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Poland's Dybbuks: A response to the Warlikowski dialogues


Krzysztof Warlikowski TR Warszawa Nowy Teatr Polish theatre Polish Jewish culture Polish identity Warsaw Yiddish theatre The Dybbuk S. Ansky Hanna Krall Jedwabne Second World War interwar Poland Mark Arnshteyn Andrzej Wajda Jacek Poniedziałek Andrzej Chyra LGBT culture exclusion Joanna Tokarska-Bakir Agnieszka Graff Avishai Hadari Polish press Piotr Gruszczyński


Michael C. Steinlauf teaches Jewish history and culture and directs the Holocaust Studies program at Gratz College near Philadelphia. He is theater editor of the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (Yale University Press, 2008), and the editor, with Antony Polonsky, of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, v. 16 (2003), focusing on Jewish popular culture in Poland and its contemporary afterlife. He is the author of Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (Syracuse University Press, 1997), which examines how the experience of witnessing the Holocaust shaped Polish history and consciousness in the half-century after the war.

Let’s begin by situating the dialogues between Krzysztof Warlikowski and his interlocutors amidst the many incarnations of Ansky’s Dybbuk in Poland.

First staged by the Vilna Troupe, the premier Yiddish dramatic company of interwar Poland, the play opened on 9 December 1920 at the Elizeum Theater in Warsaw. Originally intended as an act of homage to its author, who had just died, the play was not expected to create much of a stir. Instead, it went on to become the single most celebrated work in the history of Yiddish theater, produced over subsequent decades in nearly a dozen languages, the subject of several movies, an opera, and a ballet.

In the Polish Jewish world, the play was a sensation that spoke to powerful psychosocial as well as cultural needs. Rooted in the most elemental Jewish sense of place, the cemeteries, synagogues, courtyards, and marketplaces of the Polish lands, and in the premodern lifeways of the Jews who populated them, the play was a pageant, a misterium, as it was commonly called, that proclaimed ‘We are here!’[1] With its carefully constructed hasidic milieu and its channeling of the premodern folklore of demonic possession, the play, observers noted, was a kind of religious experience. As a journalist for a Warsaw daily put it, more than once during the performance of The Dybbuk he had shuddered with hadres koydesh.[2] This expression, never used in a secular context, suggests awesome, holy beauty.

And more. ‘Without any exaggeration’, declared a Jewish journalist in 1921, ‘the dybbuk now belongs among the most popular words in the Warsaw Jewish lexicon. Is it a psychosis?’[3] Brought to the center of public discourse first on the stage of the Elizeum Theater and then, endlessly reproduced, in the pages of the mass Yiddish press, to an audience first encountering all the dislocations of twentieth-century urban life, the notion of possession began to reassume its primary associations. A dybbuk, after all, is an agent of dissolution that clings to the living: the Hebrew root d-b-k means to cleave, to adhere. A dybbuk confounds the border between life and death and attacks the boundaries of the self. This dybbuk descended from the Elizeum stage and into the streets of Jewish Warsaw, where it assumed a multivalent life, primarily as an agent of parody. Warsaw, writers noted, was fardibekt, with mouths speaking for each other, voices usurping each other. A column entitled ‘Warsaw Talks A Lot’ contrasted the number of telephones, newspapers, meetings, and committees with the little that ever got done, and concluded: ‘Not without cause has The Dybbuk, in which one mouth speaks for another […] had such success here’.[4]

In May 1925, the Polish-Jewish dramatist Mark Arnshteyn brought The Dybbuk to the Polish stage. Arnshteyn encountered many obstacles including the refusal of Polish theaters to stage so ‘Jewish’ a play and, finally having booked a small Warsaw theater, the tendency of Polish actors to żydłaczyć, that is, use the traditional intonations and gestures of the stage Jew of Polish farce. The play succeeded because Arnshteyn apparently enabled the actors to find their own path, that of Polish Romanticism, into a world so alien to them. This was doubtless the source of the critic Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński’s comment that Ansky was indebted to the Polish classics.[5] Some Jewish observers praised the production as a political act furthering Polish-Jewish understanding, others questioned the need to prove anything to Poles. Most of the audience, however, was doubtless Jewish. In May 1935, just days after the death of Marshal Piłsudski, The Dybbuk, in the form of an opera by Ludovico Rocca that had premiered in La Scala the year before, opened in Teatr Wielki.[6]

