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Our Class by Tadeusz Slobodzianek:Unsparing account of a wartime massacre and its repercussions
By Judi Herman

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment Magazine The Ticket, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of thirty years. They have a son and a daughter in their early twenties – and the family is completed by a Bedlington Terrier puppy called Bertie! E-mail : judi_herman@hotmail.com  

Judi Herman is moved by an unsparing account of a wartime massacre and its repercussions

1,600 Jews are burnt to death in a barn in a small Polish town in1941. The repercussions, guilt and retribution, accusations and counter-accusations of blame continue long after the War ends, coming to a new head with an investigative TV documentary in the 21st century.

Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s play explores the events leading up to the massacre and the repercussions that continue to this day, by following the fortunes of ten individuals
caught up in it.

These former classmates at the local primary school, five Jewish, five Christian, become victims and perpetrators, bystanders and rescuers, in a war crime that only this century has been attributed to Poles in the town, rather than the German occupiers.

For the play is based on real events that happened in the town of Jedwabne and there has indeed been recent revealing research into who perpetrated the massacre.

Relationships between Christians and Jews deteriorate and as Catholic accuses Jew of betraying patriots during the Soviet occupation of 1939, retaliations escalate into Anti-Semitism when the Germans occupy in 1941. And the inexorable build up to the barn burning begins with the humiliation of the whole Jewish population and acts of violence directed against individuals.

Racial hatred may have lit the fuse, but who is a hero and who a villain is not clear cut – and apparently heroic actions that save lives do not necessarily lead to happy lives for saviour or saved.

Zygmunt is apparently the villain of the piece, who betrays his friend and then convinces his fellow Catholics that the Jews with communist sympathies are to blame for his death so that their violent retribution leads to rape and murder. But what of Menachem, who takes advantage of the refuge offered by his former classmate Zocha, because she carries a torch for him, leaving his wife and baby to their fate?

And Wladek hides Rachelka, the Miller’s daughter, and risks his life to save hers more than once because he loves her and wants her for his wife. But Rachelka, who finds she must also convert to Christianity and take the name Marianna, cannot return his affections or find intellectual satisfaction in her life with him. So the intense and brainy young girl we see on the class’s first day at school becomes a sad unfulfilled woman, and finally widowed and living in a home for the elderly, she admits candidly that her greatest pleasure for years is to have access to fifty TV channels.

We may be familiar with the trajectory of the Jewish stories from survivors’ accounts, but what impresses here is the equal weight given to all these intertwined stories.

And what gives the play authority is the sheer sweep of the story ranging over more than eighty years and three continents, starting with the innocence of the youngsters at school, confiding their ambitions and laughing and playing together and finishing with the fates of those who lived on into old age.

Bijan Beijani’s spare production on a bare stage allows his superb cast of ten to tell their stories with a stark simplicity all the more effective for evoking rather than graphically showing the horrors of rape and violence.

The style is reportage, the actors addressing the audience directly to explain their thoughts and actions. All the actors are present at all times, remaining in character and on stage even after the deaths of those whom they are playing. The only difference between the living and the dead is where they sit, so the presence of the dead bearing witness adds an intense focus to the action.

Looking down from four sides onto an acting area lit by Jon Clark’s pitiless lighting, the audience bears witness throughout, so that by the interval the inexorable build up of tension and violence culminating in massacre makes it hard to relish a glass of wine; and by the end, it seems wrong to burst into applause too soon.

To date the subject matter has proved too sensitive for a production in Poland, so Ryan Craig’s fine English version from Catherine Grosvenor’s translation is its world premiere. On the strength of this showing, a Polish premiere is overdue.


Our Class by Tadeusz Slobodzianek continues in repertory in the Cottesloe Theatre at the National Theatre, London until 12 January 2010. Book on 0044 (0)20 7452 3000 or online ar www.nationaltheatre.org.uk .

Listen online to playwright Ryan Craig, who wrote the English version of the play, talking to Judi about the play and the production – and hear a brief extract by following this link http://www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk/  to the website of Jewish Renaissance Magazine, clicking on JR Out Loud and scrolling down to the second item.



Related Links:

  • Read additional reviews by Judi Herman
  • Read additional Holocaust Theatre

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    There are currently 2 comments about this article:

    1.Our Class
      Jola Glaser, London, UK    (1/13/2010)
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  • Judi Herman

    Playwright Ryan Craig

    JASON WATKINS (Heniek)

    - AMANDA HALE (Rachelka – later Marianna), SINEAD MATTHEWS (Dora) and LEE INGLEBY (Zygmunt)

    MATTHEWS (Dora) and EDWARD HOGG (Jakub Katz)

    Our Class company - centre: PAUL HICKEY (Menachem), Photos by Robert Workman

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