Posted by: jbwuk | November 29, 2009

The Polish Question

Yesterday, I went to see Our Class, Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s amazing play, in a version by Ryan Craig (What we did to Weinstein). I was going more out of a sense of duty, expecting a deeply harrowing play. The young man who served me an expresso before going on (it was a matinee) said that he had seen the play, that it was excellent but that he could certainly not see it a second time. We joked that after the theatre, I’d go to the cinema to watch The White Ribbon and then jump off a bridge.

The Class follows 8 Polish classmates from before the war to nowadays. The play opens with the “children” introducing themselves, announcing what their fathers do and then what they want to be when they grow up. We know that few will be able to realise their dreams and the story that unfolds before our eyes confirm our worst fears. Slobodzianek based his story on true events that happened in the village of Jedwabne, after reading Jan Gross’ Neighbours. But it is a story all too common. It happened in Poland and in the rest of Europe during the War, but since then it’s happened in Cambodia, Rwanda and Croatia and could certainly still happen again.

The three hour long play is definitely a must see. The eight actors, always on stage from beginning to end, are amazing. The very simple staging in the small and intimate Cottlesloe makes the play extremely powerful. By the end of the first half, stunned by the horrors we had just witnessed, we needed the 20 minute interval to recover, mostly in silence. The second half was about the complexity of what happens afterwards; questions of guilt and innocence, courage and cowardice, justice and retribution, truth and lies, none of them clearcut and easy to answer. And yes, some of the children from the beginning had fulfilled their dreams but the cost they had to pay for them on the way made them worthless. The sense of absurd waste was all too powerful.

This play is remarkable as part of the way some Poles are willing to confront the past. Many still resent not being able to hide behind the Nazis for the crimes committed during the war and it is easier to stage Our Class in London than in Poland but still, this is a welcome step forward. The production has been made possible by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw who are also supporting Jewish Book Week 2010. My colleague Mekella has been invited on a tour of Jewish Poland and this will be reflected in our programme.

We are planning a discussion between Professor Jonathan Webber, author of Rediscovering Traces of Memory, a beautiful book on Jewish Poland and what has been left of it today, with Janusz Makuch, the founder of the most successful Krakow Jewish Culture Festival which attracts tens of thousands of people, Jews and non-Jews, Poles and foreigners, come to celebrate Jewish culture. They will certainly discuss what Ruth Ellen Gruber calls “Virtual Jewish”, this renewal of Jewish culture without the Jews, which can provoke very contrasted reactions. They will definitely talk about these many Poles, like Makuch, who sincerely want to recover something they consider part of Polish culture and for whose eradication they strongly blame the war generation.

We will also welcome the great Polish novelist Pawel Huelle whose stories have been internationally acclaimed for their intelligence and irony. His mother, who was Jewish, was the only member of her family to survive thanks to her aryan looks which enabled a family to adopt her and save her. The five year old was brought up a Catholic. Who Was David Weiser?, Huelle’s first novel was the story of a Jewish boy who goes from outcast to local hero.

We will also take you time travelling into Polish Jewish literature with Henry Goodman and Beverley Klein who will read texts by Bashevis Singer, Bruno Schulz, Ida Fink and many more writers, interspersed with Klezmer music.

We are now putting the very final touches to our programme which is already with our designer, Karen Cinnamon. I’m updating the website and the Friends of Jewish Book Week will be able to see the full programme as early as the 10 December and book their tickets. Becoming a friend gives you a number of advantages as well as a free book on joining. It is also a much welcome way of showing us your support. These are not the best times to organise a book festival. Advertising in the programme has plummeted, publishers are reluctant to pay for authors to come from abroad and some of our sponsors are themselves struggling financially. Yet we do not want to raise our ticket prices or lower our standards of excellence. So we hope you will join us and that we will not disappoint you!


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