"Our Class" and the bloody history of Poland that refuses to die

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History is not dead. It is alive,” says Tadeusz Slobodzianek. We are sitting in a train as it rattles north-east out of Warsaw, talking about the previous day’s ceremony in Gdansk that marked the outbreak of the Second World War, and how Vladimir Putin acknowledged the suffering caused to Poles by the Nazis without recognising the suffering caused to Poles by the Soviet Union. “No one apologised,” observes Slobodzianek.

One of Poland’s leading playwrights, Slobodzianek is the son of a Roman Catholic father and Russian Orthodox mother who, like countless other Poles, were deported by the Soviets to Siberia, where their son was born. Today in Warsaw he runs the Laboratorium Dramatu, a theatre with a reputation for new writing that is the Polish equivalent of the Royal Court in London.

By the time we reach our destination the talk has turned to Polish suffering in the remote northeastern borderlands — the subject of Slobodzianek’s play Our Class, which receives its world premiere later this month at the National Theatre in London.

“This is where they were beaten,” says Slobodzianek, surveying Jedwabne’s main square. From doorways, passing cars and park benches, the 55-year-old playwright is watched by a few of the town’s 2,000 residents. But Slobodzianek, a fearless planet of a man at over 6ft (1.9m), is impervious.

Pronounced Yedvabne, this ghostly, isolated place is one of a handful of torpid towns scattered across the plains of northeast Poland. The nearest city, where Slobodzianek was raised, is Bialystock — yes, the name of Mel Brooks’s hero in The Producers, though in Poland it’s the gateway to a region of vast forests, slow-moving rivers and swamps.

Jedwabne is not mentioned in Slobodzianek’s play, nor the nearby village of Radzilow, but by the time Our Class finishes its London run, both are bound to become more renowned. As will the events that took place there — particularly in Jedwabne, where on July 10, 1941, the town’s Jews were murdered during an eight-hour pogrom that climaxed with almost all those still able to stand being herded into a barn and burnt alive.

There can be no more disturbing subject for a play. But Our Class will resonate for reasons beyond its examination of how half a town ends up murdering the other half. Until 2001, the Jedwabne memorial on the site of the barn referred to the atrocity as yet another Nazi crime. The one at Radzilow, whose Jewish inhabitants were also burnt in a barn, still does. But a reassessment of the massacre, much of it by the Polish-born American historian Jan T. Gross, tells another story — of Catholic Poles killing 1,600 Jewish Poles with hideous cruelty and with little or no encouragement from the Nazis.

Although a subsequent official inquiry confirmed many of Gross’s findings — the number of victims remains in dispute — political lines have been drawn between these opposing versions of Jedwabne’s recent past. As Slobodzianek says, history is alive.

Set between 1925 and 2002, Our Class follows a school class of ten Jewish and Roman Catholic children who grow up together and grow apart during a period when this part of Poland went from independence to repeated occupation — first by the Soviets, then the Nazis, then by the Soviets again...

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