Tadeusz Słobodzianek play is the first Polish drama to be given the country's prestigious Nike Literary Prize. The European Theatre Convention ranked it among the best contemporary European plays written during 2009 and 2010. The story is set in 20th century Poland and is inspired by true events, such as the Jedwabne pogrom which led to the bloody demise of 300 Polish Jews in 1941
Nasza klasa / Our Class is a story about a group of classmates - Poles and Jews - from 1925 up to our times. As they grow up, their friendly fun ends. The war breaks out, invading forces, first Soviet then Nazi, enter the town. Anti-Semitism erupts in a series of rapes, murders, torture, culminating in a mass pogrom. Almost all the local Jews are killed, burned in a barn or murdered in the town square. Very few manage to survive. The violence doesn't end with the end of the war. A reckoning with the past begins, but this is an impossible task. Our Class is a shocking tale about complicated Polish-Jewish relations in the 20th century, collective blame, truth that nobody seems to need, and history which cannot be judged, retraced, or even explained. The book was nominated for the Nike 2010 Literary Award.
Słobodzianek's play is one of the first works invoking the Jedwabne atrocity. The writer gathered most of the details from books by historians and journalists (including Jan T. Gross and Anna Bikont), but this real-life material underwent a far-reaching process of transformation. In 14 scenes/lessons Słobodzianek follows a group of Poles and Jews who were classmates before the war, in a small town rather like Jedwabne - telling their story from those days until our times.
It all starts in the 1930s. Marshal Piłsudski dies, the schoolchildren's seemingly peaceful coexistence is marred by the atmosphere created by anti-Semitic prejudice. After the war breaks out, first the Red Army, then the Nazis enter the town. People's attitudes are diverse - the Poles form an underground organization, but some decide on collaboration, both with the NKVD and the Nazis. The Jews greet the Russians with relief. When the Nazis take over, most of the Jews are brutally murdered. Those who take part in the murder, rape, torture, and robbery include their former classmates, only a few of them help the Jews. After the war, some of the survivors of the massacre join the secret police (SB), gaining the opportunity to take revenge on their former torturers. In the end, most of the characters try to negotiate an arrangement with the existing reality - whether in People's Poland, Israel, or America.
The play's ironic title refers to a community - initially fragile, but real - which later disintegrates irreversibly, turning into a community of evil memory. There is no escaping the vicious circle of wrongs and resentments. The crime leaves no one innocent.
Słobodzianek's play begins with a list of the dramatis personae, including the telling dates of their birth and death. From the start, the characters are spirits, ghosts or - if you will - corpses. Their language - colloquial, naïve, and brutal - is intertwined with the language of popular nursery rhymes and children's songs, creating a strange effect of alienation. Using the archetypes of Romantic drama, polemically invoking Tadeusz Kantor's Umarła klasa / Dead Class, Słobodzianek speaks about ghosts that cannot be soothed or appeased.
Tadeusz Słobodzianek talks with Juliusz Kurkiewicz about the book for the Gazeta Wyborcza daily:
JK: This case has been described in detail by historians and journalists. Why does it need literature, drama?
TS: You didn't add - also by prosecutors. But seriously, literature, and particularly theatre, has other aims than to seek historical or criminal truth. In Our Class the word "Jedwabny" (the name of the town in which the story is set, in Polish literally means "silk") only comes up in the context of the scarf worn by the Nazi amtskommandant and later by one of the other characters who tries to imitate him... in more than just his wardrobe. I don't deal with historical events, although I do draw extensively from various judicial, journalistic, or academic sources. My purpose is rather to ask: Why does what happened in the summer of 1941, not only in Jedwabne or Radziłów but also in many different forms in dozens of Polish towns, torment me so much? And it is this distress of mine about the problem that I want to share with readers or theatregoers.
JK: In your play, we see heroism and baseness on both sides, Polish and Jewish. There are Polish anti-Semites and murderers but there is also a Jew who is a revenge-seeking secret police agent. Were you trying to weigh the historical arguments, to write a politically correct piece?
TS: I don't treat a play like a recipe. It's not meant to be tasty. My intention was neither to be objective nor to please anyone in journalistic terms. I try to uncover the mechanism of a tragedy affecting people who, in a certain time and place, found themselves in a unique coincidence, as Neuger writes, of social and psychological relations, of history, ideology, and religion. And I try to ask about the human condition amidst this coincidence that has led to crime, revenge, and suffering. Revenge for one's near and dear, "an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand", doesn't explain everything Menachem does as a secret police agent. The killing, betraying the woman who saved him, his growing hatred of himself does not explain his fear, his burnout, his guilt. Just as the anti-Semitism of other characters - whether in the religious or racial sense - doesn't explain rape, or burning people alive, or butchering them. And the desire to seize the victims' property isn't enough. For the prosecutor - yes. For the judge - also. But they have a narrow field of judgment. A writer doesn't. A writer must ask why it happened. Why did things end up like this? Who was to blame? But it isn't my role to answer these questions. My role is to ask them.
JK: Do you believe in the sovereignty of people's moral decisions, or rather that people fall victim to that circumstance of historical, social, psychological factors?
TS: One doesn't exist without the other. Choice is linked to necessity, destiny to freedom. In this contradiction lies the mystery of existence. This is especially visible in theatre, because theatre was created precisely to enable people to talk continually about what freedom is and what destiny is. An actor takes a step onstage and that's sovereignty of decision. But as soon as we ask: Why is he doing it? Where's he coming from? Where's he going? - some form of determination appears and we have to reply to it. In this sense, Our Class asks questions about freedom and destiny which every member of the audience, identifying in some way with each of the characters, has to answer, or at least sense what he or she would do if they were in that position. I don't intend to help them. On the contrary, I do my best to make a reply as difficult and complicated as possible.
JK: Reading your play, the hero of Jonathan Littell's novel The Kindly Ones sprang to my mind, who says: "I'm guilty, you're not, that's great. But you have to be able to tell yourselves that you would have done the same in my place".
TS: Unlike Littell, I don't believe in the kindness of the Furies. And if I think about conscience, which they're meant to represent, then the question immediately arises: Whose conscience? A Christian's? An orthodox Jew's? A Marxist's? A agnostic's? An atheist's? In the end, it's the same with conscience as with points of view - it depends on where you stand, and on the deal you want to clinch with God or society. What is a clear conscience? How many murderers were there in the 20th century whose conscience was clear? What conscience did Stroop or Blokhin have? How much blood was spilled in the name of a clear conscience?I don't believe in a clear conscience. I believe in pain, suffering, painstaking building of self-awareness; in drama, architecture, medicine. Not in ideologies that want to give us weapons to humiliate and exclude others.
JK: Where does the story we know as Jedwabne begin?
TS: I don't know where it begins. I know where it doesn't end.
- Tadeusz Słobodzianek
Nasza klasa. Historia w XIV lekcjach / Our Class. History in 14 Lessons
Series: Dramaty do Czytania / Plays for Reading
Wydawnictwo słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2009
140 x 225, 112 pp., paperback
Author: Juliusz Kurkiewicz - wyborcza.pl, June 2010
Translated by: Joanna Dutkiewicz, July 2010
Source: Publisher's Note, Gazeta Wyborcza