TADEUSZ KANTOR IS ALREADY DEAD in the small self-portrait, his jaw held shut with a cloth that loops under the chin and ties at the top of his head. Scratch marks outline his clavicle. The skull is drawn as well, in both senses of the word. What pain the body felt at the end remains apparent here, shoulders lifting toward the ears, the mouth a tight knot. A thumb-tip has smudged in shadows of cheekbone, hollows around the nose. The artist has imagined his own death mask, has cast his features in bleak repose.
Seeing the piece for the first time, I ask my father: Why is he wearing a scarf? I think the man must have a toothache. He’s dead, my father tells me.
Approximately the dimensions of a piece of letterhead, the sketch doesn’t have the oversized presence of many of the other paintings in my parents’ house. Its paper has a sickly tinge. Kantor has used a quick hand to rough out a face and the top of a torso. The whole thing feels urgent, as if the artist is in a race with the death he’s depicting. Indeed, my parents buy the piece in 1989, less than a year before Kantor dies.
As his obituary in the New York Times explains, Tadeusz Kantor was “an internationally known avant-garde theater director, author and painter,” one of the great Renaissance men of twentieth-century Polish culture. Born April 6, 1915, in Wielopole, a village in the part of southern Poland that used to be called Galicia, “Kantor was known for creating dynamic, inventive theater based on historical and personal themes,” the obituary continues. “He was present in his productions not as an actor but sitting on stage, watching along with the audience.”
Watching along with the audience—I understand positioning oneself this way. For many years, I am an only child. And even when, at the age of twelve, I become an older sister, I remain often alone or am left in the care of our housekeeper, Pani Basia. Our home, with its vast spaces for entertaining—a “representational household” as they say in the Foreign Service—holds several freezers in the basement, enough china and crystal to serve fifty, a great formal table that can be expanded by pulling a lever, an extra leaf sliding into its center. Frequently I peer around the edges of doors, observing the conversations of grownups, my father so gifted at this kind of performance, the charming anecdotes that end with laughter, easily shifting from English to Polish to French, a little Italian or German tossed in if the discussion turns to opera.
After a cocktail party, when the guests have left their empty champagne flutes behind, left spoons sitting in glistening gray bowls of caviar, these rooms are quiet. My parents may have already returned to their offices at the US Embassy, long hours of meetings still ahead of them. I sit on a couch, staring at the things on the walls. Even a corpse can become a companion, if I look at him long enough.
Kantor’s most famous and most performed play, Umarła klasa, premiered in Kraków in November 1975, four days after my birth. Sometimes described as a “dramatic séance,” The Dead Class explores what critics characterize as Kantor’s central obsessions: the World Wars, Poland’s history as a site of invasion and oppressive rule, and the artist’s intimate memories of his early life. In 1976, the great Andrzej Wajda—who only a year later would release one of his most renowned films, Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble)—shot the original production of The Dead Class as performed by Kantor’s theater company, Cricot 2.
In the film, the audience enters the space, which appears to be one of those stone cellars so common in Kraków, the walls carved and ancient, the ceiling and doorway curved. The cast is already there, facing us. Kantor stands, while the rest sit in wooden pews, as if in a classroom or a church. The women wear black dresses, the men black suits, white shirts, black ties, everyone attired for mourning. Each actor raises an arm, pointer and middle finger lifted together. Are they trying to answer a question asked by an invisible teacher? Are they making the Polish sign for victory? Are they waving goodbye? They rise, moving backward and out, silent, silent, until only Kantor and a man still as a puppet—his expression an uncanny mask—remain. Then another man returns to retrieve his strange companion. Then the sound of a waltz. There’s dancing with dummies the size of children. Everyone sits again. And finally someone, an instructor, speaks. What do we know about King Solomon?
Splitting the baby. Polish history is full of partitions and divisions, and later what Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer terms “choiceless choices.” What do we know about King Solomon, the actor asks.
A few minutes later, when the cast begins to chant the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet like a nursery rhyme, aleph aleph aleph, it becomes clear that The Dead Class is concerned not with the dead in general but with the particularities of the Polish dead—which is to say, also Polish Jews, the friends and neighbors Kantor remembered so well from his early years in Wielopole, where more than half of the town’s population was once Jewish. “It was a typical eastern small town or shtetl,” Kantor once said, “with a large market square and a few miserable lanes. In the square stood a chapel, with some sort of saint for the Catholic faithful. In the same square was a well near which Jewish weddings were held, primarily when the moon was full. On one side stood the church, the rectory, and the Catholic cemetery, and on the other the synagogue, the narrow Jewish lanes, and another cemetery, somewhat different.” What do we know about King Solomon?
