Warsaw… say something… I’m waiting…

Paweł Passini

I was born in Warsaw and my city has shaped me. Actually, “cities”, since Warsaw is a palimpsest. The overlapping of many years – a dense maze – requires us to be ever vigilant. This vigilance was also heightened by whispered family “wisdom” passed on like a final initiation: “never take the same path on your way back”, “don’t play with your food”, “it’s good to know your Lord’s Prayer, just in case”, and finally “what do you need that Jewishness for?”

I didn’t choose it for myself and neither did my mother, her mother and grandmother, who’s buried in Okopowa Street, the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe which so zealously conceals the fact that Warsaw itself is also a graveyard – as we found out with the builders of the Warsaw metro, watching as the tunnel boring machines drilled a tunnel through the area of the former ghetto and, especially, the things they revealed.

At my house, we simply called it the “geto”. A monster word from stories for children who refuse to eat dinner. A spell opening the door into a world in which – just like on Robinson Crusoe’s island – everything, literally everything can either miraculously save you or kill you. “Once, we only ate sugar for two weeks. That’s why today I’m not so fond of sweets.” Or the casually mentioned story about a six-year-old whose hair went grey in a single afternoon after he was caught in a roundup and a burst from a gun went right above his head. And after he crawled out from underneath “the others”, that is those who “didn’t make it”, and went home, his own mother didn’t recognize him… Or the worst one, about pressing your tongue against a frosted bakery air vent. Once you tore it off you’d be left with injuries, but the taste of bread would stay with you for several hours. And then also other stories about the mysterious “Aryan side” that you could only reach by passing through the court buildings, and the “blue policeman” and the words “those lice are burning” spat out by a female passenger on a tram at the sight of the fiery glow above the ghetto. “That was when it was most difficult for me not to reveal myself.”

When we start talking about childhood trauma during therapy, I always feel like I am the one betraying someone. After all, I listened to all those stories, ravenously fishing out all the details, so that in the thickening darkness I’d be able to catch up with those giants of survival, masters of camouflage, titans of hiding in plain view. I impatiently ran through the fading maze of terrifying and fascinating memories, obediently never coming back the same way. Or, perhaps, this chase was my way of trying to drown out the unbearable returning question: why us? Why did so many of us die and why am I descended from those who survived? And where do the others, whom I pass on the street, come from? The paths keep splitting in a troublesome way.

But each labyrinth is also a dance pattern. What kind of procession can the afterimages of the Warsaw ghetto sweep us away into? Do they have anything to tell us beyond embracing our children more tightly before going to sleep and believing there is nothing to complain about as long as there are no bombs dropping on our heads? What do we do with our dead?

The dead should be buried and remembered. According to Jewish tradition, the body is prepared for burial by the Chevra Kadisha, the funerary society, to which I have the honour of belonging. When a man dies, five other men come to help his earthly shell prepare with dignity for future resurrection. Women do the same for women. For this purpose, the body is washed carefully and with reverence, and dressed in a special way. Each step of this complex procedure is explained aloud to the deceased. Even though Hebrew is the language of the Jewish liturgy, we always speak to the deceased in the language they spoke when they were alive. None of the five participants of the tahara (purification) should be a family member of the deceased. It could make it difficult for them to act calmly and effectively – the way a son who is a surgeon should not operate his own father. There is a deep conviction in this extraordinarily wise ritual that even something as drastically separate from our world as the body of a dead person still needs the help of the world of the living, and the duty to help with burial preparations stems not so much from family bonds as from broader tribal ties. It is not an easy task, especially in our 21st-century reality in which old age and death are effectively removed from sight, while our “problems” relating to this sphere are resolved by institutions. There is also something else, something that may only be a subjective experience – a type of general exhaustion that appears after the tahara is over and we return to our daily routines. It’s as if in reality that contact had required more from us than we can see with the naked eye. Nevertheless the most indelible trace that I was left with each time, the feeling that I was filled with, was gratitude. Once more we managed to approach the sphere of death which, at a first glance, always seems to be entirely pointless. Meanwhile, we managed to safely go there and return, overcome our limitations, become familiar with something that concerns us in the same way that thinking, speaking or dreaming does. The fear of death, much like every other fear, constitutes us on the one hand, and weighs heavily on us on the other. This is the way I would like my body to be treated when I die – as a chance for improvement for those staying on the side of the living.

A moment before dressing the deceased in special white shrouds, which are tied with bands in the form of the letter shin which begins the most important phrase of Judaism, “Shema Israel” – “Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord” – the body of the deceased is lifted up to a vertical position and washed with a fast-flowing current of water. The water is poured from buckets in such a way that the stream remains unbroken. At this moment, the washed body gains a certain dignity, entirely unexpected in such a situation. Under the fast-flowing stream, the dead body relaxes and succumbs to the dance of water. For a moment there, it’s as if it comes to life – but a different, new one.

My conscious life within the tradition began relatively late for me, when I was already an adult, and to a large extent already shaped. The theatre was my first synagogue. And the Polish theatre is also, or perhaps even first and foremost, a theatre of death. Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve has been its ever-gushing source. Because of that, we learn how to talk to ghosts relatively early, already in the final grades of primary school. At this point, children read – frequently aloud – Part II, namely the Conjuring. Together with the Conjurer, we call out into the hollow darkness filled with the souls of the dead.

