BY SUZANNE KHARDALIAN
In 2001 Tomasz Gross published a book called “Neighbors” in Poland, wherein he revealed that in 1941 a horrendous mass-murder was committed against 1500 Jews by their Polish neighbors. The place was in Jedwabne, a small community in northeastern Poland. The massacre was not entirely unheard of, but the country’s official history attributed the murder to the Nazi German occupiers.
The revelation came as a shock to many, and shook the foundations of the Polish self-image as a victim of Nazism. Soon came to light several similar crimes, and what is curious is that the scenario had always been the same. Gross reveals the pattern, the Red Army is retreating, the Germans enter the country and pogroms against Jews are unleashed. The initiative is almost always taken by the Polish and the pretext for murder is collaboration with the Soviets, and there seems to have been no significant German involvement.
As if this was not enough, a second shock hit Poland and Polish society in the form of the debate that followed the revelations. Above all, rightist nationalist movements and the Catholic Church tried to deny the crimes or trivialize them, since they could not rationalize them with reference to the old anti-Semitic argument about Jewish Communism. The debate divided the country into two irreconcilable camps.
Soon, the book moved to the stage. Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s play about the same issue, titled “Our Class– History in XIV lessons”. The play has been staged since then with great success in London, the U.S., Hungary, Spain, Brazil, Czech Republic, Canada, Lithuania, Japan, Scandinavia, and, of course, Poland.
The opening scene is set in a faded local restaurant, decorated in poor taste, an awkward attempt to reclaim an elegance long lost, bearing an unmistakable air of sadness and disarray. The right place for a typical class reunion.
The class consists of ten students, five Catholic and five Jewish Poles. All were born between 1918 and 1920, the time of independent Poland’s rebirth after 100 years of partition. The destiny of each and every one mirrors the history of their country. It starts in the interwar period. Anti-Semitism is emerging. Antipathy towards Jews lies just below the surface, and occasionally is expressed in broad daylight. Then comes the Soviet occupation in 1939, something which many Jews regarded as a better alternative than the Nazis, a notion that was definitely not shared by Poles.
“Our Class” is an exceptional play that promotes debate on issues of morality and conscience, of evil, virtue, and guilt. It highlights the difference between political ideologies and religion, and here we encounter many examples of man’s proclivity for destruction in a time when humanity is replaced by cruelty.
Why bring up Tadeusz Slobodzianek now? The refugees, destruction, and cruelty we are witnessing today in Syria, reminds me of “Neighbors”—The news is flooded with Syrian refugee children drowned in the Mediteranean, and only a few react.
Ancient cities— Damascus, Aleppo, Tadmur— are all in ruins. Neighbors are butchering neighbors, a familiar scenario that we have been witnessing for the last two decades, first in Iraq, and now in Syria.
Of course I am paralyzed. What is to be done? I keep on trying to figure out what went wrong with people.
How can neighbors— who greeted one another every morning with wishes of “light” in the day, sharing “salt and bread”, courteous and well-mannered— end up killing neighbors? Must we always be reminded of what people are capable of doing?
What is it that makes our civilization fall through the cracks?
The play “Our Class” carries me back to my ancestors, to my grandparents, and the sudden chaos that engulfed their placid lives. Again and again, I try to understand why and how my grandma’s neighbour Elif and her husband Murad turned out to be bloodthirsty vampires?
In a small, idyllic, village, locals driven by self-interest, vindictive and spiteful, commit the most horrible crimes in the name of an ideology or religion. They gather the Jews inside a barn, (the Armenians inside the church) and set it on fire. They watch it as though watching fireworks. People who previously lived together and were neighbors suddenly are turned into executioners and degenerate into a lawlessness of the most wicked sort. Afterwards, the violence is blamed on others— other people, other things.
The story is frighteningly similar, the Polish Jews’ and Armenians’, the Poles’ and Turks’.
And then I think about the children, ours and theirs. What do we talk about in our school classes today? Sustainable lifestyles, climate issues are in the foreground for our kids at school. We educate them about creating a sustainable society. But sustainability is not just about ecology. Sustainability is about values that keep our civilization strong and going.
And Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s work “Our Class” is a great source that should be included in our school classes.
It’s true that the play is set in World War II and the time that preceded the war. But it is also a good instrument to illustrate the pattern of events of our own times, and maybe, even the world that awaits our children and grandchildren. The political turmoil around the world— the recent developments in the Middle East, in Syria, in Iraq, in Kenya— clearly tells us we need guidance.
We all know that morality and conscience, virtue and evil, are complicated issues. That does not stop us from discussing these tough issues. However, what is rarely debated is how to deal with these questions today, in our own time, when we lack common standards, a moral compass, grounds for consensus. In the absence of a guiding compass, respect for human dignity is subordinated to more short-term goals— a political explanation, a temporary or trendy solution.
I listen to the news and watch mothers crying, for children swallowed by the waters. The lump in my throat is never far away. It is deeply shocking. The fate of all Christians in the Middle East is scary. Where are we headed?
Yet I am also aware that people around the globe are exhausted with the news and have no appetite to spend time and energy to understand the forces that cause a person to completely abandon her decent human values and suppress compassion. We refuse to listen even when the murderers boast of their abuse and crack jokes about the horrors they committed, or make a musical out of the mass murder. Have you seen “The Act of Killing” by the Canadian Joshua Oppenheimer? See it. You will understand what it means to illustrate murder and then dance in ecstasy.
Yes, I am convinced that we are surrounded by a culture of silence, a silence reinforced by the ghosts of mutual blackmail. We live in blessed ignorance. We sing folk songs, recite poems, watch action-packed movies. Meanwhile, what is happening around is not a bit comical. We are all anti-heroes with an air of forced self-righteousness. Or, we avoid people, and watch channels where no human beings are shown.
The world around us is a theater that upsets and hurts. But remember that history is always a part of the present. Remember that there were people who loved, killed, tortured, burned, buried, repented, excused themselves, and died. However the violence, the killings, and those who perished, the dead bodies are always left at the scene, no one ever disappears. What is going on around us today makes for a show so dense, so powerful, that it seems we are seated in the theater on the brink of one of history’s greatest black holes.
And that hole is still tugging…