Staging Jedwabne

By on May 15, 2013

Playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek won Poland’s Nike literary award for his play, Our Class, based on the Jedwabne massacre. The play is being shown in the US, preceded with conciliatory talks by Polish diplomats. A full review of the Los Angeles production is online at www.posteaglenewspaper.com. This is a condensed version.

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?

During an interim between Russian military retreat and German arrival, some writers claim, 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 doesn’t show how the one thousand six hundred Jews were ordered out of their houses and onto the town square. Whether the roundup was driven by Poles or by Germans is left undescribed.

Objections are held by some who resist the charge of Polish culpability: that the German SS Einsatzgruppen executed the event, while forcing some Poles, and inciting others, to assist.

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.

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.

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 impossible 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 “1600” 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. Other states have similar Code. And hence, to settle the question, the forensic investigation must be resumed.

- Gordon Leon Black