During the Communist years, The Dybbuk was staged in Poland only by the Yiddish Theater in Warsaw directed by Szymon Szurmiej; in 1979 it was also produced by this theater for television. But the play remained largely unknown to Polish audiences. In 1988, with communism in its final throes, Andrzej Wajda directed productions of The Dybbuk at Teatr Stary in Kraków as well as with Habima in Israel. The previous year, Jan Błoński’s essay in Tygodnik Powszechny, ‘The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto’, had triggered an unprecedented public soul-searching about Poles’ responsibility for their Jewish neighbors during the Second World War. Jews, Błoński wrote, had ‘shared our home, lived on our soil, [their] blood has remained in the walls, seeped into the soil, [and] has also entered into ourselves, into our memory’. But ‘when we lost our home, and when, within that home, the invaders set to murdering Jews, did we show solidarity towards them?’[7] The following year, the bitter international controversy about the establishment of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, which had been brewing for several years, burst onto the pages of Polish newspapers side by side with news of the first free Polish elections in over half a century. In this context, lavishly staged productions of The Dybbuk by the national theaters of Poland and Israel, directed by Andrzej Wajda, an artist centrally identified with the Polish national vision, made a powerful symbolic statement. Wajda’s Dybbuk summoned an exotic lost Jewish world that he linked directly to the Holocaust; in one scene, a long file of Jews moved through the audience and onto a darkened stage. Here was the apotheosis of the black-garbed, death-shrouded Jew, first evoked in Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1983 film Austeria and subsequently recalled throughout the 1980s by a generation for whom retrieving memory was a blow for freedom. The vehicle for this vision was a spectacle easily identifiable as a misterium.

Increasingly numerous Polish productions of The Dybbuk, both professional and amateur, began to segue into the larger process that has been termed Jewish memory work. In the small town of Sejny in the late 1990s, Małgorzata Sporek-Czyżewska and Wojciech Szroeder of Fundacja Pogranicze (Borderlands Foundation) worked with local students to create a version of Ansky’s play that they staged on the bimah of the synagogue that the Foundation had restored. In 1999, Agnieszka Holland found it possible to produce a different sort of Dybbuk for Polish television. An artist rooted in concerns more international than national, Holland avoided the spectacular for a production which, while still set in a carefully detailed hasidic world, attained the parameters of classical tragedy.

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Dybbuk nevertheless represented something profoundly new. The production first of all, as Piotr Gruszczyński points out, eliminated Ansky’s dense folkloric context. There are no beards or peyes here, no darkened synagogues or rickety studyhouses. Instead, we have a minimalist set with cheap chairs and tables, spaces lightly sketched, along with a few residual Jewish references (men wearing kipot, a recognizable chupa, steam suggesting a mikva, animated figures of animals recalling old synagogue polichromes). ‘I didn’t want to submit to any particular tradition’, Warlikowski responds to Gruszczyński.[8] Albeit not visually, however, the link to a specific past is there, right from the start of the play. For the first twenty minutes, the seated cast, dressed in street clothes, narrate hasidic tales. The scene parallels the opening of Ansky’s Dybbuk, with old Jews telling miraculous tales in the darkened synagogue. But in Warlikowski’s version, these tales, of legendary fish and sightings of Messiah, conjure a world vastly remote from their Polish narrators and the Polish audience. Yet the tales are rooted amidst a litany of place names intimately known to Poles: Radzyń, Kutno, Sochaczew, Góra Kalwaria, Bracław, Czernobyl, Kock, Proskurow, Łańcut, Ropczyce, Lublin, Międzyrzecze, Sassów, Różyń. The audience is confronted by these fantastic tales as nasze (ours), born in Polish towns, raised on Polish soil. Moreover, their very narration is an acceptable link to the past, as one of the stories itself teaches. This is the celebrated tale of the Baal Shem Tov who, when faced with a difficult problem, was said to have gone to a particular spot in the woods, lit a fire, prayed, and received an answer. Generations later, the place in the woods, the manner of building of the fire, the words of the prayer are no longer known, but simply telling about them is said to suffice.

