It is an honor to work with the Polish Embassy in regards to OUR CLASS. On opening night the Ambassador, other members of the embassy and the playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek were our very special guests. Below are the opening remarks from Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf, with images from the evening:
Ladies and Gentlemen, Good Evening.
This event is one of the very first public functions I am attending as the Republic of Poland’s new Ambassador to the United States. My presence here tonight is not simply a courtesy call to the artists staging one of Poland’s best known modern dramas. This is my personal tribute to the artists, but above all, to the victims of all kind of terror and those who were brave enough to save other people’s life under extreme conditions.
One of the key tenets of Poland’s political transformation after 1989 was the respect for truth, in order to bring about a full recovery of our historical memories after many years of official lies. That respect for truth was liberting for Poles, whose basic freedoms had been suppressed through decades of communist rule.
In the late 1980s, we began to fill in blank spaces in our history books.
Many Poles learned or were able to speak out again about the glorious and tragic moments of our history – like our victory over the Soviet Army in 1920 or the massacre of Polish officers in Katyn in 1940. As a mature and free society, we also recognized the pain inflicted and crime committed by individual members or groups of Polish society against their brothers and sisters. And in the first years after our transition, many people in Poland learned for the first time in their life about the Jedwabne killings that inspired the story of “Our Class”.
That’s true – World War II was a horrific and inhuman period of time for ordinary people in Polish territories occupied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Nazis treated Poles as a dehumanized work force while Soviets regarded large swathes of Polish society as class enemies and not worth keeping alive. When the German Nazis decided to exterminate Jews, the Poles found themselves the witnesses of this crime. Not everybody passed the test of humanity during the terrors of war. And one of the most tragic symbols of former friends, neighbors and compatriots turning against each other is the case of Jedwabne.
Let me share a story with you to conclude. While serving as Poland’s Ambassador in Montevideo, I met Edward Goldsztajn, a Polish Jew who emigrated to Uruguay after the war and my personal friend. He was a Holocaust survivor and had been saved during the war by his Polish neighbor who risked her life hiding him in the small Polish village of Jedwabno. There’s a small difference in town names, possibly unnoticeable to foreigners: Jedwabno and Jedwabne. Only an hour drive from each other but what a huge difference when we talk of human choices that mean either death or life.
I do hope that the Jedwabno survival story is more representative of Polish society as a whole. We will, of course, always remember the massacre in Jedwabne as one of the most painful in our modern history. At the same time, we will continue to cherish the memory of all Poles that risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors.
Human choices can be very complex and difficult, especially when they come with serious consequences. But the over 800-year history of Poles and Jews living together in one country shows much more friendship and cooperation than conflicts. And that’s also the idea I hope to leave you with to bring home after seeing this play.
Thank you very much.
Photos by Justine Jablonska | Embassy of Poland in the U.S.