October 07, 2022
By Ania Drimer
On the night of December 15, 2015, the Theater J, at the Jewish Community Center of Washington, was filled to capacity. As a sign of the times, for security reasons, everyone attending this play had to be screened to enter. This theater caters mostly, but not exclusively, to Jewish audiences, performing plays on Jewish themes: some controversial, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and some humorous and endearing, like Calling Dr. Ruth. So it was not a surprise that in this particular theater, we saw the Polish play Nasza Klasa, or, in English, Our Class. In addition to watching the play, we were invited to be translators for the playwright and director, Mr. Słobodzianek, and had the honor of discussing the play with him. Our taste in plays runs the gamut, but we prefer dramas that leave us touched and eager to discuss what we have seen with friends. Our Class fits the bill perfectly, especially because we are well-versed in Polish-Jewish relations in Poland before and during the war.
The play is set in the time frame from 1925 to 1950, and it is inspired by a true event, a pogrom in the town of Jedwabne, where 1,600 Jews were murdered not by the Nazis, but by their neighbors. The play follows the fortune, or rather misfortune, of ten members of a school class, equally divided into Poles and Jews. The action takes place during the Soviet occupation, the Holocaust, and after the war. In the beginning, the students seem to be good friends, interacting with and teasing each other. The play shows that, because of rising antisemitism and hate, the action of the Polish students leads to rape, beatings, torture, and finally rounding up their Jewish classmates, taking them to a barn, and burning it to the ground. Two of the Polish students hide their Jewish friends and save their lives, but insist on their conversion to Christianity. I found their quick descent into hate and madness, depicted in the play, heartbreaking.
The second, much less dramatic act, set after the war, shows the destinies of the survivors of the class: some of the few remaining Jewish students went to Israel, some to America, and two of the Polish students were arrested but never served a sentence. Only one Jewish student wanted revenge. He joined the Communist party and, as a high official of the security department, similar to the KGB, terrorized the population.
Personally, growing up in Poland, I did not experience antisemitism among my classmates, but I knew other Jews who were victims of it. I can't say I enjoyed this play in the usual sense of the word. I was very moved by it, and happy that a play on this controversial subject was even written and enjoyed high popularity in Poland. I was hopeful that Poland (my home before coming to the United States) was ready to account and atone for its devastating role in the Holocaust, much as Germany did. The present has proved me wrong. The new government of Poland is only interested in publicizing the role of their so-called “righteous,” while whitewashing the deeds of the rest of the population.
As one of the characters in the play says, “you can never bury the truth.” I am glad that Słobodzianek wrote the play to expose the truth about the tragic events of one small class in one small town.
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