The opening scene of The Dybbuk, after Shimon Ansky and Hanna Krall (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

The opening scene of The Dybbuk, after Shimon Ansky and Hanna Krall (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Warlikowski, of course, does not confine his transformation of the play to the elimination of its folkloric context. The second half of the production is a staging of Hanna Krall’s story of Adam S., a young American possessed by the dybbuk of his half-brother who perished as a child in the Warsaw Ghetto. While tales of possession generally climax with the exorcism of the spirit, in both halves of the production the attempt to exorcise the dybbuk fails. In the first part, following Ansky’s plot, the tsaddik drives the dybbuk from Leah’s body but it returns to claim her soul; the lovers are united in death. In the second part, Samuel, the Buddhist monk, attempts an exorcism, but at the last moment, overcome with rakhmones (compassion) for his brother’s lost soul, Adam invites him back into his body. Unlike in the first half, however, there is no resolution here, no closure. Adam’s restless dybbuk will remain in his body and in our world. In the final tableau, Samuel plays his flute, Adam’s wife lies sleepless in bed, while Adam runs on a treadmill. A Polish caricature of an American, he is attempting to counteract the heart condition he has probably inherited from his father and extend his own life. Ironically, of course, only his death will finally free the dybbuk from his body.

In his dialogue with Piotr Gruszczyński, Warlikowski mentions the controversy around his production of Oczyszczeni (Cleansed) in which two men kiss. But Warlikowski’s Dybbuk is filled with perhaps less explicit but certainly disturbing sexuality. In a recent article, Naomi Seidman reveals a sexual subtext, albeit strongly repressed, in Ansky’s Dybbuk itself.[9] Sender and Nissan, the young men whose vow precipitates their children’s tragic encounter, ‘pledge their children to each other in order to forge the most intimate, quasi-marital connection two men could attain in that society’. In contrast, ‘the heterosexual bond between their two children remains unconsummated (except through the unnatural act of demonic – and transgendered – possession), grotesque, sterile’. And the dybbuk ‘both transcends physical passion and caricatures it, reproducing the gestures of heterosexuality – penetration and union, pregnancy and birth – in a form that appears, at one at the same time, as the most spiritually exalted expression of love and as its most grossly carnal disfigurement’.[10] In his Dybbuk, Warlikowski makes such themes viscerally explicit. Leah is sexually aggressive, and demonstratively touches the passive Chonen’s nipple. After Chonen’s death, the young women prepare for Leah’s wedding in a context that suggests a bordello. A man walks through the space gradually removing his clothing and fondling himself, as the women, along with a little girl, watch. Leah appears in this scene wearing a man’s suit. Reb Azrielke, the tsaddik who attempts to exorcise the dybbuk, is played by a woman (Orna Porat). And in both parts of the play, two nearly naked men wrestle each other to exhaustion. In the first half it is Chonen and his yeshiva comrade as they argue about the transformation of lust into holiness and recite lines from the Song of Songs; in the second half, Adam S. and Samuel wrestle as the latter attempts to exorcise the dybbuk. These homoerotic scenes are acted by the same two men (Jacek Poniedziałek and Andrzej Chyra).

