Poland may be trying to shed its reputation as a hot bed of
antisemitism, one that, today, must exist virtually without Jews
(living, that is; Poland has often been called "one giant Jewish
cemetery"), but, in this effort, the country will receive no help from
The artistic director of the Jewish Theater of New York (JTNY), Mr.
Tenenbom is also the playwright and co-director of the group’s current
production, "Last Jew in Europe," a tragicomic theatre-of-the-absurd
story about Jews in hiding, not during World War II, but right now.
Mr. Tenenbom calls Lodz, Poland, where his one-act drama is set, "an
antisemite’s paradise, right in the middle of the EU, where anti-Jewish
declarations are graphically exhibited in almost every street corner and
calls for sending Jews back to the gas chambers go unchallenged."
The story concerns Jozef Kweczke (Csaba S. Lucas), who may or may not
be Jewish, but who thinks he is (he’s a circumcised klutzy accountant
whose father is a pathologist, doesn’t that prove it?), and, therefore,
lives in dread that his secret will be discovered by his antisemitic
fiancée, Maria (Lila Donnolo). His "salvation" appears in the person of
John Jay Smith (Daniel Shafer), a young American Mormon who arrives in
Lodz to research the genealogy of dead Polish Jews so that they can be
"baptized" in an after-death proxy ceremony back in Salt Lake City.
Although Mormon missionaries invariably work in pairs (so exactly
what happens to Smith can be avoided), in Mr. Tenenbom’s story, he is
alone when he meets Maria, in a disco, and, after one or two drinks of
forbidden Polish vodka, falls madly in love with her.
To rid Maria of her fiancé, Smith determines to prove that Jozef is
Jewish. Jozef, however, wants Smith to baptize his entire family,
meaning, Jozef reasons, that all of them would have been Mormon "from
Lies of Convenience
Until it reaches its bazaar end, the story twists around questions of
faith, defamation, and lies of convenience. Perhaps Jozef is actually
the grandson of a Nazi leader. Or is his father just saying that? In
Lodz, "Last Jew in Europe" tells us, a Nazi past is preferable to being
Perhaps Maria is the child of a devout Jewess who is posing as a
Christian butcher. And is Maria’s father, a Protestant pastor in
Catholic Poland, really what he seems to be, too?
The real issues of faith are left to the Mormon to sort through.
Should he steal a girl from a man who is begging to become a Mormon? And
knowing the girl he loves will dump his rival if his Jewishness is
proven, can Smith be trusted to know—and tell—the truth? Or would Smith
lie to win the girl’s heart and hand, and which lie would work?
"Why is he interested in dead Jews?" a character asks regarding
Smith. "I heard they have a law in America to recycle everything."
Mr. Tenenbom says he documented incidents of Jews
hiding-in-plain-sight from still-virulent antisemitism during his own
recent extended visit to Poland. The play is dedicated to "J," who, like
Jozef in the story, is a young man from Lodz who refuses to divulge his
Jewish identity for fear that his Christian fiancée will throw him out.
Mr. Tenenbom’s approach to theater comes from an eclectic background.
A rabbi with smicha from Jerusalem, he also boasts a doctorate in
English Literature from St. John’s University, a Master’s in Playwriting
from CUNY, and an undergraduate degree in math and computer science from
Touro. He studied about Christianity and Islam in Israel and New York,
and journalism, acting, theatre, and finance at NYU.
He founded JTNY in 1994 dedicated to the idea that "the most sacred
element in Judaism is its respect for endless probe and questioning."
Among the issues the theatre group has explored are sexual yearnings in
the ultra-Orthodox community, aversion to sexual intimacy among
upper-class Jews, the Middle East conflict from the point of view of
suicide bombers, double agents, extremists, and peaceniks, and the
behavior of Jewish leaders and their organizations during the Holocaust.
