The fate of the Jews in Russia has been widely publicized; we hear less, however, about Jewish life in other countries behind the Iron Curtain. The appearance of the Ester Rachel Kaminska State Jewish Theatre of Poland at the Beverly Theatre for five performances beginning Thursday will not only give us a view of modern and classical Jewish works, but it will also be represent our first view of Eastern Bloc theater since the Olympic Arts Festival.
Most poignantly, however, the State Jewish Theatre represents the thin cultural line between vitality and decimation. At the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish population in Poland was estimated at more than 3 million. Today, 15,000 live in a noticeably cool political climate among 35 million Poles.
The theater was formed in 1946 and in 1970 came under the managing directorship of Szymon Szurmei, who still occupies that post as well as working as one of the theater's principal actors.
"The purpose of our theater is to save a great Jewish culture," Szurmei said through an interpreter. "Our repertory includes works by Abraham Goldfaden, Menedele-Mojcher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, Saul Anski and Icchak Leib Peretz. We also do contemporary works and plays outside the classical tradition--anything that reflects Jewish experience. Every year, for example, we do a new work on either the Holocaust or the Warsaw Ghetto."
Szurmei said the theater is state supported and that he has no trouble clearing the theater's materials through official channels. "However, there is censorship," he said.
Since minorities will often take up each other's causes in the name of mutual self-interest, Szurmei was asked if the State Jewish Theatre had offered its support to Solidarity, the outlawed trade union that once stood up to the government.
"We did," he said. "When Solidarity was founded in 1980, we wanted to participate, but they wouldn't accept us. They said they didn't need Jews among them."
When his listener expressed surprise, Szurmei replied "No comment." One read a great deal of circumspection between the lines.
What is it in the atmosphere that's suddenly bringing us tales of the Holocaust and related matters? "Days and Nights Within" has just opened at the Back Alley, Joshua Sobol's "Ghetto" opens Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum and yet another work, "The Last Inquisitor," opens Friday at the Fig Tree.
"The Last Inquisitor" is written by John Hans Menkes, a professor of neurology and pediatrics at UCLA whose parents fled the Holocaust (which wiped out the rest of his family).
"It's a play-within-a-play about the last days of the war," Menkes said, "and is set in a small village in the Alps where the Germans chose to make their last stand. The play is based on an actual story about the head of the Gestapo, a man named Kaltenbrunner, who is visited one day by Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann has a plan where they can flee to South America, but Kaltenbrunner wants to stay behind and become a martyr to the Nazi cause.
"I had started out writing this because I could never come up with an answer to the nagging questions 'How could this happen? Why did people try and annihilate us?' All I can conclude is that there's a Nazi in all of us. Given the right conditions of unhappiness and frustration and dissatisfaction, there comes a time when all you need is someone to hand you a gun."