Henekh (Jacek Poniedziałek, left) and Chonen (Andrzej Chyra) in the bathroom scene in the first part of Warlikowski’s The Dybbuk (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Henekh (Jacek Poniedziałek, left) and Chonen (Andrzej Chyra) in the bathroom scene in the first part of Warlikowski’s The Dybbuk (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Warlikowski’s Dybbuk was first staged when, as Joanna Tokarska-Bakir archly suggests, Poles had begun to feel that ‘after all, we’ve already apologized for Jedwabne’.[11] But Warlikowski’s Dybbuk moved beyond the issue of Polish guilt. Tokarska-Bakir recognizes this of course; she entitled her fine essay on the play, ‘O czymś, co zginęło i szuka imienia’ (Of Something Lost that Seeks its Name).[12] What is this thing that seeks its name? It is, first of all, the Jew – and its name is żyd, or, as Warlikowski puts it: ‘A realisation about the life and the annihilation of the Jews in Poland [is] the missing link within Polish identity […], the memory that might save us today’.[13] Save us how? By bringing into the light of day what has been repressed ever since the Holocaust and by beginning to embrace it as a constituent part of Polish identity.[14] ‘I’d like to open something up for those who live repressed lives here’, says Warlikowski, and segues into something even more deeply buried that seeks its name. ‘Gej, czyli żyd’ (Gay, that is, Jewish) Agnieszka Graff entitled her provocative article about Polish homophobia.[15] In mainstream public discourse in Poland, the expression of anti-Semitism is no longer acceptable, but homophobia is. The linkage between these two illnesses is deeply rooted in European culture and has been widely studied. What is new, however, is how Warlikowski managed to yoke these things together by tapping into the submerged strata of contemporary Polish consciousness.

Meanwhile, the dybbuk continues on its path through Poland. Recent years have seen new versions of the play staged in Lublin, Wrocław, Łódź, and Słupsk. Two new books have appeared with the word in their titles.[16] In the pages of Polityka, Ryszard Marek Groński catalogues the particularly brazen (pyskate) dybbuks in Polish public life, while on the Internet, Rafał Ziemkiewicz attacks the so-called anti-polonism of Jan Gross and others in a feuilleton entitled ‘Dybuk niebezinteresowny’ (A not-disinterested dybbuk).[17] And all this at a time when the word dybbuk means absolutely nothing to the Jews of the world. Hanna Krall may have based Adam S. on an American, but he is incomprehensible outside Poland.

It is less Ansky’s (or even Warlikowski’s) creature than a pre-Ansky being that Avishai Hadari summoned in his production of The Dybbuk at the Kraków Jewish Culture Festival in 2006. Hadari, an Israeli of Moroccan descent, had previously staged a play in a bombed-out Israeli bus. He translated Chaim Nahman Bialik’s Hebrew version of The Dybbuk directly into Polish for Warlikowski, then used the script for his own production as well. Hadari’s Dybbuk, subtitled misterium and staged at midnight in Izaak’s Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, was a harrowing visceral spectacle that owed less to Ansky and more to Hadari’s reading of centuries-old documentation of demonic possession. And consider the gathering known as the Dybbuk Festival that is staged during the summers in Pyskowice. It is dedicated to ethnic and world fusion music of all kinds. It includes klezmer music but in no way prioritizes it. What can dybbuk signify in this context?

Finally, there is the band Żywiołak and its most popular song, ‘Dybuk’. Formed in 2005, Żywiołak defines itself as Folk Bio-Metal. The song tells of an attempted rendezvous between young Jaś and his girl Kasia. But on his way through the night forest, Jaś is devoured by a dybbuk. Jaś vows though to return to Kasia:

Choć mi łamie kości, choć mi parzy skórę,
Żem do ciebie w gości chadzał – nie żałuję.
A ty po mnie nie płacz, głosu serca słuchaj,
Duchem do cię przyjdę znów... choć w ciele Dybuka…
Though it break my bones, though it burn my skin
That I came to see you – I don’t regret.
Don’t cry for me, listen to your heart’s voice
As a spirit I’ll come to you again… though in a dybbuk’s body…[18]

This dybbuk recalls, perhaps, Avishai Hadari’s ferocious creature, but it has passed entirely out of the Jewish realm and unselfconsciously into Slavic folklore, the foundation for this and much other contemporary Polish music. A remarkable trajectory has begun to emerge that is continuous across the great destruction. The dybbuk has returned to the Polish lands. It is still lost, it still does not know its name, but gradually it is starting to know the place to which it must adhere. We can only hope that as it learns its name, it will serve as an agent of freedom rather than repression.