I am eleven or twelve when I begin to realize that we are Jews. There is almost no religion in our household. So, the gradual recognition of our Jewishness has nothing to do with prayers read from a certain book or rules about consuming meat and milk or a parchment scroll affixed to a doorway. Instead, I realize that the party we attend one winter—where all the children receive presents and we eat potato pancakes with applesauce—is to celebrate not Christmas but Chanukah. There is an earlier memory of a long dinner that included a story of leaving one land for another. A platter holding a bone. Some bitter herbs. We dip our fingers into glasses of wine, tapping red drops on the edge of our plates.
At the American School of Warsaw, my classmates—who come from all over the world—are starting to tell me that I’m a Jew. Kike, they say sometimes,or Żyd. Sometimes, they indicate that the problem is my hair, not only the dark curls that fall across my face but also the fuzz on my arms and legs. In eighth grade, the other students leave in my locker a note signed by everyone in the class. Monster, it says, you’re disgusting. It’s a notice of expulsion.
The loneliness of the dead. How they are isolated by what they know about themselves and about us.
This is what I see when I look at Kantor in his self-portrait. Although the eyes appear almost shut in the drawing, the face is pointed with intensity. The artist seems to have visualized himself dying in a moment of concentration, thought. Sitting in my parents’ living room after a cocktail party, I consider the knowledge held in that still face. The closer I lean into the drawing, the more I see it’s not merely a composition of black ink on off-white paper. There are smudges of brown on his forehead and shoulders, the corpse already touched by dirt. And, around the jaw, some dark lines have been erased with white paint, so that the body is both a place of presence and disappearance.
Mrs. P, my history teacher, has decided that the eighth-grade class field trip to Kraków will not include the customary excursion to Auschwitz this year, although it’s only an hour’s drive from the city. She’s an anti-Semite, my favorite teacher, Mrs. H, tells me as we eat lunch together in her classroom.
As far as I know, Mrs. H and I are the only Jews in school. I often sit with her during recess and free periods, reading while she grades papers. Or else we talk about books. Mrs. H is everyone’s favorite teacher. Given how bullied I am, how much my classmates enjoy whispering you’re hideous and you stink, Mrs. H’s popularity is miraculous to me; that she can make her strangeness so appealing to others is like the wonder of a tiny cup of oil lasting eight days when there is only enough to burn for one night. Small and rounded, with wine-red lips and a thick bob of dark hair, she is always draped in a woven shawl, gesturing at the blackboard, her movements theatrical, her voice carrying to the back row of desks. In my memory, she never speaks sternly. Instead, she is laughing. Although a woman in her mid-forties, she announces I’m twenty-nine, darling, no matter how many times the boys ask but how old are you really. Mrs. H seems to me a figure of joyful comedy and good humor. One time, she gives me a taste of dried yak curd; it’s a gift from another student. And when I bite into the small, yellowed lump of cheese, it turns to sour chalk in my throat. Hacking and spitting the mouthful into a trashcan, I turn to Mrs. H. How delicious, I say, laughing and laughing.
On the field trip to Kraków, I cry when Mrs. P makes me share a room with my greatest tormenter, a huge Australian girl—easily a foot taller than I am—who loves to bump against me in the hallways and who mocks my name. John—isn’t that a boy’s name, aren’t you really a boy?
Years later, I live for two months in the small town of Oświęcim, or Auschwitz, as it’s called in German. On weekends, I take a rattling bus to Kraków, where, I’m amazed to learn, Mrs. H now lives. Although she is going to be away for most of my visit, she gives me her key so that I can stay in her apartment, only a short walk from the beautiful square at the center of the city.
Afternoons, I sit outside at a café. The woven backs of the chairs—“harp-shaped”—are just as Robert Pinsky describes them in “The Unseen.” But unlike the characters in Pinsky’s Holocaust poem, I am not making up my mind “to tour the death camp.” I have already been touring them, almost compulsively; these Saturdays and Sundays in Kraków are my break from walking the grounds of Auschwitz I and II, where I watch the tourists touch the concrete dividers of the barbed-wire fences, no longer electrified, this place of preserved horror with its rooms full of shoes and shorn hair, what Pinsky calls “the whole unswallowable / Menu of immensities.”
In Kraków, I eat a piece of the apple cake known as szarlotka, licking caramelized juices and powdered sugar from my fingers. Every hour on the hour, there’s a sound from the church spire nearby. A trumpeter plays a five-note melody, the hejnał. Always the music ends halfway through, the tune suddenly stopping. The most famous explanation for this ritual is a Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century. Spotting the intruders at the gate, a sentry tried to trumpet a warning to the city. But before he could finish the song, an arrow punctured his throat.
