The Politics of Memory
by Walter Bilderback
Tadeusz Słobodzianek was inspired to write Our Class after reading Jan T. Gross’ book Neighbors, which revealed to Poland and the world that, on July 10, 1941, most of the Jewish population of the small town of Jedwabne was massacred – not by the German Army that had recently invaded the area, but by some of their Polish Catholic neighbors, three days after a similar massacre occurred in nearby Radzilow. Neighbors provoked a debate in Poland that continues to this day. The Polish-Jewish journalist Konstanty Gebert writes that before Gross’ book, “There was…not even an intimation of the fact that a group of ordinary Poles might have, as soon as the Germans gave them a push and a nod, tortured, raped and murdered their Jewish neighbors – women, children, elderly; looted their houses, and then continued to live on, as if nothing had happened.” He suggests that the controversy over Jedwabne is “probably the most important debate of the post-Communist period” in the country. A memorial erected for the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre was vandalized just a week before rehearsals started for the Wilma’s production.
Jan Gross cited a figure of 1600 victims in Jedwabne, the same number that was on an earlier monument, which attributed the killings to Germans. An exhumation of the site of the killing by the Polish Institute for Historical Remembrance was halted early due to protests from the Chief Rabbi of Warsaw and others. Their official finding was that “at least 300-400” people died on that day, killed by “not less than 40” Poles who, in Konstanty Gebert’s words “acted under German instigation – but not compulsion.” Much of the remaining debate centers around numbers: were there really 1600 Jews in Jedwabne that day? Were there armed Germans directing the action? Tadeusz Slobodzianek says of the story of Jedwabne, “I don’t know where it begins. I know where it doesn’t end.”
The important question, however, becomes one of memory. Polish memory, Jewish memory. In 1939, there were more than 3 million Jews in Poland. In 1945, there were around 300,000 – most of whom had fled or been deported to the USSR during the German and Soviet occupations. Today only several thousand remain. Communism tried to erase Jewish suffering, counting all deaths between 1939-1945 by nationality. What’s more, in the small towns like Jedwabne and Radzilow where so many lived, there is little to no trace remaining: Jews in Poland are, as Gebert says, a “people who, in a few short years, had been eliminated, mentally as well as physically, from Polish history.”
Poland itself suffered. Although it had only existed for 20 years in 1939, it was the first country to stand up to Hitler. 3 million Poles died under the Nazis (together, this was 20% of Poland’s prewar population). There was never a Quisling government, as in Vichy France. Poland was the first country where aiding a Jew carried the death penalty, and the only one where the entire family of the “criminal” could be executed, yet more Poles are honored at Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews than any other nationality. And – a fact little-known in the U.S., Eastern Poland, where Jedwabne and Radzilow are located, suffered under two occupations: a Soviet occupation from 1939 to 1941, then German occupation until 1945. Historian Daniel Blatman points out that post-Communist Polish historian agree “that the horrors of the German occupation and the horrors of the Soviet occupation were absolutely identical,” and helped create conditions that made the massacres possible:
“These regimes fomented demoralization, obliterated the traditional cultural infrastructure, offended religious and moral values based on the Catholic heritage, and disrupted economic life. The traditional-minded rural population in these areas confronted a nihilistic reality with almost no stabilizing anchor.…By 1941, when the Germans invaded after two years of Soviet rule, this society was in the throes of total value and moral disintegration. The events in Jedwabne cannot be understood or explained, it seems, without taking this reality into account.”
It’s also important to note that Jedwabne, Radzilow and the nearby village of Wasosz were the only location in Poland where locals killed Jews in an organized manner, although there are many cases to be found in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, and the recent film Sarah’s Key is based on an incident where a French town held local Jews outdoors for a week awaiting transportation to death camps.
Konstanty Gebert sees the debate between Jewish memory and Polish memory as essential to the controversy over Jedwabne: “For both the Polish and Jewish nations, their very real suffering plays a major role in their self-image – in the very way they define themselves – and this influences the way they now see each other.…Indeed, it would be difficult to find two nations for whom remembered martyrdom plays a more central role than it does for Poles and Jews.” He adds, “the debate over Jedwabne has not been equaled in its honesty and depth in any other country occupied by Germans in World War II.”
But What Could I Do?
In her excellent book Shtetl, about the village of Bransk, Eva Hoffman touches on a similar theme: "Memory, even when it is so close to experience -- or perhaps especially when it is that close -- is multiple and contentious. The past depends on the angle from which it is seen, and from which it has been lived."
In Our Class, Tadeusz Slobodzianek emphasizes this role of memory. The names “Jedwabne” and “Radzilow” are never mentioned, but he draws upon incidents and inhabitants of both towns, and he changes and conflates dates of some of the major actions, creating a work of fiction rather than documentary. The classmates are all born at the time when Poland became a nation again after nearly a century and a half of partition between Germany, Russia and Austria. They’re the first generation to experience universal public education, placing Pole and Jew together for the formative years of their lives. They come of age as the country ceases to exist again. And then, the survivors need to find their way through the rest of their lives. In an interview after Our Class was nominated for the Nike Prize, Poland’s top literary honor (which it won), the author said: “Choice is linked to necessity, destiny to freedom. In this contradiction lies the mystery of existence. This is particularly visible in theater, because theater was created precisely to enable people to talk continually about what freedom is and what destiny is.…Our Class asks questions about freedom and destiny which every member of the audience, identifying in some way with each of the characters, has to answer, or at least sense what he or she would do if they were in that position. I don’t intend to help them. On the contrary, I do my best to make a reply as difficult and complicated as possible.”
Picture 1 - Free Primary School becomes mandatory in Poland, 1919
Picture 2 - Family injured during the pogrom in Minsk Mazowiecki in June, 1936. Photograher: Zychlinski/Forward Collection