Our Class

by Tadeusz Słobodzianek
english version by Ryan Craig
directed by Blanka Zizka
October 12, 2011November 13, 2011

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Blanka Zizka's Acceptance Speech for the Zelda Fichandler Award, Oct. 24, 2011

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I’m extremely honored, thrilled and humbled to receive the Zelda Fichandler Award and to find myself in the company of these distinguished finalists: Richard Garner, producing artistic director and co-founder of Georgia Shakespeare in Atlanta; Joseph Haj, artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC; and D. Lynn Meyers, producing artistic director of Ensemble Theatre in Cincinnati, as well as my good friend Howard Shalwitz of Washington DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre. I’m very grateful to be in their company.

In 1950, Zelda Fichandler left New York City for Washington, D.C, founded Arena Stage, and started the remarkable regional theatre movement that has grown into a myriad of voices, artistic missions and aesthetics that is exemplified in Philadelphia, the city where I have been working for over thirty years. Today, Philadelphia is experiencing an unprecedented birthing of small theaters. The artistic fermentation of new projects and the enterprising spirit of small companies – these are very exciting realities not only in Philadelphia, but across the United States.  I’m curious to find out if these energies can be sustained and if there is enough support for growth, learning, and maturing, so that these companies can grow and become extraordinary at their craft and yet not lose their initial idealism, energy, originality, and need to share ideas through art.

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.

A Visit to Jedwabne, Part Three

Large blocks of stone are arranged to suggest the outline of the former barn where the Jews of Jedwabne were burnt. As I look at it and walk inside the space, even I have to wonder how 1,600 hundred people could fit into this space. It seems impossible. Tadeusz is telling me that the number is still a large controversy, but that the killing of the Jews in Jedwabne went on throughout the day and that many were killed before the barn burning.

Until early summer 2001, a small memorial stood here with an inscription stating that 1,600 Jews were murdered in this space by the Germans. Since the end of World War II, the Polish historical narrative has insisted that the awful acts that happened here were committed by Germans. When Jan Gross’ book Neighbors came out in Poland in 2000 it stirred up an intense national debate. Every Pole I know read the book. Most people, including Tadeusz, at first couldn’t believe that the perpetrators were not the Germans but locals. Jan Gross’ book changed that view for many. On July 10th, 2001, the 60th anniversary of the massacre, the President of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, publicly apologized for the pogrom in Jedwabne at a commemoration ceremony and unveiling of a new memorial, where Tadeusz and I now stand.

I’m looking around, trying to imagine the horror. The landscape is so flat! I don’t see any woods around here! The only way to hide would be in the fields. A line from the play comes to my mind,  “I can still hear their screams. It was awful." Tadeusz has taken these words from a witness to the pogrom, a Polish woman, who was interviewed in Agniezska Arnold’s documentary Neighbors. I was watching the documentary the day before our trip to Jedwabne. The memory turns the witness’ face - full of wrinkles sixty years later -  into a pained grimace.