On July 10 1941, in the Polish village of Jedwabne, 340 Jews — men, women and children — were murdered, locked in a barn which was set on fire by a group of Polish men. Decades later, this atrocity was investigated by the Polish government and commemorated at a ceremony held in the village.
Present at the ceremony was Eva Hoffman, the eminent Polish-American writer, who had been invited by the Polish ambassador to the UK. She was struck by the passion and the intensity of the occasion. “It was like a five-act Greek drama,” she says. The speeches included one by the mayor of Jedwabne, who spoke with “great dignity, with the eyes of the world upon him. ” Then the dignitaries and townsfolk walked through the forest to the site of the barn, and a rabbi spoke — “a beautiful speech, his hand shaking.” He was old, but had grown up in the town before the war, and remembered the Jewish community which had been wiped out.
Back home in London, Hoffman felt she had to capture the drama of the occasion, and distil its many threads of meaning into something new. Her own life was intimately connected to the story, her parents having survived the war hiding in a forest bunker. Hoffman was born in Krakow in 1945. “I grew up with this history,” she says.
She is best known for writing books and broadcasting, but knew this would have to be a play, albeit one which uses the actual speeches and testimony as its source material. Her drama gives voice to many people, including the ancestors of the villagers, the victims and — unusually — the perpetrators.
Writing the play was hard, both because of the subject matter, and because it had to be set aside several times in order for Hoffman to work on other projects. One, a book in Pan Macmillan’s Life Lessons series was called How to be Bored, and was published last year. It’s about the need to reflect in an age of hyperactivity — “I was addicted to email for a while, I understand completely the power of it” — and the richness of a more three-dimensional life.
But in recent months The Ceremony has been the focus of her reflections as she and director Braham Murray prepared for a public reading at JW3, working with a cast of 15, including David Horovitch, Niall Buggy and Helen Ryan. The hope is that it will lead to a full production.
For Hoffman, the contemporary resonance of the play is its most important aspect. “This event is a kind of template for such atrocities,” she says, “It could be about anywhere where a massacre is about to happen. Sadly it becomes more relevant by the day.”
The Ceremony will be performed in a rehearsed reading at JW3 on May 21, followed by a post-show discussion chaired by Ned Temko