How do you deal with such a daunting subject like Holocaust Remembrance Day? If you leave it up to Roberto Benigni it would be with a lot of humour (shout out to one of my all-time favourite movies Life is Beautiful)!
The most appropriate way I found this year was by tracking down another production that Austin Pendleton was involved in. In my pursuit, and gleefully wearing spring shoes…
I ended up at The Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center in New York City for a play reading of Our Class written by Tadeusz Slobodzianek and directed by Cosmin Chivu. I bought the ticket online ahead of time and didn’t even think to expect the extensive line up on East 65th Street as the usher switched my ticket for a Playbill, which was actually called a “Skirbill”.
The cast was pretty stellar including Ellen Burstyn (Rachelka/ Marianna 1920-2002), Kathleen Turner (Zocha 1919-1985), Mamie Gummer (Dora 1920-1941), Boyd Gaines (Zygmunt 1918-1977), John Pankow (Menachem 1919-1975), Austin Pendleton (Heniek 1919-2001), Alvin Epstein (Abram 1920-2003), Brian Murray (Wladek 1919-2001), Grant Kretchick (Jakub 1919-1941) and Randy Harrison (Rysiek 1919-1942).
The story follows a class of students in Poland before, during and after World War II (WWII). Half of the class was Jewish and the other half was Christian. It was interesting to watch the enormous arch of what began as innocent classmates teasing and flirting with each other as they evolve into human beings either destroying or saving each other in the face of the dictatorship and human suffering.
The cast of characters stood out with distinct personalities and began by stating what they would become as they grew into adults. By being introduced to real people with dreams of the future, before they began dealing with the effects of the war, I began to relate to the drama in the classroom. It seems that the world recycles classroom drama whether it’s WWII or the new millennium! Before the war one of the Jewish classmates escapes to New York and writes to his classmates every so often over the years. We get a sense of the tragedies experienced by the other classmates during the war through his letters; as well as a removed sense of sorrow and guilt due to his early escape from Poland.
Certain classmates inevitably pass away during the war, graphic scenes of rape and torture are described and a significant loss of the Jewish students’ quality of life and human dignity occurs over the course of the play. At times, this suffering is at the hand of their former Christian classmates. I repeat – The Holocaust is so daunting – and this play doesn’t shy away from exposing betrayal, cruelty and repression. In the face of great pain and loss, however, the play also uses the characters’ personalities to highlight the unexpected joys that were found in friendships and courage brought about by the war.
In particular, an unexpected love story develops between a quiet Jewish orphan, Rachelka, and a Christian man named Wladek. To Rachelka’s surprise, at the thought of her entering a concentration camp, Wladek offers to marry her and harbor her as a Christian. Rachelka transforms into a new person named Marianna and never looks back. The finding of love is always refreshing and their relationship and trust for each other brings about humour and beauty. It’s beautiful to think that the orphan is the one who was presented with a quiet development of trust in another human being even though she started out alone and never sought it. Marianna’s ability to recreate her life, to be resilient and to open herself to the future seems to present a parallel to what the world was asked to do post-WWII. Her sense of humour made the audience roar, which becomes very necessary in a story about such great trauma. I won’t give away too much of the story because I fear it will be made into a film one day and I’ll be that girl!
I remember a quote floating around a high school textbook of mine that said something along the lines of DESTRUCTION BRINGS UNITY. In an epic play, such as this one, about the Holocaust this statement rings true on all levels. Destruction of a population of people ended up bringing about unexpected loyalties, responsibilities and relationships. These unities did not repair the loss experienced, or the suffering endured, but in the context of a play it does make a person examine the human condition much closer. In the aftermath and remembrance of the Holocaust I don’t know what else to do except to make like Marianna and examine life a little closer – and appreciate it.
Life is Beautiful.