Conscience or complacency? Izabela Filipiak on Słobodzianek’s Our Class


No exoneration: Polish production of “Nasza Klasa”

On July 10, 1941 in the Polish village of Jedwabne,  hundreds of Jews were herded into a barn, which a Polish mob then burned to the ground. The perpetrators of the massacre were not, as originally thought, the Nazis, but overwhelmingly neighbors.  This atrocity, largely uncovered by Jan Gross’s 2001 book Neighbors, is the subject of a controversial play by Tadeusz Słobodzianek‘s Nasza Klasa (Our Class).

I had not heard of the play, which was performed by the National Theatre in 2009 (you can read about it here and here and here) – not until the presentation by Paul Vickers of the University of Glasgow today at the University College of London’s conference on Polish Literature Since 1989.

I hadn’t heard of novelist Izabela Filipiak, either – though she was educated at Mills College, she is unpublished in English.  The Gdańsk professor’s works were much discussed at the conference, and she was introduced as a prominent public intellectual as well as notable author.  Her remarks on the play brought to light some ambiguous issues about the portrayal of atrocities onstage or in films, especially as time passes and a new generation has lost the connective tissue that attaches them to recent history:

“Paul Vickers argues that Our Class contributes to ‘ongoing Polish efforts to confront the memory of ethnic Poles’ crimes against the Polish Jewish neighbors and classmates during World War II.’ … However, I also agree with a critic from Krytyka Polityczna, Witold Mrożek, who argues that since the contemporary Polish audience cannot identify with Polish characters from Our Class, the play does not facilitate such in-depth efforts.  Our Class is not their class, Mrożek says.  Polish theatergoers are more likely to identify with the children of Jewish merchants who dream about becoming teachers and movie stars, rather than with children of peasants who have no professional ambitions.  To Warsaw theatergoers these Polish characters are as alien as contemporary inhabitants of the so-called “Poland C.”  Anti-semitism thus becomes a peasant issue.  Evidently, it would suffice to educate our peasants, together with our clergy, in order to wipe out the anti-Semitism which sprouts from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other publications rooted in pseudo-scientific research … Wider European audiences are similarly put at ease; since Polish intellectual anti-Semitism was part of European intellectual anti-Semitism, we all become exonerated.  We have nothing in common with Polish peasants.”

Polish author with a California degree

I, too, am nervous about atrocities presented as the act of the other, who is not like us at all, rather than uncovering the roots of our individual, as well as collective, violence and cowardice and complicity.

Vickers responded,  “That’s not a problem with the text, it’s a problem with the kind of people who go to the theater.”  Which is also true.

These remarks of Filipiak’s also interested me, given my recent interest in the degree of allowable fabrication in creating drama from real-life people, in this case I was discussing the movie Anonymous):

“I am also wary about the way Słobodzianek presents the Polish-Jewish couple, the woman having converted to Christianity.  The couple’s history, which includes infanticide and infertility, exemplifies the old prejudice against intermarriage.  Transgressing one taboo starts them on a slipper slope and renders them infertile. I also wonder how the actual Polish-Jewish couple from Jebwabne felt about his rendition of their marriage.”

Said critic Charles Spencer: “It’s a remarkable and powerful play – but not one I would willingly sit through again.”


Postscript:  Uilleam Blacker of Cambridge offered this quotation today, from Przemysław Czapliński :  “…to be an inhabitant of any space today is to be aware that we exist on the pages of a palimpsest, that we walk in the footsteps of those who lived here before us, we write down our narrative in their narratives, we erase the signs of their existence, we add our own motifs to their motifs.”

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