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The Warsaw Voice » Other » August 13, 2008
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Preserving Tradition
August 13, 2008   
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"If an author wrote something a certain way, that means we have to seek a form of artistic expression to get it through to the contemporary audience. But, God forbid, never update it. I am against updating."

Szymon Szurmiej, theater director, actor and artistic director of the Jewish Theater in Warsaw, talks to Magdalena Błaszczyk.

The Jewish Theater in Warsaw was established in 1955. What existed before?
Before World War II there were 13 Jewish theaters in Warsaw. Of course none of them was state-run or municipal. All the theaters were private. There were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland at the time, 450,000 in Warsaw alone. After the war there were two theaters, one in Wrocław that was a cooperative, of which I was the director, and another in ŁódĽ, managed by Ida Kamińska. Most Jews after the war lived in Wrocław, in the "regained territories." Those who had come from Russia or other countries settled there.

What resulted from the merger of these two theaters?
They merged to form the State Jewish Theater based [in Warsaw] in an awful shack left behind by the Polish Army Theater, where the nice Victoria Hotel is housed today.

Since most Jews lived in the "regained territories," why was Warsaw chosen as the headquarters of the Jewish Theater?
The main issue was to grant it the status of a State Jewish Theater.

You took over as the theater's director in 1970, after the anti-Jewish campaign of March 1968. Why?
In 1968 Ida Kamińska and most of the company left the country in protest. I found five actors here. I faced a dilemma. I was the director of the Polski Theater in Wrocław, but that theater needed no saving while the Jewish Theater had to be saved from extinction.

Did you undertake to re-create Ida Kamińska's theater or to create something new?
I think that for anyone who thinks of themselves as a creator, re-creating something is less creative. That's why creating is every creator's ambition; but it has to be creating on the basis of tradition. One absolutely must not forget about tradition.

This might sound pompous, but I wanted to be a guardian of the memory of a culture that had developed in this land over a thousand years, which unified as a component of Polish culture, and which perished in this land. It is said that this culture disappeared through the chimneys of Auschwitz, Majdanek and other [Nazi] death camps. Jews have a festival of lights that marks the recapture of the temple by the Maccabees. In those days a flame always burned in the temple, from which candles were lit. It was my duty to use the tiny flame that still remained to rekindle that culture.

Was the theater meant to be that tiny flame?
Yes, and it has been all the time.

Have the objectives and tasks of the Jewish Theater changed since its inception?
Of course, the tasks have changed in the sense that it shouldn't be a museum theater. It has to be alive. It has to have all the theatrical values that a theater has, it has to be eclectic because it is absolutely unique. It includes music, and dance, and humor, and serious things, and drama, and even theater of symbols and signs. We seldom play in Yiddish, mostly on tour; here we stage Polish translations. At present this theater fulfills a dual role: on one hand it preserves the memory of Jewish culture, and on the other, contrary to the actions of some people, it shows the tolerance of the Polish nation.

You are not just a theater director and actor but also a movie actor. What place do movies occupy in your life? Did your film experiences change your approach to theater?
Theater and film are completely different. For actors, for directors, theater is a much deeper experience emotionally. I act every day, every day experiencing different emotions. A movie is a one-off story. It's unquestionably an art, but even the art of acting in a film is completely different. In a film, they can start from the end: I die at the end, then I'm alive at the beginning. In theater there has to be a beginning and an end; working on a movie is different. You have to be very sharp, at a given moment, in a given excerpt from your part; you can't carry on the whole role to the end.
Sometimes theater actors make very poor movie actors, and a movie actor isn't always a good theater actor, because you have to throw all those emotions over the footlights to the audience, so it's a completely different technique. Certainly from a director's viewpoint a movie enriches you in the sense of thinking and the perspective you adopt. When working on a play, I for example see it in images, I can see it before I actually have it on stage. And that's how I edit it. Sometimes that's not good; it turns out that an image has to be cut; but sometimes it's very good. Both theater and film are arts, one enriches the other, sometimes we don't even know how.

September will see the fifth Singer's Warsaw Festival of Jewish Culture. Why is the festival named after Isaac Bashevis Singer?
I met him personally, and spoke to him twice. He never left Poland, never left Warsaw. Living in the United States, he wrote just one book about the United States, Shadows on the Hudson, while all the rest are about Poland. He asked me one time, "Tell me, what does Nalewki [Street] look like today?" I said, "Maestro, Nalewki is no more." He was so angry that he almost jumped at me. Idiot though I was, I immediately caught on and said, "No, well, I mean, it's not that Nalewki is no more. Let me tell you..." and I started telling him about the Nalewki he had written about, his genuine Nalewki. He was so happy; he sat there smiling, because his youth had come back, his memory. That's why it's Singer's Warsaw, his Warsaw, and that's why Gołda Tencer and I decided to go outside the boundaries of an enclosed theater, onto the street.

Is the festival an extension of the theater then?
Yes, though by now it is a separate story. This year, as Easter coincided with the Seder, we also had a joint feast on Próżna Street. The whole length of Próżna was lined with tables.

You have unquestionably managed to keep up the flame of tradition. Have you managed to pass it on to new generations?
Masses of young people come to my theater; everyone wonders why. It's because young people are curious about things; they seek their roots, sometimes without even knowing why. And when they sit in their seats, I watch them: they applaud, are moved, laugh. I asked one student why, and he said "I miss all that." That means it's there somewhere, rooted inside them. It may surface in the third or fourth generation.

I recently staged Tradition in Sowińskiego Park. I haven't seen such enthusiasm from an audience, from young people, in a long time. The play is about a prewar town. It was like this: Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, Gypsy, because all those people lived there and that's where I was raised myself. There was no hatred: a beautiful cathedral and next to it an old and beautiful synagogue, a wonderful Orthodox church, a mosque and even a Karaim church. Nobody minded. Multiethnicity bothered no one. There is no such thing as a "pure nation." You can only compare my blood with yours, and it'll only show that you have Rh+ while I have Rh- blood type, and that's all. That's the only difference between us.
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