Mr. Tenenbom has been called "Founder of the Theater of Catastrophe"
by the German paper Die Zeit and a "free artist who fights for
truth and tolerance" by the Belgian Le Vif L’Express.
His extended visit to Poland was prompted by his desire to see where
his great-grandparents once lived. On the way to Radzyn, where, he says,
one of his ancestors established the chasidic dynasty known as the
Radzyner Court, Mr. Tenenbom stopped in Lublin. At a monastery there, he
met a man who told him he was unable to sleep because "there are too
many Jews in the world."
Although Radzyn once boasted a Jewish majority, no Jews live there
anymore. Even the headstones in the cemetery were looted by the Nazis.
"The Polish government, long after the war was over—to be precise, in
1957—erected a neighborhood on top of the Jewish cemetery, never
bothering to move the graves," says Mr. Tenenbom.
This information led him to meet Basha, who lives in a home built on
top of the graves of Mr. Tenenbom’s family.
According to Mr. Tenenbom, Basha, far from uncomfortable at her
home’s position, believes the dead bodies of Jews under her house have
brought her luck. Years ago, she turned her backyard into a garden where
she grows vegetables and "very sweet" apples.
"The bodies of dead Jews make the earth very fertile when they get
mixed with the soil," she told Mr. Tenenbom.
Mr. Tenenbom says he "almost collapsed." "I couldn’t believe my ears
and eyes. To see the woman cheerfully telling how she uses the dead Jews
underneath—my great-grandparents—as a fertilizer was horrific," he says.
But Basha saw no reason for sadness, he says. She offered him an
apple and was surprised that he refused.
Not even the occasional bone that protrudes from the earth has caused
her any dismay. When that happens, she told Mr. Tenenbom, she simply
grinds it down and plows it back into the earth.
But her cheerfulness disappeared when Mr. Tenenbom asked her if she
would feel the same way if the dead underneath her house and land had
been Christians instead of Jews. "No Christians. That would be
terrible," Basha told him.
Mr. Tenenbom found more civilized behavior elsewhere in the town. A
former mayor of Radzyn told him the decision to build the homes on top
of the Jewish cemetery was made by "the communists," not the Poles. A
local pastor took Mr. Tenenbom aside and asked for forgiveness,
promising to pray for guidance for himself and the rest of his Polish
"But nobody offered to remove the remains from this place," says Mr.
The Mormons tried, in their own way. Mr. Tenenbom recalls that, two
years earlier, while traveling in Utah, he visited a computer center
which houses the sect’s genealogical databases. There, he discovered
that his grandfather was among those whom the Mormons had baptized by
"What a fate for a Jew: Turned into a Mormon in the US, into
fertilizer in Poland," says Mr. Tenenbom.
He set his play in Lodz, he says, because he had seen first hand an
abundance of antisemitic graffiti throughout the city and met several
Jews who still live in hiding.
He did not deny that sometimes there are official attempts to paint
over the offensive graffiti in Lodz and elsewhere in Poland, but, he
says, "all it takes is a day or two, and all the images ‘magically’
Not surprisingly, this depiction of Poland in general and Lodz in
particular greatly offended the Polish government, which, through the
offices of its Embassy in Washington and Consulate in New York, has made
clear that it finds Mr. Tenenbom’s play bordering on "racist."
Even before the play opened, Piotr Erenfeicht, press secretary for
the Polish Embassy, objected to JTNY’s website and promotional materials
featuring photographs of anti-Jewish graffiti scrawled on walls around
the city of Lodz.
"The images in the press release focus on antisemitism not of
specific people blemished by a particular vice of character or judgment,
but rather on a whole nation. This creates a broad, unfair, and
misleading perception of a given nation, in this case the Polish
nation," said Mr. Erenfeicht.
Mr. Erenfeicht pointed out that Lodz sponsors a "Four Cultures
Festival" in which the city "celebrates the dialogue of four cultures
that created Lodz: Polish, German, Jewish, and Russian." The festival,
he explained, features achievements in the fields of culture, music,
film, and theatre.
