This November we are thrilled to present new writing in The Salberg, with Nicola Werenowska‘s new play Silence. It explores the effects World War II has had on three generations of a family with Polish heritage. We spoke to Nicola and Research & Development Consultant, Nina Finbow, about the inspiration behind the play and how they have worked together to shape the piece.
Can you tell us a bit about your family history in relation to Silence?
Nicola: I am married to a Polish man whose parents were displaced from Poland during the Second World War and whose mother was deported from Eastern Poland to Siberia. The journey of the grandmother in the play from Poland to Siberia to Africa to the UK is the journey that my mother-in-law and hundreds of thousands like her underwent.
Nina: My mother, Maria, aged 19, was captured along with her husband during World War II (there is quite a story leading up to how she initially arrived in Eastern Poland coming from Warsaw) and was taken to a concentration camp in Siberia. Without giving too much away – it was her experience during the camp that has inspired a pivotal plot point in the play.
Her husband unfortunately died whilst they were attempting to escape. My mother however, managed to join the Polish army in order to get out of Siberia and eventually landed in England by sea where she joined the Polish Airforce and became a WAAF officer.
My mother met my father when he was home on holiday from Africa where he had been working since he left Scotland to join the forces in Kenya. I was brought up in Sierra Leone until I was 5. The family then moved to England and we settled in Suffolk.
When my mother, aged 86, died, everyone at the funeral begged me to write a book about her wartime experience. Whilst I have a lot about her unique story, I am missing a lot if vital information but still hope to find the time to research her family and perhaps one day write the book. When Nicky offered to write this play, it was as if a burden had been lifted from me and whilst her story is not exactly the same as my mother’s, the theme of intergenerational effects is very much what I have experienced but also these effects have also filtered through to my children. Intergenerational effects and epigenetics are both subjects I am fascinated by and one day I would love to write a paper on this subject.
Nina – How did you first meet Nicola? And how was the idea for Silence born?
A friend of mine took me to see Nicky’s play Tu I Teraz at The Hampstead Theatre which I was so impressed by. When I read a review of the play and discovered that Nicky lived not far from me in Colchester, I got in touch and we met up. We immediately hit it off and discovered that my mother and her mother-in-law had both experienced similar traumas during the war in a Siberian Prisoner of War camp and, interestingly, Nicola’s husband and I both knew our childhood upbringing was unusual and that we had suffered psychologically, identifying a series of mutual intergenerational effects. I invited Nicky to read my mother’s story and we realised that together, we had the beginnings of a play…
How have you worked together to get the play where it is today?
Nina: We have both worked closely on this, meeting up every few months during its development and remain constantly in touch. I am so incredibly impressed with Nicky’s ability as a writer and a story-teller; her dialogue is incredible and her grasp of and empathy with the Polish people is quite astounding, especially given that she is not a Pole.
Nicola: As above, Nina has advised me in a research context as well as being an interviewee for the play and supporting the marketing and outreach events for the project at the R&D and production stages.
I understand there has been a lot of research and development work to get the play to where it is, can you tell us a bit about this process?
Nicola: With Nina’s support, alongside the Mercury who were my lead partner, I applied for an R&D GFA grant to kick-start the process back in 2016. I spent six months interviewing 2nd generation Poles and writing a draft of the play which I then worked on with actors and presented at two sharings in Colchester and London. The response to the sharing of this draft was fantastic from both Polish, non-Polish and theatre industry audience members and the Mercury Theatre offered to come on board as lead production partner to make the play happen.
Nina: We have also had to do a lot of fact-checking along the way! We wanted to make sure that Maria’s journey was as historically and factually accurate as possible. Through this research we discovered that so many Poles were deported from Siberia and ended up literally all over the world.
Why do you feel it is important to tell this story?
Nicola: There are so many reasons! Because this story hasn’t been told – there is an ignorance around what happened to Poland during the war and the way Poland was betrayed by the West; because there is an increase in anti-Polish sentiment in the UK, particularly since Brexit; because it explores an important and topical universal theme – the impact of trauma on subsequent generations.
Nina: I think we both passionately feel that this story has to be told, as many British people are unaware of the 1.7 million Poles deported to slave camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan. Only a third were to survive. If you mention Prisoner of War to English people most will automatically think of Auschwitz.
We are both keen to explore the idea of intergenerational effects and both of us want to attempt to prevent the effects of being second generation Poles from filtering through to our children – by being aware – and by talking about it.
Silence runs in The Salberg, Salisbury Playhouse from Tuesday 13 – Saturday 17 November. For more information or tickets visit www.wiltshirecreative.co.uk or call 01722 320333