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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » December 2, 2009
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Spotlight on Dark History
December 2, 2009   
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A new play that deals with a horrific massacre of Jews by Poles during World War II has drawn more international attention than any other Polish work of art in years.

The recent premiere of an English-language version of playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek's Our Class at the National Theatre in London has coincided with a high-profile political row in Britain involving a Polish Eurodeputy and a dark chapter in Polish history.

The play has elicited positive reviews in the British press. The London Evening Standard described it as "grueling, harrowing theater" but praised Słobodzianek, one of Poland's leading playwrights who, the paper said, "majestically conveys a sense of history as a living organism."

Our Class is based on the July 1941 murder in German-occupied Poland of hundreds of Jews who were rounded up, locked in a barn and burned alive in the northeastern village of Jedwabne.

Nine years ago, a study by Polish-American historian Jan T. Gross caused shock by concluding that it was local Poles, and not the occupying Germans, who massacred their Jewish neighbors.

An investigation by Poland's National Remembrance Institute also concluded that the crime was committed by Poles. However, the institute estimated the death toll at around 340 rather than the 1,600 Gross suggested and controversy remains about the extent of German involvement in the massacre.

Betrayal and violence
Our Class, which runs until Jan. 12 in London but which is not expected to appear in Poland until next September, begins in 1925 when a group of schoolchildren, Jewish and Catholic, discuss their dreams and ambitions. As the children grow up, their country is torn apart by the invading Soviet and German armies, violence escalates and friends betray each other.

Michael Billington, a theater critic for Britain's left-leaning Guardian daily, said the play could cast Poland in a negative light. "But what it also proves is that Polish artists and writers have the courage to confront tragic issues from the country's past," he told the Voice. "This is the real test of a civilization."

Writing in The Times, a leading conservative daily, commentator David Aaronovitch advised David Cameron, the leader of Britain's opposition Conservatives, to see the play.

Cameron's party has been locked in a row with the ruling Labour party, which has accused the Conservatives of drifting to the extremes of Europe by forming a new group in the European Parliament-the euroskeptic, anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists-chaired by Polish Eurodeputy Michał Kamiński of Poland's opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Political row
British foreign minister David Miliband, who is from the Labour party and who has Polish-Jewish ancestry, claimed that Kamiński has an anti-Semitic past. The British Conservatives promptly demanded that Miliband should apologize to the Polish Eurodeputy.

The Labour party criticized Kamiński in particular for opposing then-Polish President Aleksander Kwa¶niewski's 2001 apology for the Jedwabne massacre. Kamiński denied anti-Semitism but said he was against holding Poles collectively responsible for Jedwabne.

Billington of the Guardian said, "I think it's excellent that Our Class is being used as part of the political debate in Britain about the Conservative alliance with dubious European partners. This proves to me that the play is more than a historical document: it is part of a living discussion about the nature of fascism in Europe."

But Patrick Marmion, who writes for Britain's right-leaning Daily Mail, said he was against dragging Our Class into the British political row as a simplistic illustration of the dangers of anti-Semitism. "What was interesting about the play was that it was more complex than that. Anti-Semitism was only part of it," he said.

"The darkest, most unpalatable message of the play is its vision of haunted complicity between victim and assailant, which seemed to me to suggest that Polish history is enmired in a conspiracy of self-delusion," Marmion added.

Henry Hitchings, a critic for the London Evening Standard, said that as a result of Our Class, the Jedwabne story, which was not widely known in Britain previously, had captured people's interest.

"I do think that the play is good PR for Polish art-it's in many ways an excellent piece of drama," Hitchings told the Voice. "If it and the controversy surrounding it suggest Poland is... a country with skeletons rattling around the closet, that may make a case for the urgent importance of Polish art, even if it isn't quite the kind of case that some Polish people would like to be made."

Peter Konończuk
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