May 09, 2019
On April 13, 2019, five actors, a director, and a one-man stage-crew-and-subtitles-operator (also the translator of the play) convened “hinter di kulisn,” behind the scenes in the Groyser Zal (the Great Hall) of the Paris Yiddish Center – Medem Library (Maison de la culture yiddish - Bibliothèque Medem) to make their final preparations for the world premiere of the Yiddish version of Ida Fink’s play The Table (Der tish in Yiddish, and Stół in the original Polish 1 1 Ida Fink, “Stół,” Dialog No. 11-12, 1988, 50-61, as well as in: eadem, Ślady (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo W.A.B., 1996), 170-205. It is possible that the Polish text of the play (or a translation, perhaps into German) was published earlier than 1988 (considering that the 1988 printing mentions multiple productions that had already taken place by then), but I have not been able to find any clues as to where. English translation available in eadem, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories, transl. Madeline Levine and Francine Prose (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995), 139-165. The play has been previously produced in English by the Black Hole Theatre, University of Manitoba, Canada, 2008 and as a staged reading by the UC Santa Barbara Department of History, March 3, 2009. Earlier productions, including for radio and television, took place in Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Israel, Sweden, and elsewhere. ). The hall was full—sold out, in fact, as was the second and final performance on the following day—with about sixty attendees of various ages, from twenties (the daughters of two of the actors) to eighties (an age closer to the audience’s overall average). The set was spare: as the backdrop, a map marked with Polish street names, with the market square and a Jewish cemetery visible; in the foreground, the prosecutor’s chair and table, the latter piled high with papers, and bare floorspace stage left for the witness stand. Above the stage, a narrow, gray expanse for the purpose of projecting French subtitles.
A sort of one-act in four scenes (the Polish original is subtitled “Piece for four voices and basso ostinato”), the play is organized around a series of interrogations, in which a prosecutor (played by Annick Prime Margules) attempts to pin down details of events that occurred many years earlier during an “action” in an unidentified Polish town. During the action, and more specifically during the selection, the Jews of the town who had “good” jobs were sent “rechts” (one of the witnesses quotes the word in German), meaning that they would be allowed to stay alive for the time being, and those who did not have jobs or had jobs that were deemed “unnecessary” were sent “links,” to be shot in the Jewish cemetery and later buried by the survivors. As we discover over the course of the prosecutor’s interrogations of the first three “witnesses,” played by Michel Fisbein, Jeannette Kohn, and Lionel Miller, Jews who did not come out into the market square when summoned were searched out, dragged out of their houses, and shot, and those who did not follow the Gestapo’s orders during the selection were shot on the spot. A very few Jews managed to avoid the selection by hiding or by being “legitimately” occupied elsewhere, including the fourth witness, played by Laurence Aptekier Fisbein, who had a job as a cleaner in the Gestapo headquarters.
The play is deceptively simple in structure, with an understated, bureaucratic tone that lasts throughout, apart from moments of emotion when the witnesses are asked to reminisce, or at certain points asked to restrain their reminiscences, about difficult events. There is no dramatic arc nor any attempt to create catharsis—which, as it turns out, is as it should be: the survivors themselves have no opportunity for closure or resolution, but rather only very limited access to an institution engaged in an absurd attempt to deliver “justice” by indicting only those Gestapo officers who were seen committing direct murders with their own hands by a “convincing” array of eyewitnesses, despite the fact that each of the officers was widely known to have played a leading role in the deportation and murder of hundreds of the town’s Jews.
The play’s very simplicity stirs up tough questions: How reliable are victims’ memories of extremely traumatic experiences? Should the reliability or unreliability of victims’ memories of specific, mundane details determine whether or not perpetrators receive punishment? What does it mean to collect evidence that is solid enough to be damning; is traditional detective work relevant when all material evidence has been destroyed and testimonial evidence is inevitably partial and deeply flawed? What defines individual culpability when murder is large-scale and systemic? Should ordinary standards of justice and “innocence until guilt is proven” be applied to those who operated so far outside of the realm of everyday legal principles as to render them absurd? What, if any, is the utility of punishing the perpetrators, when it’s many years too late to bring restitution to the vast majority of the victims? Will the outcome of the investigations justify the brutality of asking survivors to dredge up these memories years later? What principles of “just judicial process” could legitimate placing victims in a position in which they feel like they are being asked to justify why the murder of a wife or neighbor, or the experience of being forced to bury hundreds of bodies, was “bad enough” to warrant prosecuting the perpetrators? And, as director Charlotte Messer points out in her list of the questions that drew her to the play, “Can there be murder without murderers?”
