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The Path to The Dybbuk


Krzysztof Warlikowski TR Warszawa The Dybbuk The Tempest S. Ansky Hanna Krall William Shakespeare Jedwabne Jan T. Gross Holocaust Second World War Polish Jewish culture Polish identity France anti-Semitism


Krzysztof Warlikowski is a founder and Artistic Director of the Nowy Teatr (New Theatre) in Warsaw and among the foremost European performance practitioners working today. He has directed more than fifty theatre and opera productions in Poland and internationally, including in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel. Early in his career, Warlikowski was an assistant to Krystian Lupa and to Peter Brook, and he also trained with Ingmar Bergman and Giorgio Strehler, before becoming a directing associate and regular collaborator of TR Warszawa, where his work received widespread critical acclaim. In 2008, along with a group of his long-term collaborators, he co-founded the independent Nowy Teatr, which presented its inaugural production (A)pollonia in 2009. For further biographical and career information and source materials, see ‘Krzysztof Warlikowski: Chronology of life and work’.

Fabienne Arvers is a critic and journalist, who has written for numerous books, journals, and online publications. She publishes a regular column on theatre for Les Inrockuptibles, and has written extensively on Polish and Eastern European performance.

It was largely through his stagings of Shakespeare that the Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski became known in European theatre, from Kraków to Paris, where he spent several years studying philosophy and as an assistant to Peter Brook – just as he had been to Krystian Lupa.[1]

It was also Shakespeare who led Warlikowski to Shimon Ansky’s play The Dybbuk;[2] when the director was staging The Tempest in Warsaw (2003), Poland was already in the grip of revelations about the massacre of Jews by the inhabitants of the town of Jedwabne during the Second World War, following the publication of the seminal monograph Neighbors by the Polish-American historian Jan T. Gross.[3] Warlikowski’s interpretation of The Tempest became permeated by the shadow of the debates around Jedwabne.

With several of his subsequent productions, Warlikowski has taken up this theme of a past that continues to cast its shadow on the present. This is why his Dybbuk is double: to this play from the repertoire of Yiddish theatre he adds, without an interval, the homonymous story by the Polish writer Hanna Krall, taken from her book of narratives on the legacy of the Holocaust Dowody na istnienie (Proofs of Existence, 1995).[4] If in Hebrew the word dybbuk means ‘union’, in Yiddish culture it also signifies a wandering spirit that inhabits the body of a living human being. Taking inspiration from a legend from Hasidic folklore, Ansky’s text presents an Ashkenazy dybbuk from Poland, whereas Krall’s dybbuk exists in modern-day America, where it lives on in the body of its half-brother Adam S., the child of a Warsaw ghetto survivor.

The trauma of the real – when the past returns, resisting assimilation or integration – has become a defining feature of Warlikowski’s work; for personal reasons, and thanks to a certain social and political context that sees Poland coming to terms with repressed elements of its history.[5] Before the Second World War, the Jewish community in Poland had been the largest in Europe; at its post-war peak in 1946, 250,000 Polish Jews remained of a pre-war population of nearly three and a half million. In the communist period, further violence and anti-Semitic waves (notably in the late 1960s) prompted mass migrations that resulted in the almost complete eradication of Jewish life in Poland. In the period from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 through Poland’s entry into the European Union in May 2004, this past has repeatedly risen to the surface, and the events at Jedwabne have become central within the developing remembrance discourse. The public apology issued to the Jewish community by the Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski in 2001 – which acknowledged that the Jedwabne massacre was perpetrated at the sole initiative of the Polish populace – seemed to mark a new era; an era in which discourses on Polish identity must begin to address the long-time Jewish presence in the country, along with its historically extensive social and cultural influence. It was against this backdrop of contemporary debates surrounding the Jewish legacy in Poland that the Holocaust emerged as a key theme in Warlikowski’s theatre.


Fabienne Arvers:
Did the recent situation that has emerged in Poland influence your desire to stage The Dybbuk?

Krzysztof Warlikowski: First of all I very much like the text. Initially, I was attracted above all by the idea of staging this incredible love within Ansky’s play of the dybbuk for his fiancée Leah, which resembles that of Romeo and Juliet. In fact, it’s less a love than a likeness – like the [bond between] the twins in Twelfth Night, or between Grace and her brother Graham in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. The idea of a platonic couple, or two halves of one sole being. I remember my first visit to the theatre. It was a Yiddish theatre in Warsaw. Why and how I found myself there, I don’t know. I must’ve been thirteen years old... Today, this Yiddish theatre is a dead tradition in Poland. [...] Here, we had to wait until the 1980s, until Andrzej Wajda staged The Dybbuk and brought it within the Polish repertoire.[6] At the beginning, I wanted to stage it in a synagogue. But the famous wooden synagogues, built 300 years ago in Poland, were all destroyed during the Second World War. When we think today of this world that no longer exists, and of trying to approach Jewish culture, we must come face to face with our own dybbuk. It is always there. Hence our addition of the text by Hanna Krall. It’s about saying that this story is not only an old, Jewish legend, because the dybbuks are among us here, and also in New York... Each of us has our own dybbuk: our obsessions, anguish, traumas...

