Comes To Learn: Poles learn that Polish-Jewish relations were not always sweetness and light. Image by Alexander Iziliaev

A passing nod. A borrowed cup of sugar. A shared fence. A watchful eye on the house. That’s what neighbors are for. But what happens when neighbors turn and become enemies? That’s the question that consumed Warsaw-based playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek on learning that the black-and-white Polish Holocaust history he had learned at school was actually blood red. After discovering the truth about Poles who perpetrated acts of violence against Jews, Slobodzianek penned the play “Our Class” in 2009. It takes a hard look at how neighbor can turn against neighbor: On July 10, 1941, in the small town of Jedwabne, Poles murdered 1,600 of their Jewish neighbors. This massacre is the centerpiece of “Our Class” which, since its Warsaw premiere in October 2010, has become among the most controversial of contemporary plays in Poland.

Before its American debut, scheduled October 12 at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, Wilma’s artistic director, Blanka Zizka — also the play’s director — said, “I felt that it is worthwhile to look at the history and see… how memory and what is being remembered and what is being committed to history creates national identity and defines who we are.”

This reassessment of history, more than two generations after the Holocaust, ignited a national argument about the actions of Polish citizens toward their Jewish neighbors during World War II, according to the author of “Our Class,” a Catholic-born Pole of the postwar generation.

“I am from the northeast of Poland,” Slobodzianek told the Forward in an e-mail, “and to me the prewar co-existence of many nations in that territory appeared to be a multicultural idyll. In Poland, since about the middle of the 1980s, prevalent was a vision of the Second World War in which the good Poles were hiding Jews from the Nazis and when some traitor came about, then the underground army took care of him. We were raised believing such things.”

That ideal was shattered in the past two decades with the release in Poland of a rare few history-changing articles and movies, among them film director Agnieszka Arnold’s documentary on the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom and historian Jan T. Gross’s 2001 book, both called “Neighbors.” They detail the events leading up to and following the horrific action in which one half of the town massacred the other. Most Jewish residents were burned alive in a wooden barn, leaving just a handful of survivors.

While the play fictionalizes the events to follow five young Poles and five young Jews from 1925 through the late 1980s, Slobodzianek drew on Gross’s detailed study and on other source material, and also met with a small number of the surviving Jedwabne residents. He tells of classmates who grew up side by side as they teased and laughed together and shared their lives, until first the Soviet and then the German army invaded. Slobodzianek was fascinated by how some classmates betrayed and murdered their peers while others risked their lives to hide or help them, and still others stood by and did nothing. Those same issues fueled a national debate in Poland following the initial 2001 televised airing of Arnold’s documentary and last year’s Polish production of “Our Class.”

“Our Class,” though, is not history. It’s something greater, the playwright insists: “The historic background plays a secondary role: The main theme is the hatred that people who were friends at one time started to feel towards one another…. I am trying to find out more about the mechanism that affected people in such a tragic way — people who found themselves in a certain place at a certain time in a weave of various social and psychological relations, of history, ideology and religion.”

Zizka, who was born and raised in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), added, “I’m interested in plays dealing with changes in the world, how those changes impact individuals and moral questions, how do we act in those situations?” Yet she has also found deep personal connections to the work: One grandfather, a partisan during World War II, died in a Nazi concentration camp, while her grandmother on her mother’s side was sent to a concentration camp by the Soviets after the war.

The insidious pact between Hitler and Stalin that divided Poland played a central role in the conflict, but Slobodzianek is unforgiving about those exterior forces: “Polish anti-Semitism prepared the ground for a massacre before the Nazis arrived.” He added, “Polish anti-Semitism is immanently connected with the Christianity,” asserting that to be able to sanction its status as the state religion of the Roman Empire, the church had fabricated, and is still fabricating, myths “about the bad Jews crucifying Jesus and the noble Romans trying with all means to save him.”

To prepare for the staging, Zizka met Slobodzianek and traveled with him to Jedwabne this past summer. Her impressions — particularly the feeling that more than 70 years later, the town remains haunted by ghosts — shape the production. “There’s a sense that the people are basically specters lingering around because they were erased out of memory and their history was not listened to,” she said. “They cannot find ears; they cannot find anybody to listen to their story. The audience in our theater will become the first witnesses to these specters.”

On its Warsaw premiere, the play was met with both admiration and condemnation — which surprised neither Slobodzianek nor Zizka. “On one hand, I received a medal from the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, for whom the staging of “Our Class” was an act of courage and opposition against the people who are trying to bury the truth,” the playwright said. “On the other hand, others demanded my deportation.”

A monument at Jedwabne, marking the destruction of the town’s Jews, was vandalized in August. Does it mark a resurgence of anti-Semitism in a town made barren of Jews by its own population? Slobodzianek is withholding judgment, for now. “First of all, we don’t know who did it,” he said. “The fact is that after 10 years, the monument that has awakened the strongest emotions in Poland was profaned. But I feel that we will have to wait awhile to find out who was pulling the strings.”

Zizka is blunter: “It says that anti-Semitism is very alive there. There is a difference from bigger cities, where it is less obvious, and the smaller towns, where it’s still very much alive.” She hopes the production will spark renewed interest in American audiences who were insulated from direct effects of war and occupation at home. “It’s terrible enough when a country is occupied and coming to terms with what has happened under the occupation,” she said, “but to come from one occupation to the next one… how do you survive the second one with that moral anarchy it creates? I don’t think [Americans] can understand that. Our country hasn’t been under occupation.”

“Our Class,” runs at The Wilma Theater from October 12 until November 13.

Lisa Traiger writes about the performing arts for The Washington Post and Dance Magazine, among other publications.

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