Master of the Apocalyptic Stage - Josef Szajna at 80

By Elsom, John | The World and I, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Master of the Apocalyptic Stage - Josef Szajna at 80


Elsom, John, The World and I


Having survived the Nazis and the communists, Polish playwright J-sef Szajna has created an intense body of work that recalls his experiences in raw and dangerous terms.

J-sef Szajna was born in 1922 in Rzeszow, a town in southern Poland on the borders of Slovakia and Ukraine, whose name is easier to pronounce (Zh--zhu) than to spell. With his friend and fellow stage director, Jerzy Grotowski, also from Rzeszow, and his rival, Tadeusz Kantor, from Krak-w nearby, he was a powerful influence on the development of avant- garde theater during the 1970s across Europe and the United States--and the only one of that formidable trio who is still alive.

To celebrate his eightieth birthday, the Siemaszkowa Theater in Rzeszow opened a small museum and gallery in his honor and staged the Festival of European Classical Plays, of which he was the honorary president. But with Poland about to enter the European Union and the signs of post--Cold War prosperity to be seen in every shop, the unique voice of Szajna, which used to echo like a terrible scream from the heart of central Europe, seemed muted and benign. Szajna was still there and gave press conferences, but his bleak vision of humanity seemed more tranquil, as if he had passed through the depths of despair and was climbing the mountains again, rejuvenated in his later years. Perhaps he was speaking for Poland.

When he was young, Szajna was a sportsman and "not a very good student," by his own admission. In 1938, he won the Polish national diving championships, but when he was seventeen, on the eve of World War II, he became a soldier, fighting for the Polish resistance. The Gestapo caught him and sent him to Auschwitz and then, after a foiled attempt to escape, to Buchenwald, two dreaded concentration camps. The identifying number on his arm was 18729, which he interpreted to mean by numerical divination that he was "twice alive." His age when he was captured was eighteen, the first two numbers, and the last three numbers add up to eighteen as well.

He was placed in a cell in the death block. "Waiting for execution brought me closer to the problems of eternity, closer to God. Everything became metaphysical. All that we believed in," he later wrote, "... races, classes and political views--were not important anymore. We were an archipelago of human/inhuman psyches, floating in a sea of numbers." He and other inmates suffered under the ironic motto Arbeit macht Frei (work makes you free). It did make many of them free, in death.

Szajna survived by an extraordinary chance. The camp commandant was replaced by a more liberal one, and his death sentence was commuted to labor within the camp. From his paintings and collages, we can still feel what life must have been like in those camps--the piles of muddy, worn-out boots, the humorless grins as the dying pulled back their drying lips across their teeth to allow more space for air, the barbed wire mesh twisting against the cold, gray skies. Other artists drew such scenes. Feliks Topolski and Mervyn Peake were among the group of British war artists who went into the camps as they were liberated and sketched what they saw in rapid, intense, visual memorials. But they were visitors. Szajna lived there. There is no sentiment in his eye, no room for pity. Through his paintings, he tells us simply: "This is what it was like. This is how we survived. This is how we died."

He lasted the war and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krak-w, from which he graduated in 1953. He belonged to a passionate generation of young Polish artists that included such film and stage directors as Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda, who refused to be confined by any one artistic discipline. As technicians, they were generalists. Their imaginations might be seized by an image, a story, a character, a snatch of music, or, usually, a theme that combined all these elements. Such a theme was rarely confined either to the past or the present. …

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