Leah (Magdalena Cielecka, centre) and The Tsaddik (Orna Porat) in The Dybbuk. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Leah (Magdalena Cielecka, centre) and The Tsaddik (Orna Porat) in The Dybbuk. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

It turned out this performance was my fifth production at Warsaw’s Teatr Rozmaitości. I began with Hamlet, then The Bacchae, Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, and The Tempest before coming to The Dybbuk. These were very well-known texts, all classics – even if Kane’s is a modern text, it very quickly became part of the canon. ‘Source texts’ for the theatre, let’s say, among which The Dybbuk has its rightful place. And at the moment when I staged The Tempest, the so-called ‘Jewish question’ appeared in Poland with the emergence of Jedwabne.

Arvers: How did you incorporate this into The Tempest?

Warlikowski: At the end of the play, when Prospero meets with the Neapolitans and the Milanese, there can be either forgiveness or resentment. It’s similar to the situation that unfolded in Poland two years before with Jedwabne, which created a lively polemic; previously this subject had been taboo under the communist system – you couldn’t touch it. We began to speak about it once again and it emerged that the Germans had almost no presence in Jedwabne – it was mainly Poles, who had killed on their own initiative. There was a great scandal, because even if Poles are considered anti-Semitic in France for example, we have a different view of this in Poland.

Moreover, I think that each of us has to wash our dirty laundry among our own: the Poles in Poland, the French in France, the Dutch in the Netherlands. Everyone has their particular problems... I hope that it will not have been such a straightforward judgement by the French about The Dybbuk as: ‘Here are the anti-Semitic Poles’, which is something that was already said to me in France. I understand the situation to some extent, and I react to it – this is why I make performances and also speak about them.

At the time of the Jedwabne debate, there was a remembrance ceremony; a monument was erected with the names of the dead, and the Polish President attended, along with other political and church officials. Jews from Israel and America came to commemorate the event. It was the largest Jewish political event in post-war Poland, in the presence of the Polish President, who said: ‘Forgive us’. Poland made this statement for the first time. Representatives of the Orthodox and Protestant churches attended, but there was no representation from the Catholic Church... Thus, much of the country would have nothing to do with what happened.

There were other aspects to this: the rabbi of Jedwabne, who left for America before the war, returned for the memorial. Jedwabne’s Catholic priest, who also lived there before the war, hadn’t left Jedwabne, hadn’t moved away... So there were two religious leaders still alive, one of whom – the Catholic priest – was still in place while the other, who came over from New York, had to go to visit the priest at his home. They’d been friends when they were younger...

Arvers: Why didnt the priest attend the memorial?

Warlikowski: When the journalists found out about this, they began to write, and all the inhabitants of the village were considered criminals. It’s terrible for them – for the younger generations and for those who are still alive from that time.

To return to The Tempest, there was thus this meeting with people who had caused harm to others, and who had even wanted them dead. Like this memorial day in Jedwabne: everyone was there for forgiveness. [...] But we didn’t try to point directly at Jedwabne, not at all; it was simply about taking inspiration from observing the confrontation between the protagonists, and the relationships that exist between them.

The final reconciliation scene in Warlikowski’s The Tempest (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

The final reconciliation scene in Warlikowski’s The Tempest (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Arvers: You say that there was a wall of silence throughout the whole communist period, a silence about this ‘Jewish question’.

Warlikowski: We were dependent on Soviet politics... In 1968, the First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party [Władysław Gomułka] said: ‘The Zionists are causing trouble... They should leave the country’.[7] Russia was at that time friendly with all the Arab nations, whereas the Americans were close to Israel. The Russians had a presence in Egypt, and the Poles were there along with the Russians. There were still quite a lot of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust living in Poland. So the regime began the ‘massacre’ – that is to say that it removed them by force.[8] Today, this situation is beginning to change: thousands of people of Jewish origin expelled in 1968 will now have the automatic right to Polish nationality. This change in the system has provoked an incredible openness... Before, there were no exchanges between Tel Aviv and Warsaw. And yet somehow these people were in symbiosis because the Jews were an integral part of Polish culture, they were cultured.

Arvers: What about those who didnt leave? Did they hide?

Warlikowski: Many were dismissed from their jobs. Many of them were doctors, intellectuals... Those who survived the war weren’t really from the villages, because those who didn’t speak Polish had little chance of survival. It was those who were well-assimilated within Polish society and who had Polish friends who could stay in the end, like [the author] Hanna Krall. After the war, it was difficult to tell who was who – there was such a mix... Even today, it is ridiculous to try to distinguish each other because we are really mixed together...

Arvers: And after the debate on Jedwabne, is the Jewish community more prominent in Poland, are people returning?

