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‘Our Class’ at the Wilma (2nd review)BY: Robert Zaller 11.01.2011
Tadeusz Slobodzaniek’s Our Class recounts the 1941 massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors, and the subsequent cover-up that blamed it on the Nazis. That the Nazis had willing collaborators in their extermination of the Jews isn’t news; more interesting than the moral disintegration that led to the massacre is the subsequent history of rationalization and denial, which continues to the present day.
Our Class. By Tadeusz Slobodzianek; English version by Ryan Craig; Blanka Zizka directed. Through November 13, 2011 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. (at Spruce). (215) 546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org.
Once upon a time in Poland:
For the first hour of the Wilma Theater’s production of Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s Our Class, I wondered what I was doing there. The play, which concerns the 1941 massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their Polish fellow citizens, is certainly relevant to Poles. But that various occupied populations aided and abetted the Nazis in their attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe is hardly news in general.
Ukrainian guards worked the death camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere, by all accounts with energy and enthusiasm. It’s well known that Poles staged pogroms against surviving Jews after World War II, and that regret was often voiced, particularly in Eastern Europe, that Hitler hadn’t finished the job he’d started.
The case of Jedwabne is thus particularly horrific but hardly unique. On July 10, 1941, the Poles of the village herded perhaps 1,600 Jewish residents into a barn and set it ablaze. All perished. The Poles were egged on by the Nazis, who had just occupied the town. They were encouraged, but apparently not compelled.
The Final Solution hadn’t yet been systematically planned or ordered, and although mobile German death squads had begun to massacre Jews in occupied territory, this process wasn’t as yet part of a deliberate scheme of total extermination.
The Poles of Jedwabne, like those of neighboring Radzilow and Wasosz where similar massacres occurred, were permitted to loot and retain Jewish property. After the war, the massacres were blamed on the Nazis, and a memorial stone was erected to perpetrate the lie.
The full truth didn’t come out for six decades, when Jan T. Gross exposed the story of Jedwabne in his book Neighbors. It garnered international attention, and a corrected monument replaced the old one. According to the program notes, it was vandalized as the Wilma’s production was going into rehearsal.
Slobodzianek’s play is concerned with showing how ordinarily decent people can come to commit unspeakable acts. The long, slow first act shows the de facto segregation that existed between Poles and Jews (the category of “Polish Jew” being apparently an oxymoron), and the deep-rooted culture of anti-Semitism that governed communal life.
It traces the growing tension on the village level as German pressure on Poland ratcheted up in the late 1930s and was further exacerbated by the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939-41. By the time the Nazis arrived, the Jews were primed for scapegoating or worse.
This tragedy doubtless contains lessons for us all to ponder, but Jedwabne is primarily a matter for the Polish conscience. The mechanisms of anti-Semitism, and the ways in which it can be stoked toward violence, are familiar enough, at least to a good part of the Philadelphia theatergoing audience.
My own family was driven from the village of Kolomea in what was then Austria-Hungary during World War I, and its property confiscated. When my relatives attempted to return after the war, they were met with baleful stares of hostility that asked: Who are you? Without being physically exterminated, the Jews of Kolomea had become nonpersons— fortunately, in my case, since if the family had remained I would not in all likelihood be writing this review.
Poles (and others) do need to understand and reckon with the processes that may dehumanize them toward their fellow men, just as white Americans need to understand their own history of racism toward blacks and other minority groups. I wrote a play once about the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki whose purpose was in part to direct the attention of my fellow countrymen to an atrocity of our own, but although I thought it had general relevance I realized it would necessarily have meant something quite different to a non-American audience.
So it was that Act I of Our Class, which culminates in the massacre itself, left me wondering what I was being told that I didn’t already know.
Act II, however, although more diffuse dramatically, was also more interesting. In effect it asks: What becomes of an act when it is completed, and when its truth is refracted— and defined— through memory?
Jedwabne, like any other Polish community, faced the task of survival during the war years. Those who had participated in the massacre, and those who had merely observed it (perhaps some in horror), were bound by a pact of silence. There could be no public reckoning in any case as long as the Nazis remained; and when the Russians returned there were further reasons for silence: not only solidarity in the face of a new occupier, but fear that many other secrets of the war might be exposed as well.
For their part, the Russians themselves had blamed the Nazis for an even greater act of atrocity: Stalin’s massacre of 14,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940. Complicity in one lie abetted complicity in the other; indeed, to the extent that Katyn facilitated the postwar Soviet domination of Poland, the entire Communist period down to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was built on a lie.
It was easy for Poles to see themselves as victims, and easy for the Jews themselves to be seen as the agents of Bolshevism that Nazi propaganda and garden-variety anti-Semitism depicted them. If the memory of the Jedwabne massacre couldn’t be entirely repressed, it could be made part of a wider narrative in which the ultimate victim had been Poland itself.
Slobodzianek teases out this story through his individual characters, each of whom bears a different burden and a different degree of guilt. Zygmunt (played by Allen Radway) is the classic opportunist for whom truth is simply whatever is to his advantage; thus, although he’s a ringleader of the massacre, he appeals shamelessly to Abram (Michael Rubenfeld), a wealthy Jewish émigré who had escaped Jedwabne before the war, for funds to erect the phony monument that blames it on the Nazis. Zygmunt is what we would now call, somewhat helplessly, a sociopath, because we have lost the proper language for evil.
The priest Heniek (Dan Hodge) has more mixed motives for concealing his own role, since he represents in his person the church that embodies, as no other institution does, the values, the memory and the identity of the (now exclusively Christian, i.e., purged) community, as well as the spirit of resistance to Nazi paganism and Communist atheism alike. This makes his deceit (and the general silence of his church) all the worse; but of such mythography is history all too often made.
The Gospel says that you shall know the truth that it may make you free, but the easy lie that seems to heal most often prevails in fact.
The saddest truth of all is that this lie is often preferred by the victimized as well as the victimizer. Rachelka (Kate Czalkowski) is saved from the massacre by Wladek (Ed Swidey), who loves and marries her. This solution can only be accomplished, of course, by her conversion to Catholicism and her assumption of a Christian name (Marianna) and identity.
Even at that, this marriage requires extraordinary courage and determination on Wladek’s part, for his neighbors are in no mood to spare a witness, and his mother is implacably hostile to the Jewess. This situation might make a moral hero of Wladek— a righteous Gentile, in Holocaust parlance— but in fact he’s a loutish peasant whose one act of surpassing decency is based on his passionate attachment to a single human being, and for long years he keeps the community’s secret as well as anyone.
As for Rachelka, she accepts and internalizes the terms of her survival and doesn’t welcome the truth when it arrives. Alone at last in widowhood, she spends her days watching the Discovery Channel, finding that she prefers animal to human company.
When Slobodzianek’s script probes these ironies, it at last becomes interesting. But it can’t overcome the limitations of its Brechtian approach: Most of the action is portrayed ritualistically or in dumb show, and many of the speeches are addressed to the audience.
Director Blanka Zizka, her choreographer Karen Getz and special voice and movement coach Jean-René Toussaint have tried to interweave stylized and naturalistic elements, for the most part successfully although not without certain sacrifices to monotony. The ten-member ensemble cast was admirably disciplined and versatile in negotiating some eight decades of history. Marsha Ginsberg’s stark set was effective.
The evil that men do, as Shakespeare says, lives after them, and by that standard the memory of the Holocaust should be eternal. But evil lives best by obliterating its traces, and is thus the enemy of memory. How and what we remember, and for what purpose, defines history as a moral activity, and conscience as the knowledge that truth is never simple, final, or complete.♦
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