Review: West Coast Premiere of “Our Class”

By on May 8, 2013

Aquinas writes that the conscience can be mistaken, from use of a false premiss. The play Our Class, as an exercise in conscience, depends on how securely it is “based on a true story,” as the publicity states. All too certainly, there is a true story of the two mass graves at Jedwabne, Poland. But what is it?

Playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek was trained in Polish puppet theater, and perhaps puppets penetrate the soul with less distraction than actors in the flesh. Director Matthew McCray, of the Son of Semele Ensemble in Los Angeles, represents violence—a rape, murders, beatings—with stylized postures in the flow of conversation. A stacking of chairs is understood as a stacking of slain bodies. The slam of a chair to the floor is heard as the crack of knuckles against a skull. Wrapping one’s arms around a chair from behind is the posture for grabbing a beard and cutting a victim’s throat. Artful puppetry conveys the penetrating thought, just short of driving the faint from the theater.

There is also the skipping of young children, with which the play begins—ten children: ethnically, five Polish, five Jewish, in the Polish town of Jedwabne. The play ends, after each has died in peace or in violence, with all recognizing each other simply, and turning toward the front of their classroom to sing a child’s song.

In between is a strenuously contested interpretation of Polish and Jewish history during WW II, while under Soviet Russian invasion from the east and Nazi German invasion from the west. During an interim between Russian departure and German arrival, some writers claim, the one thousand six hundred Poles of Jedwabne, acting on their own, without firearms, set upon and murdered their one thousand six hundred Jewish neighbors, without suffering a single loss.

“Half the town murdered the other half,” as published in popular commentaries of the event, including one by George F. Will, who surely can’t demonstrate what he claims to believe. Playwright Slobodzianek ‘s deft puppetry of the maneuvers might be the most plausible suggestion of the “military mastery of the Poles” hypothesis.

Slobodzianek doesn’t show how the one thousand six hundred Jews were ordered out of their houses and onto the town square. But he does relate an intention by his character the German Amskommendant, in white silk scarf, to “put the Jews in ordnung.” However, whether the initial roundup was driven by Poles or by Germans is left unstated.

Objections are held by some who resist the charge of Polish culpability: that the German Einsatzgruppen executed the event, while forcing some Poles, and inciting others, to assist. However, the playscript accepts a repeated narrative, which is that Poles exercised the sufficient animus, and the Germans the merest necessary. And it probes, as being necessary, attitudes of antisemitism, but also shows Jews favoring the new world of the Soviets.

It should be stated here and now that official numbers for the massacre, from the most recent investigation, stand at about 40 Polish perpetrators and 300-400 Jewish victims. So the swirl of numbers cautions us to distinguish between history and promotional commentary.

Here is the story told in the Son of Semele Ensemble production with the crispness of a snare drum: the pulse of voices, kick of boots, clink of glasses, slam of a chair. The tempo in the Friday performance was precise. The performers in each case established familiar personalities.

Division between the two ethnicities becomes severe with the Soviet invasion, and the young Polish men react against the invader, while watching the young Jews celebrate the Russian arrival, converting the church into a movie theater.

The Poles form a defense group, the White Eagle, getting drunk and plotting the execution of the Soviet Major. But one of the Polish boys, Zygmunt, has been duped into becoming an informant to the Major, and Russian reprisals follow against the plotting Poles. The informant’s secret perfidy leaves blame to fall violently on the Jews, a murder and a rape.

The Russians retreat, the German gendarmerie arrives, and the Amskommendant now manipulates Zygmunt into service of the Nazi Germans. His father was killed by the Russians, and this point is used by the commander. A pogrom has begun. The actors, moving in the round, describe the horror.

Jews are forced from their homes onto the town square to be paraded about and abused. Two of the Jewish classmates evade the roundup, and find uneasy accommodation with Polish lovers. On the square, classmate Zygmunt, conveying orders from the Germans, directs the Jews to enter a barn, under pretext of shelter for the night.

