Our Class by Tadeusz Stobodzianek demands to be seen and gives much in return. Now playing at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv with English supertitles some nights, it turns to a sadly familiar subject–the Holocaust–but does so in an entirely new way. First, its focus, instead of being on Nazi evils, falls squarely on ordinary Poles who shared a classroom in childhood with Jewish classmates. As a class bell rings between fourteen scenes and some seventy-five years, we see school friendships and rivalries transform through the unleashing of first subtle then increasingly monstrous anti-Semitism. Ultimately we feel we bear witness to unimaginable crimes—the locking up of all 1600 local Jews in a barn that was then set on fire, as well as individual crimes seemingly more horrific because more personal. And we bear witness to the vast, bizarre silence in the decades that followed.
Our Class also takes this subject on in a new way in its brave admittance of ambiguities into the portrayal. In a brief period of Russian dominance and communism before the war, we sense enthusiasm and relief among some of the Jews for this inclusive new order that delegitimized the church, the church whose teachings and influence in public life sometimes had made them second class citizens. We understand the boiling nationalistic rage of the Poles and even see how the Jews became associated with the alien dominating force. In another scene, the emotional horror of a rape is heightened by the victim’s awareness that amidst the pain her body registered some pleasure. These ambiguities make the pain of crime somehow even more real to us.
Our Class also feels new in its use of adult actors to play the same characters from age 8 to as old as 80, with a completely unforced, natural-feeling integrity and continuity of self. A fairly quiet, alert, self-possessed girl who takes part in class games becomes a young woman in hiding, then a walking dead survivor, then a forcibly converted Polish peasant woman, and finally an exhausted senior grateful for the brain bath of television. The remarkably able cast hits every note with emotional truth, allowing us to feel just as intimate with those who became victims as with those who committed atrocities and with those whose experience lay somewhere in between.
The play is derived from actual historical, judicial, and journalistic accounts of events in many small towns in Poland in the war years and after. But, while woven on publicly available fact, the intertwined tales of this class of youngsters are conveyed through very private scenes and thoroughly convincing soliloquies about the same events from different characters’ points of view. As an audience, we share in what is known, what is unknown, and what is revealed as the crimes and evasions unfold.
Our Class is historical drama, with inevitable simplifications, and that runs some risks. Focusing on the actions of ordinary Poles diminishes focus on the essential agency of the Nazis. Seeing the actions of these individual Poles, we may wrongly collectivize the guilt on all Poles. Still, there is a story here that must be attended. And seeing Our Class is no grim duty. It is theater at its best, bringing us more deeply into humanity’s heart, with the trusting eyes of a child.