In addition to the content of the interrogations, which gradually paints a picture, however inconsistent and flawed, of the events of that day many years before, another aspect that adds an additional dimension to the interrogations is the interaction between the prosecutor and the witnesses. On one hand, it’s clear that the prosecutor is sympathetic to the witnesses’ position and her agenda is to collect enough evidence to indict each one of the Gestapo members; she even lets the witnesses know that what she needs from them is eyewitness testimony of direct acts of violence, in order to encourage them to formulate their testimony in such a way as to maximize its damning power. On the other hand, she is nevertheless the representative of a system that believes that what the witnesses remember about the size of a table behind which the Gestapo guards may or may not have stood or sat during the selection (depending on which of the witnesses you ask) is one of the factors on which the attempt to establish the Gestapo officers’ culpability must rely.
Some of the most interesting moments in the play come when the prosecutor and the witnesses react emotionally to each other as human beings, the witnesses protesting, “S’iz den azoy vikhtik?”—“Does [the detail you’re asking about] really matter?”, and the prosecutor defending herself in response: “S’iz mir zeyer prikre, vos ikh mutshe aykh mit azelkhe, leponim nisht vikhtike protim”— “It’s very awkward for me to be in the position of having to bother you about such seemingly unimportant details as these.” Or, poignantly, “Akh, ir vilt bavayzn … Der shney oyf di gasn iz geven royt. Royt! Iz dos nisht a bavayz?”—“You want proof? The snow in the streets was red [with blood that day]. Red! Is that not enough proof for you?”—and in response, “Tsum badoyern, iz der shney nisht keyn bavayz far di rikhters, der iker der shney, vos iz tsegangen mit finf un tsvantsik yor tsurik”—“Unfortunately, the snow is not proof as far as the judges are concerned, particularly snow that melted twenty-five years ago”—bringing to mind the Polish/Yiddish expression, “Obchodzi mnie to jak zeszłoroczny śnieg”/“Es art mikh vi der farayoriker shney”—“That matters to me as much as last year’s snow,” i.e., not at all.
The spareness of the set mirrors the spareness of the drama, and the town map as a backdrop is a nice touch, both as a prop (for the witnesses to point out where in the town certain events took place) and as a visual aid to help the audience situate the described events in a Polish town centered around a market square. The actors’ demeanors pass smoothly between a formal mode, as befits the delivering of testimony in a bureaucratic setting, and occasional flares of emotion as difficult memories surface or the dynamic with the prosecutor edges into antagonistic territory. The Yiddish is rich and delivered without a hitch, mostly in a Polish dialect (simply because that is the native dialect of the majority of the actors). One small technical glitch affected the projection of the subtitles, but the actors weathered it with aplomb. The play’s four scenes were separated by very brief musical excerpts from Oedoen Partos’s “Yizkor” for viola and string orchestra: perhaps an additional allusion to the “basso ostinato”—in addition to the repetitive questions on the part of the prosecutor—mentioned in the play’s subtitle.
The play’s premiere was followed, after a forty-five minute break, by the Paris Yiddish Center’s annual “Geto-akademye,” a program including songs, recitations, and historical information, each year focused on a different theme, in remembrance of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The theme this year was cultural activity in the Lodz Ghetto; the Polish town map from Der tish provided a thematically appropriate backdrop that tied the two events together.
Der tish was directed by Charlotte Messer, on the basis of a script prepared by her husband, Alexandre (“Alik”) Messer, who translated the play’s Polish text into Yiddish, with assistance from Annick Prime-Margules and proofreading by Yitskhok Niborski. Charlotte founded the troupe “Troim-Teater” in 2001; since then, the troupe has produced eight Yiddish plays, including most recently the highly acclaimed Der kleyner prints (The Little Prince) in 2017-2018, with Leybl Niborski (grandson of Yitskhok Niborski, lexicographer and pedagogical director of the Paris Yiddish Center, and cousin of Reuven Niborski, who starred in the 2017 Yiddish film Menashe) in the role of the Little Prince. Der tish continues the all-in-the-family feel, with another married couple in the cast and crew in addition to the Messers (actors Michel Fisbein and Laurence Aptekier Fisbein), and various other ties between cast, crew, and other Paris Yiddish Center community members.
The Troim-Teater is an all-volunteer troupe, but neither that nor the intimate feel of the ubiquitous familial and near-familial relationships (both among cast members and between the cast and the audience, many of whom are faithful regulars who attend every Troim-Teater production as well as many other events and Yiddish courses at the Paris Yiddish Center) compromises the professionalism of the project in any way. Quite the opposite: the guaranteed critical mass of enthusiastic, supportive, informed audience members is the glue that holds the Troim-Teater project (as well as the other theatrical projects coming out of the Paris Yiddish Center) together, and makes it possible to undertake the audacious endeavor of producing new secular Yiddish plays at a rapid rate and at a very high level of artistic and linguistic quality, in Paris in the twenty-first century.
The Troim-Teater’s production of Ida Fink’s Der tish will be performed again in September 2019 (September 15, 19, 22, 26) at L’Auguste Théâtre in Paris, 11th arrondissement. Tickets will be available closer to the date at yiddishweb.com/reservation.