Warlikowski: There is currently a great exchange between Tel Aviv and Warsaw, and many people have taken dual nationality. I’ve worked a lot in Israel, and I’m surrounded by friends in this situation. For my part, I try to be objective in this story, not to say ‘We aren’t anti-Semitic’, because I see that that we Poles have an anti-Semitic side, like many others. But on the other hand, I believe that we [Polish and Jewish people] have much in common because we lived together for such a long time.

When I lived in France, I had the time to get to know people, and this was a meeting with a different culture. In Israel, it is a meeting with friends, with people I feel I already know – everything seems obvious and straightforward. We [the Poles] are quite a simple people compared to the French, who are more formal. What I’m saying is very subjective, but I’m among my own in Israel. And I understand their disputes, their ways of being.

Arvers: At what moment did you begin to ask yourself about these issues? Did this stem from school, from your family?

Warlikowski: I was born in 1962 in Szczecin, which is a German town that became part of Poland after the Second World War. So, you could almost say that I come from ‘nowhere’. When I went at eighteen to study in Kraków, I had the sense that I was going to Poland for the first time.

Arvers: Were your parents German or Polish?

Warlikowski: It isn’t a question of nationality. Evidently, we were Polish. But my birthplace rather resembles Hamburg. It’s nothing like Kraków, which is a town from the Middle Ages, full of ‘cobwebs’... In my Polish family, I had a Jewish grandfather, who was adopted. My family was in Germany during the war doing forced labour, and on the way back to Poland they stopped in Szczecin. In the neighbourhood, there were Germans who had stayed behind, who had married Poles, and who were difficult to distinguish, even for me. I had a neighbour who spoke very little – she had an ‘r’ that she pronounced very strangely – and later, when I no longer lived there, I understood that she was a German who had hidden her nationality and avoided speaking. She spent most of her life in silence. There were also Jews living there too. [...]

When I was at secondary school, I had a teacher who really wanted to educate us about Judaism. He was someone who was very honest with us, who gave us books that were forbidden at that time. You couldn’t study Judaism as a subject at school, and over the years this teacher undertook an extraordinary task for the young people of my generation. Even though I was born in the 1960s, I am of the immediate post-war generation – I was born in a town that was still in ruins. And then, television, ideology – all this arrived, and especially [we heard about] the war, the war, the war... From the Soviet perspective, obviously. An awareness of what really happened in Poland is only emerging now.


Translated from French by Duncan Jamieson and Marie Magneron.


  1. ^ This is an edited version of an interview that was published as Fabienne Arvers, ‘Dibbouk et la question juive en Pologne aujourd’hui’, Alternatives Théâtrales, 81 (2004), 46-49. All footnotes are by the PTP editors.
  2. ^ See S. Ansky, ‘The Dybbuk (1914-1919), or Between Two Worlds: A Dramatic Legend in Four Acts’, in The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination: a Haunted Reader, ed. and trans. by Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000), pp. 3-52. Citations from The Dybbuk that appear below are taken from this contemporary translation.
  3. ^ See Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001; updated edition, New York: Penguin Books, 2002). Gross’s book was the first monograph to present detailed evidence that the Polish perpetrators of the Jedwabne pogrom acted on their own initiative; prior to its publication in Poland in 2000, it had been widely assumed that the massacre was instigated and co-perpetrated by the Nazis.
  4. ^ Krall’s short story ‘The Dybbuk’ is published in English in her collection The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories, trans. by Madeline G. Levine (New York: Other Press, 2006).
  5. ^ In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the real is ‘the essential object which isn’t an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail’; for Lacan, the trauma of the real results from ‘the real [...] in so far as it is essentially the missed encounter’. See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55, trans. by Sylvana Tomaselli, annotated by John Forrester (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 164; and The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. by Alan Sheridan (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977), p. 55.
  6. ^ Ansky’s The Dybbuk originally premiered in Warsaw on 9 December 1920, staged by the Vilna Troupe at the Teatr Elizeum (Elysium Theatre). For a discussion of the initial impact of Ansky’s play in Poland, 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. 232-251. Wajda’s production was produced in 1988, both at the Teatr Stary in Kraków and the Habima in Israel.
  7. ^ In a well-known speech on 19 June 1967 Gomułka suggested that ‘Zionist circles’ of Polish Jews formed a potential ‘fifth column’ within the country; in this speech and several others which followed, he continued to promote the idea that such communities should leave Poland for Israel.
  8. ^ Many Jews who remained in Poland following the Second World War faced further discrimination under the post-war communist regime. Warlikowski’s comment regarding ‘removal by force’ is not quite accurate; however, from 1967 to 1971, prompted by the government-sponsored ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign, many Polish Jews were ‘exposed’ as ‘Zionists’, dismissed from their jobs, and given exit papers valid only for travel to Israel. Over 14,000 Polish Jews lost their Polish citizenship and left for Israel during this period.

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