Mr. Tenenbom was not impressed. "I’ve been there. I was amazed by how
this festival so carefully chooses Jewish shows that depict Jews as a
nebbish bunch of idiots," he says.
Mr. Erenfeicht argued that the images used by Mr. Tenenbom "in no way
improve relations between our peoples or educate the uneducated, whether
they are Jewish or antisemitic."
The Polish Embassy suggested that by implying all Poles were guilty
of antisemitism, JTNY’s play "may be viewed as racist."
Mr. Tenenbom, however, has documented that there is no dearth of
examples of antisemitism coming from Poland. In response to a video
presentation of graffiti shown on the JTNY website, a viewer on YouTube,
"flagwaver1969," posted: "Many Jewish gangs in Lodz do this graffiti
themselves. Jewish extremist groups created the victimization industry
Just this past February, Prof Maciej Giertych, a Polish member of the
European Parliament, published a booklet which suggested Jews are
The tract, entitled "Civilizations at War in Europe," contains this
passage: "When a pious Jew travels on Saturday on a train sitting on a
rubber water bottle, he is doing so to remain faithful to his religion,
because he is not allowed to travel on a Sabbath except when on water."
According to reports, Polish President Lech Kaczynski said the
booklet "worried me seriously," and the European Parliament is
reportedly considering sanctions against Mr. Giertych. Thus far, nothing
has been done.
The difference between the new antisemitism rising in Western Europe,
which seems to be fomented by Muslim rhetoric against Israel and Jews in
general, and the variety rampant in Poland, is that Polish antisemitism
may simply be a continuation of the sentiments that were active before
World War II.
Mr. Tenenbom has a solution: The Polish government should make the
public display of antisemitism a felony.
"If the Polish government really cares how the country is seen around
the world, let them move on this today," he says.
Mr. Tenenbom is convinced that pressure from the Polish Embassy and
Consulate prompted the newly appointed theater editor of the New York
Times, Rick Lyman, to refuse to allow anyone from his paper to
review "Last Jew in Europe."
Mr. Tenenbom calls the Polish government’s efforts a "bizarre
intervention by a foreign government in the affairs of an American
theater," and, he says, it "should not be allowed to succeed and will
not; we will continue to present our show."
But he saves his sharpest barbs for Mr. Lyman, whom he accuses of
doing the Polish government’s bidding and lying about it. Mr. Tenenbom
has publicly demanded that if Mr. Lyman does not reverse his decision on
having the play reviewed, the paper should fire him.
Sam Sifton, culture editor of the Times, denied that the paper
was interested in boycotting JTNY.
"We are adopting the same policy that we use when evaluating which
books to review, or musical performances, recordings, or art shows, or
restaurants. There’s simply no room for them all. And in this instance,
the editors have decided to take a pass," he said.
But Mr. Tenenbom’s experience belies that simple explanation.
According to Mr. Tenenbom, when Mr. Lyman was asked to send someone from
the Times to review the play, the new theatre editor, who had
been on the job only two days, replied that the paper would pass because
"not one of our critics wants to review" the show.
Surprised, Mr. Tenenbom made a few calls of his own to critics he
knew from the paper. According to Mr. Tenenbom, "they flatly denied ever
refusing to review the show and claimed they were not given the
opportunity to do so by Mr. Lyman."
"In addition, they expressed their own opinion that ‘Last Jew in
Europe’ should indeed be reviewed," says Mr. Tenenbom, adding that some
of the critics asked Mr. Lyman to change his mind, but he refused.
Mr. Tenenbom went so far as to contact Patricia Cohen who, until
March 1, 2007, served as the paper’s theatre editor. "She told me this
was ‘Rick’s decision; I can’t do anything about it; I’m no longer the
editor,’" he says.
Only "Good Reviews" Allowed?
