Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation
Women on the fronts. Interview with Monika Dobrowlańska
By Julia Wysocka
Translation from Polish into German: Isabella Feld
The premiere of the play Displaced Women will take place on May 23 at Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. The director Monika Dobrowlańska speaks about the concept of the theatre project and endless difficulties, one faces when dealing with the topic of war.
Julia Wysocka: How did the project Displaced Women come about?
Monika Dobrowlańska: It has been a long process. In Poland, Germany, and Belarus, I came across various texts describing lives of remarkable women who were silenced after the war, because they couldn’t be reconciled with the collective heroic war experience, which we tried to convey to the young generations. The stories of those women inspired me to do this theatre project.
In general, war is considered to be man’s business.
Exactly. Those texts, which actually were very different, made me reflect on this idea. I thought: should I create a theatre play that would give other perspectives on women at war? Absolute truth doesn’t exist and the world is not black and white. Besides, I found a lot of similarities in those stories.
I try to show them in my play. Every text selected by me is unique, but at the same time, it has something in common with the other texts. The part about Belarus is based on Svetlana Alexievich’s book “The Unwomanly Face of War”. It describes the fates of women soldiers, who have begun to tell their stories to Alexievich only 30-40 years after the war. Before they didn’t want to remember the past and refused to accept benefits available to war veterans. We shouldn’t forget that those women were often ill – they went to war at the very young age. They hadn’t turned 20 at the time and sometimes they came back from war almost as human wrecks.
It was only many years later when they tried to overcome the trauma.
Now they have more courage to talk about their experiences. After many years they’ve realized that it’s important to make a confession. Finally, they don’t risk anything. One of the reasons why they kept silent after the war was the fear to be rejected by the society. Those women were afraid not to be able to lead a normal life, because who would like to live together with a female soldier who had killed 70 people?
With male soldiers it would be different, right?
Right, because it’s masculine, isn’t it? The families of those women recommended them not to talk about their past. People even called them front whores! Their complicated lives were partly connected with male soldiers, with whom they were together at the frontline and who abandoned them later – they had seen those women wearing military boots and trousers for too long and perceived them as viragoes. Those women’s destinies were really tragic.
And it influenced their lives after the war?
In the most cases, yes. The life in the ex-soviet countries was hard and people were facing a lot of restrictions. Especially, prisoners of war or forced labourers were treated badly. Stalin believed that there were no prisoners of war, only traitors. People who had fought during the war were sent later to Siberia. Moreover, the whole family was prosecuted, if one of its members had been in captivity.
I read memoirs of a woman, whose husband had been a prisoner of war and was sent to Siberia. If you applied for a job, the first question you were asked was, if someone of your relatives was a prisoner of war. And women, who had been teachers before the war, were not able to work even as a cleaning lady after.
Does the play aim to show women’s strong sides and to overcome stereotypes?
My main goal is to show women’s fates that significantly differ from those of men. The play itself breaks stereotypes because this is what reports of those women do. The protagonists say they didn’t want to cook or to wash uniforms somewhere behind the lines. They wanted to be on the frontline, as snipers or pilots, to take over typical male tasks. Sometimes they were even more successful than their male colleagues. Most of them started to fight when Germans were getting closer to Moscow. Everyone was already fighting, so they began to send young women to the frontline.
It means, women were a part of the history too.
If they wanted to participate in the fights, which naturally had its price… I try to explain it in my project.
So, your play commemorates those women?
Yes, I would be happy, if their stories don’t sink into oblivion.
You show the war from three different perspectives of a Belarusian, a German, and a Polish woman. It’s not easy for a director to combine different texts in one story.
I must admit that it was a challenge for me. I wrote the script together with dramaturge Michał Walczak.
I haven’t yet talked about the German text that inspired me to do this project. It’s called “A Woman in Berlin”. It was published in Germany in the 50s and was rejected by the public then. They reacted with indignation because the book dealt with the first weeks of the Red Army advancing towards Berlin. It is about mass rape of German women, an issue that already had been discussed before. However, nobody had described survival strategies of the women. For example, the author of those reports writes that she had chosen a high-ranking officer not to be constantly raped. He was supposed to protect her from that. She was not the only one who took such a decision, but these were individual cases.
You visited Łodź recently to meet the author of the Polish text.
I read various memoirs of forced labourers. There is a work published by the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation, in which I found a story of such a labourer. I managed to contact that woman and she gave me the permission to use it in my play. I think, it’s an extremely emotional experience, especially for old people, when someone decides to speak about your life.
Do you believe that Germans are more courageous when speaking about their past?
It seems to me that they are way more courageous in this than Polish people. In our country, they only start to address some issues connected with WWII. Among other reasons, it was silenced because of the difficult political situation.
Does it mean that Polish people live in the past and the Germans want to look into the future?
Legends are crucial for our thinking and we are shocked when some unpleasant things come to light. However, we have to talk also about issues that hurt us. It’s important to me that the play is also about looking at each other from the perspective of different nations. How a female soldier on the frontline sees the Germans and how she sees the Red Army soldiers. There is another character in my play- a forced labourer. This is literally a displaced person. The project’s title plays with this term. In other words, it’s a person who is outside her home country and whose experiences don’t fit with the collective experiences of her nation. She went through something that nobody wanted to talk about. Basically, these are a kind of the uncomfortable people.
Did the actresses have any problems with sometimes putting themselves in the shoes of the perpetrator and other times in the shoes of the victim?
I’ve selected actresses, who, in my opinion, simply fit into these roles. The ensemble consists of Svietlana Anikej, Monika Dawidziuk and Anna Poetter. I trust them in terms of embodying the characters, which are important for me, and making sure that the communication inside this international team runs properly. They are very open-minded and motivated and they don’t recourse to stereotyped beliefs.
How did they react to your offer?
Enthusiastically. I’m positively surprised that the play has sparked broad interest. It could seem that so many things have already been said about WWII that there is nothing more to add. And yet. First of all the legends and the insincerity that accompanies this problem provoke me.
Besides, there is a simple division into good and evil.
Firstly. And secondly, we were not always victims.