“All of ye – come gather/Let us gather here […]
Speak now, who’s of what devoid/Which of ye desires, which of ye is void!”

In this lesson, several months before our “ghetto readings” or what is known as “Holocaust literature”, we absorb the not-so-obvious idea of communing with the souls of our forefathers, without any commentary and – one would like to say – naturally. In the stories of my childhood, the “darkest and most hollow” place was either a hideout or a gas chamber. Should I be looking for them there? And if not, do our paths still cross somewhere?

In the most important text of Jewish drama (as The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds is often referred to), which premiered exactly one hundred years ago in a Warsaw theatre, the Elizeum on Karowa Street, the main character, Leah, seeks an answer in her most beautiful monologue, spoken with her characteristic sensitivity:

“They are with us here! Every one of us is born to a long life of many, many years. If he dies before his years are done, what becomes of the life he has not lived, do you think? What becomes of his joys and sorrows, and all the thoughts he had not time to think, and all the things he hadn’t time to do? Where does all that go to? Where? There was a lad here, his mind was full of wisdom and his soul was set on holy purposes. Long years stretched out before him. Then one day, without warning, his life is destroyed. And strangers bury him in strange earth. What has become of the rest of him? His speech which has been silenced? His prayers which have been cut off? Grandmother — when a candle blows out we light it again and it goes on burning down to the end. So how can a human life which goes out before it has burnt down, remain put out forever? It cannot be so! […] No human life goes to waste. If one of us dies before his time, their soul returns to the world to complete its span, to do the things left undone and experience the happiness and griefs he would have known […].”

The author of the Dybbuk, S. An-ski, who is buried in the same cemetery on Okopowa Street as my great-grandmother Batya, known as Basia, did not live to see the stunning success and popularity of his play, watched by 150,000 people at the Elizeum Theatre. We do not know how many more had an opportunity to watch the Dybbuk at the Nowy Azazel theatre which operated in the Warsaw ghetto. I find it difficult to even imagine what a visit to the theatre was like in the conditions of the ghetto. What would it feel like to experience the otherwise beautiful and sad tale, inevitably leading to the deaths of Khanan and Leah, the Jewish Romeo and Juliet – failed lovers, destined for one another, yet unable to fulfil their destiny – in a world in which Jewish life was stripped of all dignity and meaning? In the Dybbuk at the Azazel, right in the middle of the hell of the ghetto, Rabbi Azriel comforts his students and the audience from the stage saying:

“God’s world is great and holy. The holiest land in the world is Israel. The holiest city in Israel is Jerusalem. The holiest place in Jerusalem was the Temple, and the holiest spot in the Temple was the Holy of Holies. There are seventy nations in the world and the people of Israel are the holiest among them. And the tribe of Levi is the holiest of the twelve tribes of Israel. And among the Levites, the holiest are the priests – kohanim. And among the priests, the holiest is the High Priest – Hakohen-Hagadol. There are 354 days in the year, and among them the holy days are sacred. And the Sabbath is holier than the holy days. And the holiest of all the holy days, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, is Yom Kippur which is the Day of Atonement. There are seventy languages in the world, and the holiest among them is Hebrew. And the holiest work in the Hebrew language is the Torah, and its holiest part is the Ten Commandments, and the holiest word in the Ten Commandments is the name of God. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the four holiest sanctities gather together precisely when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies in order to pronounce the ineffable name of God. And at this immeasurably holy and awesome moment the High Priest and the people of Israel are in the utmost peril, for even a single sinful or wayward thought in the High Priest’s mind at that instant might, God forbid, destroy the entire world. Every piece of ground on which a person stands when he raises his eyes to Heaven is a Holy of Holies; everyone created in the image of God is a High Priest; every day in a person’s life is Yom Kippur; and every word which a person speaks from his heart is God’s name.

I know one thing: Warsaw is a palimpsest. The paths of memories intersect and get tangled underneath our feet. We carry this history with us, we breathe it. The ghetto was closed 80 years ago. Questions, asked again and again, rumble in our heads: how was it even possible? Why didn’t anyone react? Was it impossible to save anyone else? The dying ghetto screams with the voice of Władysław Szlengel: “Warsaw… say something… I’m waiting…” We also carry the unbearable silence responding to his cry, with which we cannot do anything today. But is it certain that we cannot? After all, Warsaw is also composed of entirely new paths, written by your unique nature. Don’t be indifferent. You can still give your answer.

Warsaw, October 2020, Varshe, Tishrei 5781.

Paweł Passini – theatre director, composer, musician, director of the Lublin netTTheatre online theatre, graduate of the Directing Department of the Theatre Academy in Warsaw, holder of a scholarship from the Minister of Culture and National Heritage. Recipient of the following awards: The Golden Masks for Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis and Dictionary of the Khazars – Children of Dreams by Milorad Pavić, the Main Prize of the 29th “Polish Classics” Opole Theatre Confrontations festival for directing Klątwa (The Curse) by Stanisław Wyspiański, and the Konrad Swinarski Award for Best Director for Morrison/Śmiercisyn by Artur Pałyga.