A note from Our Class Director, Derek Goldman

From Director Derek Goldman, in the Our Class Program

Very early on in Our Class, the character of Dora asks the question “What could I do?” — and it’s one that repeats itself in many forms throughout the play, culminating in Abram’s query toward the end of the play: “What could any of us have done?”

Over dinner in Warsaw recently, after I had spent a searing and illuminating day visiting the town of ImageJedwabne, the haunted site of the pogrom on which Our Class is principally based, the playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek shared with me: “This is what is most important, that the audience is forced to confront the most difficult question: what might I have done in this situation?”

The publication of Neighbors and the revelations about the incidents in Jedwabne , as well as numerous other places where similar events occurred, have, in a violent and painful way, shattered a foundational myth of Polish heroism and innocence, which, in the words of Polish author-journalist Konstanty Gebert, has led to  “unprecedented soul-searching {sweeping} the nation, in what is probably the most important debate of the post-Communist period.”

Virtually everyone in Poland is familiar with this controversy. What I have come to appreciate so deeply working on this material over the past six months, and in my travels to Poland, is the way so many Poles (artists, leaders, and everyday citizens) are reckoning so seriously and deeply with the complexity of this legacy.  In the words of Elwira Grossman: “The play is like a memory awakened and it is also a healthy dose of oxygen without which the Polish organism cannot function properly. It invites a brave look back but it also offers the courage to face what has been denied, silenced or distorted for too long. I would argue that Our Class is a truly patriotic gesture of a paramount importance to Poland.”Image

It’s comforting for us to imagine that the atrocities chronicled in this play, among people who knew each other very well, were done by fundamentally bad people and that, placed in a similar situation, our own sense of human decency would win out.  But the reality, of course, is much sadder and more complicated. Rather than resorting to heroes and villains, the play gives us a window into the particular whirlwind of demoralizing forces that characterize this chapter of history, showing us the cumulative horrors of the German and Soviet occupations as forces that obliterated existing infrastructures and radically destabilized all aspects of Polish life, fostering economic, spiritual and moral disintegration.  In lieu of courageous and easily identifiable protagonists, the play, as a true ensemble event, takes on the heavy lifting of depicting the struggle of Poland’s collective work to become a free democratic society, reckoning with communal guilt and trauma, taking on ethical responsibility, and confronting the ghosts of history.

It is no wonder that ghosts are a dominant motif throughout all of Polish theater.  Our Class builds on this tradition, paying conscious homage to the great Tadeusz Kantor and his iconic and influential work Dead Class, another ghost play in which the spectres of the past surge forth and insist on becoming present.  The physical world we have created for the show is inspired, as the playwright of Our Class was, by the poetics of Kantor’s classic: a simple classroom where lessons are imparted serves as a spare, haunted, transformative space where the living and the dead commingle.

Much of the complexity of this story is that it renders the categories of “perpetrator,” “victim” and Image“bystander” woefully inadequate. The characters in Our Class are all complex combinations of all of these things; and as Timothy Snyder points out: “The most any of them do is behave decently, and when they do behave decently it is almost never because of the kinds of moral reasoning that we would like for them to be applying, and it almost never has to do with the larger political and ethnic categories which we find it convenient to understand the history with. “

I came away from my recent visit to Auschwitz with the familiar adage affirmed that it is a place that every human being should have to visit (just as every student in Poland is required to do) – not only because of the scale of what happened there, but because one feels palpably that it’s a site where the relationship between history and memory, and between the past and the future, are still being negotiated.  Up until just a few years ago the Museum at Auschwitz was called the Museum of Martyrology of Polish and Other Nations, with the countries of origin of the dead listed alphabetically, and no reference to the Jews, despite the fact that they made up 1.1 of the 1.3 million murdered there. As I departed Birkenau, just outside the gates, near a sign for the “Jewish Center,” I saw the word “Hoax” spray-painted in bold colors. When I returned to the United States and went through Customs at Dulles Airport, just hours after being at Auschwitz, the Customs Officer, learning where I was, had no qualms about cheerfully opining that  “Many say the Holocaust never happened,” before he offered me a final, edgy, “Shalom!”

As we quickly approach the moment where there will be no surviving witnesses of the events of this era, the question of how history will be remembered looms large. The painful revelations at the heart of this play, have sparked what Gebert calls a “’war over memory in Poland, on which the answer to the question ‘who are we?’ depends.”

“What could I do?” “What could any of us have done?” “Who are we?”  As theater artists, projects that profoundly stretch our own understandings of these fundamental questions are rare and to be treasured.

The experience of working on this play has altered and destabilized my own sense of self, and troubled many long-held assumptions I didn’t even know I had.  I hope it does the same for you.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Bikont, Anna. We from Jedwabne.
Gebert, Konstanty. Living in the Land of Ashes.
Glover, Jonathan. Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century.
Gross, Jan. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland.
Gross, Jan. Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz.