“The Suitcase”: Europe’s and America’s Holocausts seen from the Shawng Zeleezay

LOS ANGELES – The ambitious Echo Theater Company, responsible for the currently running office drama One of the Nice Ones, is now also staging the United States premiere of a surrealistic Polish play about the Holocaust, The Suitcase. The 2011 work is by Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk, born in 1964 and considered one of her country’s most provocative contemporary playwrights and screenwriters.

The Suitcase (Walizka in Polish) is a memory-and-dream play taking place in Paris. The Narrator (Jeff Alan-Lee), a suave, ironic boulevardier who’s a cheesier version of the Master of Ceremonies in the musical Cabaret, introduces us to unusual stories, focusing on one neurotic Parisian of Polish ancestry whose mother kept from him all relevant information about his father.

Our subject is Franswa Jackoh (Vincent Castellanos), the name itself a vaguely phonetic version of a French-Jewish name. Already we understand we are viewing this story from the distance of the French capital’s elegant Champs Elysées, conveniently if confusingly transliterated for the audience as “Shawng Zeleezay.” The rest of the play confirms that we are looking at the Holocaust through a maze of prisms, refracting history through filters of language, nationality, generation, physical distance and tone. Even in Artur Zapałowski’s translation we hear an English that is not quite vernacular. The humorous pantomimic touch recalls Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Holocaust film Life Is Beautiful, which gave rise to serious complaints over the appropriateness of “laughing at everything.”

Franswa inscribes an improbable note to the father he never knew, tucking it into a mystical wall connected to heaven, imploring him to “please come back this instant.” Sure enough, his prayer is answered in an unexpected way, for on a visit to local Holocaust museum he notices a suitcase on loan from Auschwitz, clearly marked with his father’s name. The connection that had been denied to the son now appears in this freakish visitation from the father, who bears the curious name Pantofelnik. A common installation at Holocaust museums is a grimy pile of shoes of the death camp inmates. “Pantofel” is the Yiddish word for a slipper or loafer.

Other characters Franswa encounters, such as The Narrator’s stage companion Jackleen (Claire Kaplan); The Miserable Tour Guide at the Holocaust Museum (that’s the character’s name, played by Alexandra Freeman); The Poet (Sigute Miller) – referred to by a somewhat Germanic name Bruna, closely related to the color braun, as in shirts – who yearns to seek out the unknown corners of her country (Germany?) so she can tell its story with innocent love and goodness; and eventually his father Pantofelnik (Eric Keitel), all contribute to establishing the real difficulty of telling a nation’s story in one easy narrative arc.

Special note should be taken of the lighting (Chris Wojcieszyn) establishing space and ambiance. Although minimal in approach, the openness of the performing area – edges loosely defined by the fading of the light – made a viewer seem to be peering into a scene occurring inside a mind. The climactic moment of the show is heightened by a dramatic spotlight on Franswa, and we can legitimately ask, Where is that happening?

Most national histories are based on some set of self-congratulatory founding myths, and picking them apart can be devastatingly dispiriting. As the playwright says, “It hurts me that the true History of Poland remains untold,” but where will that truth be found? Surely not in one book, nor one place, nor in one memory. Poland is the classic case of the long-suffering, broad-plained, virtually defenseless land mercilessly invaded by Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in September 1939. But at the same time its Roman Catholic population took it upon itself to attack Polish Jews, famously in the town of Jedwabne during the Nazi time, and even after the war ended, with pogroms in Krakow and Kielce.

The playwright shows a major concern with French existentialism. At the moment when Franswa hugs this prosaic object, the suitcase, he joyously shouts, “He existed!” bringing Sartre to mind. Moreover, the intense, immediate physicality of what proves to be a psychosomatic symptom, Franswa’s shortness of breath, recalls Sartre’s nausea. That the play deals with a Frenchman in postwar Europe struggling with feeling whole in his identity without some external referent (his father) seems a generic trope of that intellectual tradition. The Holocaust, or the past, only becomes meaningful to Franswa insofar as he self-identifies and self-justifies with it..

So here is a deliberately Polish engagement with the most popular intellectual response in Western Europe to the postwar condition, French existentialism à la Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, while the world of the Eastern Bloc nations responded with Soviet-style socialism. Perhaps this terse 65-minute play, with its special cosmopolitan mix-up of theatrical genres, is essentially a work by a Pole for Poles. Still, universalizing the themes of that Polish intellectual engagement with the West spins off a fresh and stimulating new way of treating the past.

Facing other Holocausts

Some Jews today for historical and emotional reasons will never set foot in Germany. Not to argue with their choice, but they are missing out on a fascinating national cultural project of atoning for the sins of an earlier generation. Yes, there are some noisy right-wing, neo-Nazi groups still extant in Germany, but for the most part they are powerless, isolated, and deeply opposed by the majority.

Almost everywhere you go in Germany today, you will find many unexpected reminders of German responsibility for the Holocaust. Not only plaques, monuments and museums, but little paving stones indicating that in this house lived such-and-such a Jewish family, deported in a given year and sent to their extermination. And Germany has played a major role in reparations to Jews and in supporting the State of Israel economically and diplomatically. Germany has also welcomed thousands of Jewish immigrants – a few of them returning Germans, but most others from Eastern European lands and from Israel itself. For years Germany has been the country with the largest percentage of Jewish population increase in the world. Few other nations have undertaken such a thoroughgoing assessment of their own culpability in crimes committed under their flag. And when you think about it, there’s hardly a country in the world that does not have its dark side to confess.

In a pointed Director’s Note in the program, Sam Hunter asks, “It’s still controversial to refer to the two major atrocities America has committed within its borders as ‘genocides,’ but if it weren’t, what would the statute of limitations be? What would earn us the right to stop teaching guilt to our children?”

What would an America look like if our Holocausts were acknowledged as Germany has done? We eagerly erect memorials to plane crash victims and terror attacks, but these often assume the character of recording and remembering what “they” did to “us.” What if there were a plaque installed at every known site of a lynching, not to mention places where striking workers were shot? Where innocent people were gunned down in the streets by police? Where are the historical markers where slave ships docked with their precious African cargo, where plantation owners held millions of Black people in bondage? How do we mark the Atlantic waves into which dead Black captive bodies were tossed? Where are the hallowed memorials in the cities where African-American families were sundered on the auction block?

And what has the American empire done to our native peoples? A Holocaust greater than the European Holocaust of the 20th century! But is there an American Indian Holocaust museum in every city, and memorials all across the land in every state and community recording who lived here and how they were disappeared, so that our people will never forget, so that we can say together as one, “Never again!” Hardly! The very question is rhetorical in today’s America. Quite to the contrary: Our Native population is still the most degraded, the unhealthiest, the most short-lived, the poorest, the least educated in the land.

If the State of Israel was considered the world’s “reparation” for the Holocaust against the Jews, as part of the guilt accompanying a near-universal sense of shame that the world allowed a Hitler to happen, what shall repair the two great American Holocausts? This is a question of intense debate and speculation, but for starters it would need to include a massive national commitment – international, if you include the Holocaust against Indigenous peoples everywhere – to discuss these Holocaust issues at all levels in the educational system; raising living standards with targeted measures, including jobs and guaranteed income programs, benefiting those surviving communities; and passing stringent, effective anti-discrimination laws.

How likely is this to happen any time soon in America? Not so soon, you say? Well, that’s an indication of the national earnestness with which we approach these homegrown Holocausts of our own.

The Suitcase is a heartbreaking, disturbing probe into atrocity and accountability, in which no one – Pantofelnik excepted – comes off with clean hands. Even its audience is implicated. Finally, does the possibility of doing justice to the past thereby absolve us in the present?

The Suitcase plays Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 pm only through August 18, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3239 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles 90039. For tickets and information, call (31) 307-3753 or go to www.EchoTheaterCompany.com. Free parking in the Atwater Xing lot one block south of the theatre.

Photo: Alexandra Freeman and Vincent Castellanos / Spencer Howard


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.

Colby Wagenbach
Colby Wagenbach

Colby Wagenbach lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.