Category: Our Class
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.
Anna Bikont - Journalist
Anna Bikont is a journalist who writes for Gazeta Wyborzcza, Poland’s second largest newspaper. It was founded in 1989 by a group of journalists and activists from the underground democratic opposition press as the platform for the first democratic parliamentary elections. Adam Michnik - an intellectual and close friend of former Czech President Vaclav Havel from the time when they both were leading dissidents in communist Poland and Czechoslovaki - has been Editor-in-Chief from the beginning. Michnik was a prominent member of the democratic opposition in the '60s to '80s.
After Jan Gross’s book Neighbors was published in Poland in 2000, Anna Bikont started interviewing witnesses of the Jedwabne massacre for the Gazeta Wyborzcza. She became so passionate about her investigation into Jedwabne’s troubled past that she ended up spending four years of her life interviewing: the few survivors and their relatives, now living in the United States, Israel, Costa Rica, and Argentina; the people who risked their lives to hide and save them; and the perpetrators of the violence. She also closely researched old newspapers, letters, trial documents - many facts that often seemed completely contradictory. Her work resulted in the book We in Jedwabne, which is being translated into English and will be published next year by Yale Press.
Agnieszka Arnold, Documentary Filmmaker - Part Two
I ask her what she thought about the relationship between the Jews and Poles in Jedwabne before the war. Agnieszka considers it a big problem that in Jedwabne Poles and Jews lived next to each other without too much contact. ‘The first question I always ask in my interviews is if they had ever visited the house of a Jew. The answer is always the same: no, never. And when you don’t know your neighbor,’ Agnieszka continues, ‘when they are only the Other, a small gossip can grow into something horrendously huge because people don’t know the reality of their neighbors' lives.’
But Agnieszka admits that the reasons for the lack of relationships between Poles and Jews are complicated. She suggests that eating food together is a basic socializing act. ‘Just imagine: a Jewish girl is visiting the house of her Polish classmate. She is offered a cup of tea, but she can’t have it because it’s not kosher. Can she have a cookie? No, she can’t. She can’t eat anything at her classmate’s house. The next time she is not offered anything and perhaps later she may not be even invited to visit.’ Agnieszka tells me that two years ago her best friend converted to Orthodox Judaism. She is supposedly very dear and close to Agnieszka. But now they can’t have a meal together because her friend can eat only kosher food. They still love each other very much but they don’t see each other as often as they used to in the past.
Agnieszka Arnold, documentary filmmaker – Part One
Kasia Kubin, a young woman who had grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and I are meeting the documentary filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold. Kasia’s English is perfect and she translates flawlessly.
Agnieszka Arnold was the first artist to touch on the subject of Jedwabne Jews. In her documentary Neighbors, Agnieszka interviews witnesses, participants and survivors of the massacres of an estimated 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne and 800 in Radzilow and other nearby villages. She finished the film in 1997 with no hope that the documentary would ever be broadcast. She started to show the film to her friends, and to whoever wanted to watch. This is what inspired Jan Gross, who saw the film, to do his research and write the book Neighbors, using the same title with Agnieszka's permission. After Jan Gross’s book was published in 2000, Agnieszka’s documentary was shown on Polish National Television in 2001 and viewed by two million people.
Arriving in Warsaw - Part Two
Allen Kuharski, a scholar and translator of Polish theater at Swarthmore College, is at the performance. We have known each other for years from the Philadelphia theater scene. Allen likes the production a lot, and he’s visibly pleased to see that the play doesn’t have an ideological agenda to show the Poles as anti-Semites. He tells me that he was worried about producing the play in the States because he thought that without the knowledge of Polish history, US audiences wouldn’t understand the complexities of the play. However, the performance has persuaded him that the play’s moral concerns are universal. Allen remarks that this is the first time in the Polish theater that this subject – the relationship between Catholic and Jewish Poles – is not merely hinted at but is addressed explicitly and straight on, without the use of metaphor.
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.