  1. ^ The term misterium has been used to describe a range of theatrical productions characterized by large-scale pageantry and a liturgical context. The oldest Polish misterium was the sixteenth-century Historyja o chwalebnym zmartwychstaniu Pańskim (Story of the Glorious Resurrection of our Lord), but the origins of the genre go back to the Eleusinian mysteries, while in the twentieth century, the term was used in connection with the spectacular productions of Polish Romantic works staged by Leon Schiller.
  2. ^ A. Foygl [Yekhezkl-Moyshe Nayman], ‘Nokhamol vegn Anskis Dibek: A por bamerkungen tsu H[err] Eyners retsenzye’, Haynt (Warsaw), 24 December 1920.
  3. ^ B. Karlinius [Ber Karlinski], ‘Dos ekho: Tsum 50-ter oyffirung fun Dibek’, Der moment (Warsaw), 28 January 1921.
  4. ^ B. Yieshzon [Moyshe Yustman], ‘Kleyner felyeton: Varshe redt a sakh’, Der moment, 5 January 1921.
  5. ^ And in his dialogue with Piotr Gruszczyński, Warlikowski calls The Dybbuk ‘a revitalised Dziady!’ (see p. 100 of the print edition).
  6. ^ For more on the play, see Michael C. Steinlauf, ‘Fardibekt: An-sky’s Polish Legacy’, in The Worlds of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century, ed. by Gabriela Safran and Steven J. Zipperstein (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), pp. 232-51.
  7. ^ Jan Błoński, ‘The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto’, in My Brother’s Keeper? Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust, ed. by Antony Polonsky (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 34-48 (pp. 34 and 45).
  8. ^ See ‘Life in a Cemetery’ (p. 97).
  9. ^ Naomi Seidman, ‘The Ghost of Queer Loves Past: Ansky’s Dybbuk and the Sexual Transformation of Ashkenaz’, in Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, ed. by Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), pp. 228-45.
  10. ^ Seidman, pp. 235, 236, and 237. On the 1937 Yiddish film, see Eve Sicular, ‘The Celluloid Closet of Yiddish Film’, in When Joseph Met Molly: A Reader on Yiddish Film, ed. by Sylvia Plaskin (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 1999), pp. 231-44. Sicular mentions that Michał Waszyński, the film’s director, was reputed to be gay (p. 242).
  11. ^ President Kwaśniewski apologized in 2001 in the name of the Polish people for the massacre at Jedwabne; Warlikowski’s play opened two years later.
  12. ^ Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Rzeczy mgliste: Eseje i studia (Hazy Matters: Essays and Studies) (Sejny: Pogranicze, 2004), pp. 210-15.
  13. ^ See ‘Life in a Cemetery’ (pp. 94 and 96).
  14. ^ See Michael C. Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997).
  15. ^ Gazeta Wyborcza, 24-25 June 2006. See Warlikowski’s and Gruszczyński’s comments in ‘Life in a Cemetery’ (pp. 104 and 106-107).
  16. ^ Ilona Dworak-Cousin, Dybuk Wspomnień (The Dybbuk of Memories) (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Austeria, 2009); Konrad T. Lewandowski, Perkalowy Dybuk (The Percale Dybbuk) (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 2009).
  17. ^ Groński, ‘Jesień Dybuków’ (Autumn of Dybbuks), Polityka, 15 November 2003; Ziemkiewicz, ‘Dybuk niebezinteresowny’, 28 June 2006, available at <,764844,2789>. Jan Gross is the controversial Polish-Jewish-American historian whose first book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001; updated edition, New York: Penguin Books, 2002; Polish edition, 2000) initiated the controversy over the 1941 Polish massacre of Jews in Jedwabne mentioned earlier. His book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, An Essay in Historical Interpretation (New York: Random House, 2006; Polish edition, 2008) reopened the controversy over the Polish murder of Jews in Kielce in 1946.
  18. ^ For the complete lyrics and a clip of a performance, see,zywiolak,dybuk.html. On the band, see

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