Grzegorz Niziołek talks about how theatre plays that deal with the theme of the Holocaust have historically been marginalised in Poland.

JOANNA WICHOWSKA: You are now giving a series of lectures which deal – for the first time, I think, in such a complete format – with the idea of the Holocaust in Poland’s post-War theatre. Why did you choose this theme?

GRZEGORZ NIZIOŁEK: If we think about our sources: I belong to a generation which grew up learning from school textbooks which had been rewritten after 1968. The Jewish question seemed to be barbed, and the issue of the Holocaust somehow veiled. Today, it is hard for me to reconstruct whether I really did leave school not knowing what had happened in Poland during World War II, or if I had some cursory awareness – without actual knowledge what it all meant. It was the same when I visited Auschwitz while still in high school, with a priest as a guide. One did, of course, leave the place in some kind of shock, but without really being aware of where we’d been and what the visit had been about. I only discovered the true facts behind it later – reading books by myself – which was a rather dramatic discovery. I would then go back and reread certain texts, the topic really on my mind, though it took me a while to connect it to theatre. Some of the plays, such as Listen, Israel by Jarocki, made us believe that any theatre which tried to tackle this topic was condemned to failure. A little later – maybe thanks to Warlikowski – I understood that the subject of the Holocaust couldn’t be expressed directly on stage, didn’t have to be based on documents or para-documents; theatre could react to it in a more complex, less obvious way.

JW: And somewhere along the way we also have the appearance of Grotowski’s Akropolis or Kantor’s The Dead Class.

GN: This was a series of discoveries. Akropolis, for example, is not just about images of a concentration camp, but also a very powerfully articulated message about the Holocaust, even if delivered in a strange, slightly subliminal form. When it comes to Kantor, I was surprised how present this topic was not just in The Dead Class and later works, but also in his earlier plays. Grotowski and Kantor are actually hard to interpret for us to understand what is really going on inside their shows. I think that the disruption of representative strategies in art which they produced is connected with the experience of the Holocaust, with the existence of a powerful taboo in our collective memory. The audience is in both cases presented with a new sort of scenario, made vulnerable to encounters with something which is located – as I termed it, when referencing Akropolis – “beyond the rule of pleasure”. The experience of turmoil, shock, some sort of emotional disturbance, of discovery which is activated there, seems to me to be very important.

JW: Did attempts to confront the topic of the Holocaust change the language of theatre?

GN: The theatre of the 1960s read in this way comes out looking very different. I don’t want to excessively push a certain position right now, but still it seems to me indicative that the idea of impoverished theatre was formulated during work on Akropolis, the idea of the theatre of death – which includes The Dead Class. Two of the most radical ideas, responsible for the total reconstruction of theatre in post-WWII Poland, came about through plays which are hard to grasp without using the Holocaust as some sort of key. This is not likely to have been accidental. Apart from the plays by Grotowski and Kantor, there was also The Empty Field by Szajna, or Interrogation by Peter Weiss, produced by Axer, which then – considering the usual custom of Teatr Współczesny – had a very short run and, in some way, was then forgotten. These are shows which are important, not only because of their subject matter, but also because they are valid works of art in themselves. Rather risqué, too: they decidedly change the relationship between the viewer and the show, presenting actors on stage in a new context.

JW: These infrequent attempts at dealing with the Holocaust in theatre have essentially been forgotten, or even repressed. Has theatre in Poland not, for years, suffered the same sort of illness as the rest of our nation?

GN: In this context, one could mention that the first show by Leon Schiller, following the end of World War II, was Easter by Otwinowski – a play which happened to deal with the issue of the Holocaust, staged not that long after the Kielce atrocity. We all know the role Leon Chiller played in Polish theatre. Everyone was waiting for him back then. Meanwhile, he returns to Poland after the War is over and for some reason thinks his first stage project should be dealing with this very topic. It’s interesting that we have forgotten about Easter – instead, we recall Krakovians and Highlanders, another one of Schiller’s premieres, one which is considered to be the first of his performances in Poland after the War ended. The way in which shows which dealt with the Holocaust were marginalised is indeed very interesting, though, in my opinion, it was also down to the fact that in those times certain aspects were simply not perceived by all. The reviews of those shows very rarely address the issue of suppressed memories of the Holocaust. We can, of course, suspect that we were dealing here with aspects of ideological nature, with censorship, but I am wondering if this was not also a question of a certain sort of resistance which came from the audiences. A reluctance which did not allow some themes to be decoded, or even perceived.

JW: Can you give any examples?

GN: I was surprised by the reviews of Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes, a show in which Kantor so clearly dices with the concepts of the Holocaust. The play begins in a horrific cloakroom, which clearly mirrors a chaotic slaughterhouse. The cloakroom attendants are brutal, tearing the clothes from the audience. At a certain point there is a process of selection: some of the audience are chosen to play the role of Mandelbaums: they are issued Jewish gaberdines, beards and are then locked up in a separate sector. Later on, we are stopped in a vestibule, before the mysterious entrance to a space where a sex orgy is taking place. It turns out to be a steam bath, a place we are not allowed to enter. Kantor leads us, so to say, into the very heart of the machine of atrocity, into the engine room of the Holocaust. I think I have read all of the reviews of Dainty Shapes… and no one mentioned the topic once. Everyone described the show in terms of avant-garde games being played with Witkacy’s text. With the exception of maybe one text, a column written by Artur Sandauer, who did not actually mention the Holocaust outright, but indicated that the way in which humanity is presented in this show is terrible, that which the protagonists and the audiences have to undergo terribly cruel. Sandauer in some way has to smuggle through this hidden topic. What is most interesting, however, is that it was actually quite clearly visible: in the way the stage was set up, the games being played with the audience. References to the topography of the Holocaust are absolutely evident. The question is: why do we not see it? One can of course blame – if this word is actually adequate – the audiences and a mental blockage caused by various factors, but it seems to me that Kantor himself wanted to make it hard to read between these lines, to connect these links. That he meant to direct in such a way as to make certain themes evident, but also for them to work on a subconscious level.