Two days later, Mr. Lyman told Mr. Tenenbom that "Last Jew in Europe"
would not be reviewed because the theater’s two previous productions,
which were reviewed by the Times, were panned.
Mr. Tenenbom says the remark left him "stunned."
"This is not about ‘good’ reviews," he says. "This is about abhorring
censorship. In our theater, we regularly deal with sensitive political
issues, where the chance of negative review is higher. We understand it,
and we never complained about a bad review. Why does he? We are the only
English-speaking Jewish theater in the city; all the others closed down
years ago. What does he want, to close us down as well?"
In fact, the Times has reviewed virtually all of JTNY’s
productions for the past ten years.
When the company did a piece entitled "Love Letters to Adolf Hitler:
A Story of Passionate Love," based on intimate love letters sent to
Hitler by German women between 1939 and 1945, the Times
approvingly called the production "skin crawling." The Times
called "The Beggar of Borough Park," another JTNY production "a buoyant
Last year, JTNY made headlines when its production of Kabbalah had to
be abruptly cancelled. Cast in the leading role of Madonna, Emily Stern,
daughter of shock radio host Howard Stern, left the cast, frightened
because some of her father’s more lewd fans had discovered her identity.
Nevertheless, before the show was cancelled, the Times said the
play "denigrates most religions…with increasing sacrilege and
Mr. Tenenbom maintains that by refusing to review "Last Jew in
Europe," the New York Times is engaging in "censorship by
"We cannot be silent in the face of rising antisemitism in Europe and
the New York Times’ attempts to keep it out of the public
awareness. The rise of antisemitism in Europe should not, and will not,
be kept a secret from millions of New Yorkers just because of one man,"
says Mr. Tenenbom, recalling that, during World War II, the paper wrote
very little about the horrors befalling Jews during the Holocaust.
"It is well known that the outstanding order at the time was not to
have Holocaust stories on the front pages. Is the New York Times
returning to the same pattern?" he says.
In fact, "Last Jew in Europe" has received high praise from many
publications in the US and abroad.
During the 2006 World Cup games in Germany, the country’s leading
theatrical organization, Mülheim Stücke Festival, invited playwrights
from the participating countries to engage in an "intellectual match" to
parallel the games. From each of the 32 countries, the Festival chose
one playwright with a play the judges deemed most intellectually
promising for the upcoming season.
Mr. Tenenbom and "Last Jew in Europe" were chosen to represent the
Critics from Germany’s leading daily paper, Süddeuutsche Zeitung,
said the play was "without a doubt, the darling of the festival," and
the prestigious theater magazine, Theaterheute, called it "first
rate comedic farce, soberly presented."
Nothing in Poland
In Poland itself, the play has, thus far, gone unnoticed. Mr.
Tenenbom says he tried to find a theatre to produce the work, but, he
says, they were interested only in the kind of plays that find their way
into the "Four Cultures Festival."
"My attempts to get Polish theatres to join us in condemning the rise
of antisemitism within their own country, failed," he says, adding that,
in private conversations, he was told that any theater that agreed to
produce the play risked losing its government funding.
Worse, he says, the producers feared "the masses would have rioted
outside the theater, demanding the show be stopped."
Mr. Tenenbom says this saddens him because, given his family’s
history, it would not be false to call him a Pole.
He told Mr. Erenfeicht, "I am saddened, probably more than you, by
the state of antisemitism in your, and my, country. It’s time that the
Polish government start to remedy the disease within instead of accusing
While the Polish government and perhaps the New York Times do
not appreciate his efforts, in "Last Jew in Europe," Mr. Tenenbom has
clearly touched a sensitive nerve in a play that seems designed to
offend everyone: Poles, self-hating Jews, and Mormons.
The play is running at the Triad Theatre, 158 W 72nd
Street, between Broadway/Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, on Sundays at 3
and Mondays and Tuesdays at 7. For tickets, go to the website,