For a long time, the annihilation of European Jews was a topic that was either too drastic or politically awkward to be the subject of theatrical plays. In the Soviet Union and its satellite countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Holocaust started to be hushed over from 1948 with the creation of Israel and the beginning of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign. It was only gradually that historians, playwrights and theatre artists came to understand the Holocaust as an unprecedented crime in the history of Europe.

In Poland, the Polish Army Theatre in Łódź premiered Easter by Stefan Otwinowski on 1 October 1946. The play was directed by Leon Schiller who had only recently come back from German captivity. Otwinowski’s play showed how Poles approached the Holocaust as its near eye-witnesses. During the prologue set in a provincial town before the war, a philosemite by the name of Stanisław Łaski finds himself in Ms Freud’s inn and meets her two adult children: Eve and Samuel. Acts 1 and 2 jump forward to 1943 when Samuel dies as the leader of an uprising in a local ghetto. Meanwhile, Eve asks Łaski for help and shelter during the Catholic celebration of Easter. Act 3 is set in Łaski’s apartment, where Eve is hiding, on 1 August 1944, the day the Warsaw Uprising broke out. The only other theatre where the play was staged was the Stary Theatre in Kraków. During the period of Socialist Realism, the Holocaust was reflected in The Germans by Leon Kruczkowski (which ran from 1949) whose one episode is set in the General Government in 1943. It showed a German policeman shooting down a Jewish boy hiding in the countryside.

In November 1958, the Polish director Konrad Swinarski, a student of Schiller’s, working with a specially setup team, prepared the world premiere of the play I Myself and No Angel. A Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto in West Berlin. The play was written by Thomas Christoph Harlan, a son of Veit Harlan who directed the anti-Semitic Nazi film Jew Süss. In Ich selbst und kein Engel, the Warsaw Ghetto episodes – from the establishment of the Ghetto through the suppression of the uprising to the Ghetto’s total destruction – were acted out by members of an Israeli kibbutz introduced in the prologue. Thus, the play adhered to the tradition of epic theatre as practised by Bertolt Brecht. The Chronicle showed the Chairman of the Judenrat (called Jakub Rubiner instead of Adam Czerniaków), his wife, who was in charge of an orphanage, two Jewish policemen, the owner of a bakery and his employee, dead body carriers and children. In one of the scenes, three Judenrat secretaries beg Pope Pius XII over the wireless to save Jews. In a way, the scene foreshadowed The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth written five years later.

The world premiere of the play, produced by Erwin Piscator, also took place in West Berlin in Freie Volksbühne on 20 February 1963. Allegedly based on documents from Vatican archives, but in fact fictitious, it accused Pope Pius XII of being silent about the Holocaust. Hochhuth suggested that the silence was motivated by the hope that Soviet Communism would be defeated by Nazi Germany. He also assumed, without any reason, that the Pope’s protests would have dissuaded the Nazis from murdering the Jews. The play contrasted Pius XII with Riccardo Fontano who accompanied Roman Jews to Auschwitz, wearing the star of David on his cassock.

Three years later, on 16 April 1966, The Deputy had its Polish premiere directed by Kazimierz Dejmek in the National Theatre in Warsaw. It was also performed in 1966 in Gdańsk’s Wybrzeże Theatre, Poznań’s Polski Theatre, the Jaracz Theatre in Łódź and the Rozmaitości Theatre in Wrocław. In 1967, Demjek’s production was moved to the Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. The communist authorities were keen to see the lambasting of the Pope and the Church coincide with the celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of Poland’s baptism.
On 19 October 1965, The Investigation: Oratorio in Eleven Cantos by Peter Weiss, directed by Piscator, premiered in West Berlin’s Freie Volksbühne and on 14 other stages in the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. Weiss, a leftist writer of Jewish origin, wrote his play in blank verse in the convention of documentary theatre to present the trial of Auschwitz-Birkenau officials taking place in Frankfurt am Main between 1963 and 1965. He also wanted to recreate the living conditions of the prisoners and the journey from the railway ramp to the gas chambers of those who were instantly put to death. They were never referred to as Jews. On 6 July 1966, The Investigation, directed by Erwin Axer, had its Polish premiere in the Współczesny Theatre in Warsaw. Axer had all the participants sit in the proscenium in three rows and put dark glasses on all the Accused. The only character seated in the audience is the Judge. The play was performed only 30 times and was the only Polish production of The Investigation by Weiss in Poland.