JW: In your opinion, following the publication of books by Gross, after all the debates about the Jewish-Polish questions, is the theme of the Holocaust received more keenly by audiences today?

GN: In some way, we have Hannah Arendt to thank for this, after she spoke up about the play The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth, which was all about the relationship between both the Church and the Pope and the Holocaust, and which back in the 1960s caused great outrage, along with a political scandal. Arendt suggested that we would need a couple of decades to pass before we could try to understand what had actually happened (and of course in Polish theatre the 1960s is the very moment when the experience of the Holocaust returns – in a traumatic form – to collective memory). But on the other hand – according to Arendt – this is a topic for which there is never a “right” time, it always comes at the wrong sort of moment. When Ford, back in the 1940s, filmed his Border Road, the committee which was to allow this film to be screened had great problems with some of the scenes, arguing that what Ford was showing was the truth, but that the people were not ready to see it. And that a decade or so had to pass for us to be able to confront these issues. Until then, people would have to be given a polished, tamed version of events. And what happens? After a dozen or so years, the topic returned, but the response was: “Yes, but this is the past, we have to move on – how long can we go on dealing with war wounds?” This was a very popular sort of response back then, though simultaneously the topic aroused some very powerful emotions. At the start of the 1960s, the Polityka weekly kept publishing materials related to Eichmann’s trial. Alongside these, they published a survey conducted among its own readers, who responded by saying: “Yes, all that is important, but we are now busy with other things.” This is interesting: seeing as we are dealing with something else, then reports from Eichmann’s trial should be some sort of minor news item, meanwhile these were huge articles, announced with major headlines on the front page. These contradictory reactions are still happening now. We could look into how things were in the decades after 1969, and it would seem that there has never been a “good” time to mention the Holocaust.

JW: And so is Warlikowski, as an example, working today under the same sorts of “complex conditions” as in the days of Axer, Szajna or Kantor?

GN: Indeed, we could ask what do Warlikowski’s plays mean in times when certain things have been revealed, accepted and discussed fully. But events such as the reactions to Gross’ books show that the force of resistance is still huge, the lack of willingness to accept certain things so permanent that it is hard for us to imagine a real change of consciousness. It is hard to say to what sort of degree this has been transformed, which circles this reconstruction relates to and whether the subject has indeed been dealt with. Or whether we are still dealing with mechanisms revealed by Arendt: there is never a right time in which to tackle this topic. This does, of course, lead us to the now established theme of trauma, which always appears at a bad time, never when we are ready for it, as it always ruins something, involves some form of destruction introduced into everyday reality. In this sense, I am not sure whether the shows by Warlikowski appear at a time when one could talk about the topic having been dealt with fully.

JW: I’m not saying that the matter is over and done with; only wondering whether today we are in a different sort of place than a few decades ago? Have we made progress in dealing with the experience of the Holocaust?

GN: One could pose the question as to whether the Holocaust can ever be dealt with. There are some truly divided opinions when it comes to answering it. Baudrillard, for example, says that we are helpless when faced with the Holocaust, condemned to always return to what he terms “the scene of the first traumatising event.” The only thing we can do is to continually reconstruct the event. To remain in the sphere of such reconstructions, according to him, causes a sort of inner paralysis, an inability to comprehend that which has taken place; to go through with normal processes in terms of learning about the past. Warlikowski goes down a similar path. He uses theatre to arrange delayed rituals of mourning, but on the other hand does it in such a way as to disrupt them, condemn them to ineffectiveness. As if he did not want this ritual of grieving to be completed, to deliver any sort of calm.


Theatre scholar, professor at Jagiellonian University and PWST in Kraków. In the years 2004-2007, he was the literary director of the Old Theatre in Krakow. Editor-in-chief of the Didaskalia magazine. Together with Agata Siwiak, he was the artistic director of the Festival of Four Cultures in Łódź. He has authored the following books: Doppelgänger and Utopia: The Theatre of Krystian Lupa (1997), Dreams, Comedies, Meditations (2000), The Body and the Word: Notes on the Theatre of Tadeusz Różewicz (2001), Warlikowski: Extra Ecclesiam (2008, published in English in 2015), The Holocaust in Polish Theatre [Polski teatr Zagłady] (2013).


She has been working in theatre as both practitioner and academic, and has performed in a number of plays by the likes of Węgajty, Gardzienice and Double Edge Theatre. She was the literary director of the C.K. Norwid Theatre in Jelenia Góra, works with the Didaskalia magazine, is active in the Association of Arts Practitioners and co-curated projects by the East European Performing Arts Platform. Cooperates as dramaturg with Oliver Frljić and Agnieszka Błońska (among others).