Arriving in Warsaw - Part One
Early morning – I’m leaving Prague for Warsaw by train. Tonight I’m seeing the Polish production of ‘Our Class’ and meeting Tadeusz Slobodzianek, the author of the play. Tadeusz’s assistant Kalina is waiting for me at the train station. She is waving at me as if I were an old friend. In order to recognize me among the rest of the passengers, she watched Wilma YouTube interviews. ‘I feel like I have known you for a long time,’ she laughs. I’m staying in an actor’s apartment at Teatr na Woli, in the former Jewish section of Warsaw. The city was largely destroyed by the Germans during World War II, after the Warsaw Uprising. In contrast to Prague, admired for its beautiful architecture dating all the way to the 11th century, it’s difficult to find any authentic buildings that pre-date World War II. Most of Warsaw had to be re-built after the war.
Our Class follows the lives of ten classmates from 1925, when they are six years old, to the end of their lives. The play ends in 2002. Even though Our Class is not a documentary play, it is inspired and closely follows a historical event that occurred in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, when all the Jews living in the town were brutally murdered – except for a few who were able to escape. Today there are no Jews living in the town, and the remaining Poles have long insisted that the murders were committed by Germans. For many years during the communist regime in Poland no one questioned the veracity of these statements. It was not until the year 2000 when Jan Gross published his book Neighbors , in which he argues that the murders of the town’s Jews weren’t committed by the Germans but by their Polish Christian neighbors, that the prevailing truth was questioned. The book spurred enormously heated discussions at all levels of the social spectrum. The Poles, who suffered enormously during World War II, have always seen themselves as victims of the war, not as perpetrators of violence. The issue is loaded. Passions haven’t subsided to this day.
By the early evening I have settled down in my white room with white furniture, with a poster from Our Class hanging on the wall. Tadeusz is waiting for me in his office, and he and Kalina are taking me out for dinner. We are only a few blocks away from the former ghetto, which was burnt by the Germans when they suppressed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and liquidated it in May 1943. Tadeusz doesn’t speak English well; Kalina translates for him. We talk about his past. Tadeusz was born to Polish Catholic parents in Siberia where they were deported by the Soviets in 1944. However, the family returned in 1956 when Tadeusz was one year old. He grew up in the Bialystok region of Poland, not too far from Jedwabne. He studied Theater Studies at the Polish Philology Department at Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Before becoming a playwright, he was a feared theater critic. He has written thirteen plays and founded Theatre Laboratorium, which is one of the few theaters in Poland dedicated to productions of new Polish plays. Last year he became the Artistic Director of Teatr Na Woli, where he produced Our Class. The play won him the Nike award, the highest literary prize in Poland.
Tadeusz tells me that the Polish production of Our Class, in spite of its success, has been very controversial. According to Tadeusz, the production gets attacked from all sides because audience members expect the play to confirm their specific opinions. ‘When the play doesn’t comply with their expectations, some of the audience members get angry and attack the production not necessarily for the content but for its form,’ he tells me. The play runs in repertory and Tadeusz believes that it will stay on the program for several years. In addition, the company tours the play to other cities in Poland. Tadeusz plans a production in Jedwabne next year. The play has already had productions at the National Theater in London and at Studio 180 in Toronto. In addition to the US premiere here at the Wilma, other productions are planned in Israel, Hungary, Sweden, and Russia.
I’m seeing Our Class this evening. The theater is sold out and the atmosphere before the performance starts is charged with expectation. I’m noticing that the set is purposefully reminiscent of Tadeusz Kantor’s famous production of Dead Class, which I saw in the eighties at LaMama. I consider Tadeusz Kantor the most original theater director of the twentieth century. His Dead Class is about personal and collective memory – memory shaped by the traumas of two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the eradication of the Jewish part of Polish culture. Kantor called his theater "Theatre of Death." Dead Class is enacted by old white faced actors who return to their classroom as specters; they drag with them life size puppets, which represent them as children; the productions is filled with pointless memorizing, repetitive chanting, and Hebrew laments; the images are absurd and grotesque. Our Class, on the other hand, doesn’t rely on images but explores memory through words, the ten characters of Our Class remember events in their very subjective way and the audience members are invited to create their own picture from memories that can be disparate and contradictory. I have to admit it’s hard for me to watch the performance, since I already have specific ideas how I want to approach the production at The Wilma, and it is very different from what I’m seeing on the stage.
Photos: Photo One: Tadeusz Slobodzianek and Blanka Zizka in Jedwabne, Photo Two: Promotional poster for the Teatr Na Woli production of 'Nasza klasa' (Our Class) that was in Blanka's room.