Finally, in 1984, the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin premiered The Ghetto by the Israeli playwright Yoshua Sobol, directed by Peter Zadek. The play recounted the story of a Jewish theatre operating in the Vilnius ghetto under Nazi supervision from 1941 to 1943 when it was disbanded. The Ghetto was not staged in Polish until seven years later, in 1991 in the Nowy Theatre in Poznań. All the same, there were Polish plays showing the Holocaust from different points of view and these were indeed staged in various theatres. In 1977, Andrzej Wajda directed the adaptation of Conversations with an Executioner by Kazimierz Moczarski in the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw. Sentenced to death as an officer of the Home Army, Moczarski spent time in a Stalinist prison with the German general Jürgen Stroop, also awaiting execution. The latter recounted how he suppressed the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. In 1979, in Warsaw, Kazimierz Dejmek directed Shielding the Flame, a reportage by Hanna Krall devoted to Marek Edelman, the only surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising who lived in Poland. Edelmann, who worked as a medical doctor, was haunted in hospital by the ghosts of the fallen leaders of the Jewish Combat Organisation. Finally, on 11 June 1989, Jerzy Jarocki produced the play Listen, Israel! by Jerzy Sito in the Stary Theatre in Kraków. It was a poetic chronicle of the Warsaw ghetto ending on 23 July 1942 with the suicide of the Chairman of the Judenrat Adam Czerniaków.

Before that, the Holocaust was also depicted in a metaphorical way by Polish avant-garde theatre artists. On 10 October 1962, the 13 Rzędów Theatre in Opole premiered The Acropolis, an adaptation of a play by Stanisław Wyspiański produced by Jerzy Grotowski with set design by Józef Szajna. Grotowski transposed Wyspiański’s play into the Auschwitz reality. Living on the border of life and death, Muslim prisoners and Jews, played out the episodes from the mythical past of mankind, including the biblical story of Jacob, as they were building the camp. In the final scene, all characters entered the great chest/gas chamber with the dead body of a prisoner hailed as the Messiah. After a moment of silence, a single sentence could be heard from inside the chamber ‘They went – leaving rings of smoke wafting’. In the context of Auschwitz, it brought to mind the practice of cremating the bodies of murdered prisoners, the great majority of which were Jews brought to the camp from all over Europe.

On 15 November 1975, the Cricot 2 Theatre in Kraków premiered The Dead Class, a ‘dramatic séance’ by Tadeusz Kantor. In the play, a group of old people who look as if they were dead and behave like children come back to the classroom in a Jewish cheder or a secondary school in the Austria-occupied part of Poland. They move around school benches to the music of Waltz Francoise playing in the background, dragging mannequins that symbolise their childhood selves. A woman with a mechanical crib gives birth to a child that she then kills. Leaning over the metal crib, she sings a song in Yiddish. A Cleaner, personifying death, reads a newspaper report about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. The play recalled those who died and were murdered in both 20th-century European wars, especially the Jews.
It was precisely with the play by Kantor in mind that Tadeusz Słobodzianek wrote Our Class ‘History in Fourteen Lessons’. The world premiere of this play took place in the National Theatre in London on 23 September 2009. On 16 October 2010, the play was staged in the Na Woli Theatre in Warsaw. It is based on an actual pogrom of the Jewish community that took place in mid-July 1941 in a town called Jedwabne in the Podlasie region in eastern Poland following the advance of German troops that ended the Soviet occupation. It presents biographies of ten people, half of them Poles, half Jews, from the same school year.

The characters recount and act out different episodes from their lives, laying bare the sources of crime and its consequences as well as different attitudes towards the Holocaust. Słobodzianek’s play shows Poles not only as perpetrators of the murder but also as rescuers of Jews.

Translated from Polish to English by Mikołaj Sekrecki,
Proofread by Dr Ian Copestake