‘Our Class’ by Tadeusz Słobodzianek in Washington: A Fascinating Show but Not About Jedwabne.


I saw the play in the Washington ‘Theater J’ (the ‘J’ stands for Jewish as ‘P.T.Ż’ for Państwowy Teatr Żydowski in the Warsaw Jewish Theatre of my days). The Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, who participated in an after-show panel, was very impressed by both the production and the ‘complexity’ of the play. Jan Gross in the audience said that he saw the play in Warsaw and London, but this production was by far the best.  I also admired the bold staging, remarkable acting and the ingenuity of the author, but the play is based on misconceptions.   

The first half is mostly a visual illustration of superficially described historical events. ‘Complexity,’ which appears in the second half, would have intellectual merit if the subject were a civil war at any place and time rather than the concrete collective mass murder in Jedwabne. What happened there was not complex, but a primitive ‘blow against the main pillar of the Decalogue’.  The quotation comes from the essay ‘Horror and Art’ by Aharon Appelfeld who unlike his younger Israeli colleague saw the Holocaust with his own eyes.  ‘Thou shalt not steal’ was another pillar of civilization also attacked in the same simple manner at Jedwabne. ‘Complex’ of sorts is a gang rape, because the victim felt pleasure unknown to her before, perhaps more so because the first of the rapists ‘truly’ loved her, and the reason he brutally hit her in the stomach when she was about to be killed was allegedly because he could not save her. Such psychology seems to impress an audience raised on TV, but it is quiteremote from the horrors of Jedwabne.

The basic mistake is the assumption of symmetry. The ‘Class’ is divided into two halves, with good and evil distributed to both sides. Furthermore, wrong is done to both sides. But first to the Gentiles and so - as in a western – it calls for revenge. Though it cannot justify the subsequent mass murder, it becomes neverthess an attenuating circumstance. From then on comparing and equalizing becomes the leitmotif. Three Gentiles beat one Jew, but almost as brutal is the Jew beating two Gentiles in revenge for the revenge. A Jewish man and a Jewish woman perish at the hands of their evil classmates, but another Jewish man and Jewish woman are saved by two good classmates. Are these the proportions at Jedwabne or any other place where Jews were murdered?

No less wrong is the conclusion. The villains are tormented by phantoms and bad conscience and eventually are punished. One is killed by a classmate, another goes mad after losing his beloved son, a third slides to the lowest depths. The Jewish scoundrel, who also loses his beloved son, commits suicide. Thus, ‘complexity’ on one hand and a simplistic morality play on the other. Moreover, a good, pious Jew who had lost all of his relatives in Jedwabne, recreates and regains a no less numerous family in America, thus - by the same simplified ethics – his losses have been ‘restituted.’ And that’s not all, because in the end comes death, which levels everything, and so everybody, the victims along with the perpetrators return to their class, almost as if nothing had happened.

Such a morality play would have been wise and beautiful, but before Jedwabne, not after. It could be also acceptable if the neighbors mutually murdered each other, as for example the Ukrainians and the Poles in Volynia. But in Jedwabne or any other place of the Holocaust there was no such ‘balance’. Or such ‘justice.’ One of the most characteristic marks of the collective crime called the Holocaust was impunity. Because doing justice was physically impossible. Even with the best intentions, which were usually lacking. 

In Washington the drama was staged under a slogan: ‘Remembering/Representing the Holocaust’ which is a complete misunderstanding, because the play’s assumptions, complexities and conclusions are inauthentic. And - consciously or not – it tries to defend a lost case. Cleverly enough to make the late-born Jews applaud. But I am too old and too Polish not to see through this intention. 


Henryk Grynberg