Within the barn a massacre is organized by a military veteran, old townsman Sielawa, commanding an axe, hammer, and butcher’s knife, backed by sticks and clubs. The veteran cuts the Rabbi’s throat and directs a systematic slaughter. Kerosene is poured into the barn, through the roof, by a giddy Pole, and the corners are set afire by four Polish classmates. Within, Dora drops her baby and chokes in the smoke.

The described system for slaughter is this: six killers per victim—two killers holding the victim’s arms, a third holds the legs; the axe man and the hammer man knock him out; the butcher cuts open the throat and belly. Two men throw the body into a prepared shallow pit. Rest breaks, with substitutions, are given for members of the slaughtering team. This process is implied as repeated indefinitely, with the murderers unhindered by the other victims waiting in the barn.

This interpretation is dramatically overwhelming, but a critic gripping his chair can find it difficult to accept the practical account of the activity within the barn. Such mastery by robust Poles seems unlikely without direct action by the armed German force. Some testimony holds that a German military truck rolled up and green uniforms jumped off with containers of gasoline. And how was the shallow pit in the barn prepared?

I make my reservations explicit because a popular narrative is being improvised in the sphere of reviews and publicity, with an iconic but false figure of “1,600″ victims endlessly repeated. The innuendo blames Poles for the Holocaust, a canard resisted by both Poles and Jews.

The Los Angeles Consulate General for Poland made a significant misstep in approving and distributing the Ensemble’s publicity for Our Class, which referred to the massacre as “an act of wartime genocide.” Upon question from California Polonia, the Consulate corrected its phrase to “an act of wartime murder.” But the Ensemble retains the term “genocide” in its ad copy.

So the equivocation persists. Under the United Nations Convention for Genocide—i.e. the accepted definition—questions must remain at issue: who did it, and with what intent.

A president of Poland apologized for the massacre, but did so prior to the forensic investigation. And then the forensic investigation was shut down, prematurely and abruptly.

At his Colin Miller Memorial Lecture in 2003, I questioned the honoree, Prof. Jan T. Gross, author of the popular exposition of this massacre, about the premature termination of the forensic investigation, which he acknowledged with disapproval, stating, “And had it not been prematurely terminated, then we would really know.”

Hence, we do not really know. Aquinas would indicate a weak minor premiss: the how and who of the event. As instructional material, the play would need special handling to be presented without objection in the California school system, for which State Education Code requires accuracy and proscribes adverse reflection. And hence, the forensic investigation must be resumed to settle the question.

The barn scene ends the first act.  The second act concludes with smarmy conduct by the Poles, concealing their shame, and frustration by Menachem, now a lieutenant in Soviet security, limited and hindered by his superiors while attempting to secure revenge and justice against his murderous classmates. A Rabbi from New York, himself one of the Jedwabne classmates, arrives to deliver his indictment.

I speak of a framework of puppetry, but the flesh and blood actors create characters with which we become familiar since their childhood in their classroom. This enables cutting ironies to be expressed—the Jewish bride of the rescuing Pole receives wedding gifts from the Jews’ despoiled houses; the priest uneasily affirms the heroism of the murdered Rabbi, while the script has it that he himself participated.

Reviewed here is the West Coast premiere of Our Class, by Tadeusz Slobodzianek, in translation by Ryan Craig, presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble at the Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas, Los Angeles 90039, with performances extended through May 11. Tickets and information: sonofsemele.org.

For an historian’s analysis, consider The Massacre at Jedwabne, by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, holder of the Kosciusko Chair of Polish Studies at the Institute of World Politics. For the function of the German military photographers who were reported, without explanation, by Prof. Gross, as present at the massacre, consider this disturbing photograph and its caption: this is Kovno, or Kaunas, in Lithuania—but also what the Jedwabne crimes may have looked like, including uniforms. God keep and rest the souls.

by Gordon Leon Black

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Gordon Leon Black reviews regional theater in northern California. He is former Chair, Committee for Education, for the Polish American Congress, San Francisco. He may be reached at twoflags@mcn.org. TWO FLAGS has been his personal initiative in Polish/Jewish relations for some three decades, saluting the standards that flew above the uprising of the Jewish fighters in the Warsaw ghetto, the white and red beside the white and blue.