Shortly after Kantor’s death, Cricot 2 performed The Dead Class in the United States. In a review of the production, Mel Gussow writes that “the dead return to life in order to evoke a tragic vision of the past.… These are autobiographical and historical memories about the lifeline that brought him through the twentieth century.” In a place like Poland, it is impossible to say that the personal and the historical do not sit beside one another, sharing the same hard seat on a small wooden bench. A classmate pulls my hair on the playground, the bully’s fingers catching in my curls, and I know that we are part of some larger theater, both of us stock characters in a play about old hatreds.
And later, Gussow writes, “a cadre of ghosts returns to a classroom. The specters take their place amid mannequins representing themselves in childhood.… Puppets are lifelike while actors can seem like sculptural objects.” This is sometimes the challenge of making art. Objects can become more solid than people, weightier in the hand, easier to render. I remember the letter that my classmates wrote to me more clearly than I recall the students who held the pen or folded the piece of paper, sliding the note through the slats of my locker. What was him name? Jeff Monroe? Geoff? And hers? Kara Johnson? Cara? And the Finnish girl with the nose that sloped upwards like the sharp veering of a cliff? Marie? Mari Something. My classmates are a mist that settles on the Vistula in early winter.
Is this why I love Kantor’s death mask—that this object has more power than does even the memory of a cruel eighth grader thirty years ago? Kantor continues forever on the paper. And, when my mother sends me a digital photograph of the self-portrait, I open the file on my computer screen. There’s still something new to study here. Today, it is the slope of his eyelashes. Despite the rushed lines of the self-portrait, each hair seems precise and careful. Did Kantor’s hand, perhaps, slow down when it came time to choose whether his eyes would remain open or whether they would be permitted to close?
I am thirteen or fourteen when I learn that the American vice president is scheduled to tour Poland. The advance team has arrived, and plans are already underway: what stone landmarks the visitors will see, where they will place ceremonial wreaths, with whom they will dine and in which gilded palaces. At home one night, my parents worry about the latest idea: the United States is planning to return several pieces of Judaica, artifacts of the Shoah. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, the vice president’s office suggests, if the objects were given back to the Polish government on the grounds of Auschwitz itself? I imagine canapés, sparkling beverages served from gleaming platters. I imagine the displays of eyeglasses piled high, the thousands of toothbrushes, the mounds of shoes, the suitcases.
My father, in his work as the public affairs officer at the American embassy, goes often to Auschwitz. Congressmen and senators frequently include the death camp on their itineraries. But he never takes me there. I do not think it is because, like Mrs. P, he wishes to rub away the traces of atrocity. I suspect that he cannot imagine what he might say or do, if we were to stand together beneath the iron archway, Arbeit macht frei curving above our heads. Instead, we go only so far as Kraków, where we visit Wierzynek, a restaurant that has been open since the Middle Ages. Even in the early 1980s—what my family calls the bad old days—when there is nothing on the shelves and every waiter in every café and bar answers nie ma (we’re out), Wierzynek remains a place of plenty. In a room where the walls are covered in dense tapestries and the chandeliers glitter so brightly we can almost hear the whisper of crystal, my father and I eat a classic Polish meal. A deep red, peppered broth of beets, tiny dumplings shaped like human ears. Herring with pickled onions and sour cream. Larger dumplings formed to look like crescent moons that are filled with wild mushrooms and sauerkraut. And, finally, a layered cake of puff pastry and custard, its surface dusted with a faint snow of powdered sugar.
Nearly a decade later, in graduate school, I learn to think as a scholar might about the traumatized landscape of eastern Europe. The class is called “The Ethics of Representation and the Literature of the Holocaust,” taught by a young professor whose surname means “stag” in Polish. We study Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, Binjamin Wilkomirski’s fraudulent memoir, Fragments, poems by Paul Celan and Dan Pagis, and hybrid texts like W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, David Grossman’s See: Under Love, and D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel. We discuss the theorists who have helped to define this field. James Young. Berel Lang. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.
Several of the students speak Yiddish or Hebrew. There are many French speakers, some German and Russian too. I am the only one who knows Polish. Of all the American Jews in the room, I am the only one who grew up overseas. When we watch Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary, Shoah, I recognize the Polish farmer who speaks about the murder of Jews off-handedly, as if he’s discussing the slaughter of a cow or pig. To the other students, he’s a caricature of anti-Semitism. But, to me, he resembles all the old men from whom I used to buy paper bags full of cherries at the local market in Warsaw. When I thanked them, dziękuję bardzo, they would have smiled and called me kochana, or dear.
