Our Class, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, is based on the tragic events in 20th century Jedwabne, Poland
By Doris Rubenstein
Polish actor and playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek and I have something in common: he was raised in Bialystok, Poland, and so were my maternal grandparents. That’s where the commonality ends and where my questions begin: Who is Tadeuesz Slobodzianek? And how did he come to write Our Class, currently on stage at the Minnesota Jewish Theater Company in St. Paul.
According to the biography in the MJTC program, Slobodzianek, born in 1955, had a rather peripatetic career in and around the theater world in Poland until founding the Drama Laboratory in Warsaw in 2003. Our Minnesota equivalent might be the Playwright’s Center on East Franklin Avenue or the Loft Literary Center. The Drama Laboratory has attracted some of Poland’s finest theatrical talent and is an incubator for such talent; Our Class was hatched in 2007, and won the Nike Literary Award for the Best Book of the Year in Poland.
It still doesn’t really answer my question.
- Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company presents the area premiere of “Our Class” featuring George Muellner, Candace Barrett Birk, Elena Giannetti, Michael Jurenek, Walter Weaver, and Caleb Carlson. (Photo: Sarah Whiting)
While I think I generally got an excellent education in the Detroit public schools, I must admit that we never really covered World War II. Most of what I know comes from watching Public Television, reading Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific (I’m a huge fan of the Rogers and Hammerstein show), and having my head filled since Sunday school kindergarten with stories of the Holocaust, which seldom discussed the role of the Polish people either as Nazi collaborators or as righteous gentiles.
I do know that Poland and the Soviet districts that composed the Pale of Settlement had the largest pre-war Jewish populations, and that Poland had the fewest number of survivors return to live in their native land. It’s not enough to answer my questions.
Where did Slobodzianek get the idea and the facts for the story told in Our Class? We follow ten classmates in the Polish town of Jedwabne — six Jews and four Catholics — from their innocent days in primary school, dreaming their simple dreams of “when I grow up, I want to be,” through their very individual deaths over the course of some 70 years. Whatever happens to them, for better or for worse, their childhood friendships (and romances) are strong ties that bind.
Slobodzianek wrote this play in Polish for Poles, and that’s part of where my problem lies: Jedwabne clearly is a backwater town, but the class is also clearly a secular public school. (Although there is a break in the school day for the Catholics to pray; the Jewish students are consigned to the back of the room for the duration.) I’d like to know more about this phenomenon is such a Catholic country that public, secular schools were the rule, post-World War I. Was it the doing of the Marshal of Poland, PiÅ‚sudski, who is so loved and respected, and whose untimely death may have been a contributing factor to Jedwabne’s horrible history?
Ryan Craig adapted the play for the English-speaking stage and it is indeed a tour de force adaptation, especially considering the poetry that accompanies the dialog at strategic points in the play. Could I have asked him to slip in just a bit more historical reference from outside Jedwabne to help answer my questions? Miriam Monasch, as director, may have had such artistic freedom to do the same. Regardless of my minor complaint, her interpretation of Slobodzianek’s book draws out amazing strength from an excellent ensemble of actors who transform themselves from ebullient, twitching fifth-graders to passionate adults, to senior citizens with the wisdom to forgive others, if they were not able to forgive themselves.
Special praise goes to George Muellner for his role of Abram, who maintains the childlike belief in the goodness of his classmates through time and distance; and Michael Jurenek must have to bathe vigorously after playing the slimey double-agent collaborator Zygmunt, so convincing is his performance.
Similarly convincing are the costumes designed by Lisa Conley. They are a part of the story from the first raucous classroom scene until the devastating end. Dan Wold’s scenery appropriately comes apart and is reassembled into new forms, just as the lives and necessities of the characters must change and transform according to their fates.
The printed program finally tells us that Slobodzianek got the idea for Our Class when he saw a pre-War photograph of a Jewish and a Catholic child who had been classmates in a Jedwabne school. I am still left wondering how much he knew at that moment about the tragic events that occurred in that town before he undertook the research needed to create the play. What did Polish children of his, and my, generation learn in school that American children didn’t about what happened in WWII Poland? What are Polish children being taught today? And their American counterparts?
If going back to high school is not an option for you, then perhaps attending the MJTC Doorways presentations of Our Class following the November 5 and 13 performances may fill in your knowledge gap. Whenever you see Our Class, you will come out not just entertained, but wiser for having seen it.
Our Class runs through Sunday, Nov. 20 at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Hillcrest Center Theater, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. For information and tickets, go to: mnjewishtheatre.org, or call 651-647-4315.