Pani Basia—who looks after me whenever my parents miss thecurfew and are forced to stay overnight at the US Embassy—is a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, her arms strong from decades of cleaning the houses of American diplomats.I learn most of my Polish from her, following her around the kitchen, beginning with the words for different ingredients—mleko, cukier, mąka—then moving to the verbs used in cooking and baking, the adjectives to describe the taste of things, their texture and scent. She shows me how to spoon batter into a pan to make the translucent crepes called naleśniki, how to lift them gently from the heat onto a blue plate.We fill them with chocolate ganache and candied orange peel or the more traditional mixture of ricotta and raisins. For dinner, she serves me my favorite, that most treyf of dishes, kotlet schabowy, a breaded pork cutlet. She always offers it to me in the diminutive form—kotletcik—which I understand, intuitively, is a way of expressing what we have come to feel for one another, just as when she tucks me in at night, she wishes me sweet dreams, kolorowych snów, before kissing my forehead and tugging the blanket up to my chin.
One time, while Pani Basia is flipping through cookbooks with my mother, she stops on a page that shows a recipe for gefilte fish. She explains that in Polish, this dish is known as karp po żydowsku,carp in the Jewish style. She can make all of these things, she says, because her own mother, a farmer, hid Jews during the war. And Pani Basia’s father, she goes on, was a Jew himself—picked up by the Nazis in a roundup, what’s called an akcja. When I ask my mother what happened to Pani Basia’s father—if he returned after the war—my mother shakes her head. She isn’t sure. That was the only time Pani Basia talked about her parents.
Scholar Magda Romanska characterizes the work of Kantor as “post-traumatic,” which she argues “denotes a rupture between drama and theatre (text and performance).” I think of the Poland of my childhood, and I can’t say that I feel toward it a violent rupture, although I recognize its betrayals. In February 2018, when the current Polish president signs into a law a new bill “making it illegal to accuse ‘the Polish nation’ of complicity in the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities,” I think of Kantor training his actors to shout, Aleph aleph aleph. What do we know about King Solomon? Poland keeps reading from the same script, although there was once a Wielopole where the church stood across the square from the synagogue. Polish pickles have the same sourness as kosher dills. And a carp that swims in the bathtub will soon be ground up with eggs and onion, transformed into gray patties that taste of herbs and salt. Polish Jews will eat this dish on Passover, Polish Catholics on Christmas Eve.
In Andrzej Wajda’s filmed version of The Dead Class, the camera does something that the eye cannot, often darting in to frame the angles of Kantor’s face, his profile—the distinctive ridge of his nose—already so familiar to me from staring at his self-portrait. The drawing offers me a perspective of Kantor that I would not get if I were in the audience watching a live performance of the play. The drawing too is a close-up, a camera of pen and ink. The movie takes in Kantor’s gestures, the way he conducts the bodies and voices of his actors, their lips pursed or puckered like comic fish.
What is a séance but a gathering in which we attempt to communicate with the departed? In The Dead Class, Kantor is the intermediary, introducing the audience to a cast of ghosts, spirits trapped in the limbo of Polish history. In the self-portrait that hangs on my parents’ wall, Kantor is both medium and specter, the lines he sketched on paper like the planchette moving across a Ouija board. “Thus,” critic Michał Kobiałka posits, “a painting could be a metamorphosis, a collage, a décollage, l’art informel, a figurative art, an object, or an abstraction.” I stare at the lines Kantor has rendered on paper and appreciate how an artist can make use of the imagination: to anticipate grief, to transform the terrifying into the familiar and containable. Loss can fit inside a black frame. It can fit on a stage. The sharp teeth can be pulled from the mouth of history, each tooth held between finger and thumb like a small, white piece of chalk.
Sources for this essay include: Mel Gussow, “Tadeusz Kantor’s Troupe Carries On”; Tadeusz Kantor, A Journey through Other Spaces and The Dead Class (Cricot 2’s filmed production, viewable on YouTube); Michał Kobiałka, “A Requiem for Tadeusz Kantor”; Robert Pinsky, The Figured Wheel; Magda Romanska, interview with Anthem Press; Marc Santora, “Poland’s President Supports Making Some Holocaust Statements a Crime”; “Tadeusz Kantor, 75, Polish Theater Director,” unsigned obituary in the New York Times; and Noel Witts, Tadeusz Kantor.
Jehanne Dubrow is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently American Samizdat (Diode), and a book of nonfiction, throughsmoke (New Rivers). She is a professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas.