Poetry Madness

The New Republic Online
Thursday, August 2nd, 2001


Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland

by Jan Tomasz Gross

The Murder of Memory

A review by Jaroslaw Anders

Poles of my generation, born around 1950, usually remember the moment when they learned of the existence of Jews. In my case, the moment occurred in March 1968, two months before my high school graduation. Students in Warsaw were demonstrating at the universities against censorship and for something that they called "pluralism" (democracy still did not dare to speak its name). The official press described the demonstrations as a "Zionist conspiracy," and it treated its readers daily to the "real" that is, Jewish-sounding names of some of the protest leaders, as well as the names of professors and intellectuals who had the temerity to defend them. It was then, during those exhilarating and surreal days, that I discovered that some of my best friends were, indeed, Jews.

Before this, there were no Jews, and certainly no "Zionists," in Poland. There were "people of Jewish origin," or (rather oddly) "Poles of Mosaic faith." The word Jew (Zyd) was usually written in lower case, which in Polish suggests a religion, not a nationality. But now Jews were everywhere, mostly in prominent and influential positions in politics, academia, the arts, and of course the media. And not long afterwards I discovered along with my friends, including those newly revealed as Jewish that anti-Semitic sentiments were still running strong in Polish society. Not all the slogans painted on the walls, and not all the insults chalked on the doors of our neighbors, were the work of the secret police.

People who were usually disdainful of the diatribes printed in the official press seemed strangely inclined to believe that communist Poland really was ruled by a "Zionist" cabal, and they even started to express genuine satisfaction that the members of this cabal were being exposed, and removed from their positions, and loudly encouraged to leave Poland and "go to Zion" all this despite the palpable admiration of Israel's victory over the Soviet-armed Arabs. In the matter of the Jews, the official communist propaganda, usually so ineffective, seemed to have struck a responsive chord.

I discovered also the existence of a peculiar zone of silence surrounding everything that touched upon Polish-Jewish relations, especially during World War II. There were no books on the subject, no serious historical studies, no archives open to researchers. The issue barely existed in postwar Polish literature and art. Of course, there were many other blank spots in the official version of Polish history, but this one seemed different. It encompassed not only officially sanctioned speech, but also private conversations with parents, neighbors, and trusted older friends. Even people known for their intellectual honesty and moral courage seemed to speak about these matters reluctantly; and their awkwardness suggested that they lacked the proper language to express things that they must have known from their own experience.

At school the subject was treated with a peculiar hastiness, without the usual discussion points and extra-curricular reading lists. We knew only that during the war Poles often helped Jews, despite the fact that such acts were punishable by death not only for the person directly involved, but also often for that person's entire family, household, or village. We were taken on school trips to Auschwitz, where we were shown the nightmarish heaps of clothes, shoes, eyeglasses, and hair the tokens of Nazi crimes "against humanity." Yet the list of nationalities that perished in the ovens did not include "Jews," and "Poland" had the largest number printed next to its name. Some of those Poles, we were told, were probably Jews. Did we really need to know how many? It was all in the past. Why stir up unpleasant memories or bother oneself with such details?

Since that time, much has changed in Poland's approach to its Jewish past. There is genuine interest, especially among the younger generations, in Jewish culture, Jewish religion, and Jewish thought. There are Judaica sections in Polish bookstores, and films and cultural events featuring Jewish subjects are followed with considerable interest, and it is almost a point of honor to be invited by one's Jewish friends to a Hanukkah meal or a "real" Jewish wedding. And yet there are still precincts of Polish collective memory in which facts are distorted, hushed up, or simply repressed. The achievement of this powerful new book by Jan T. Gross a veteran of the 1968 student demonstrations in Poland is that it makes it impossible any longer to avoid looking into the forbidden zone.

Neighbors describes an atrocity committed sixty years ago that at first shocks with its familiarity. On July 10, 1941, soon after the German invasion, Jews from a little town in eastern Poland, all 1,600 of them, were dragged from their homes, humiliated, tortured, and then executed burned alive in the barn of a local peasant. A horrifying crime, no doubt; and yet a mere footnote to what we know today about the Holocaust. But not quite a footnote, perhaps. For this particular anti-Jewish atrocity in wartime Poland was different: these murders were perpetrated not by a German Einsatzgruppe, but by a mob of Polish civilians.

The Jews of Jedwabne, a village some 40 miles west of Bialystok, were murdered by their Polish neighbors. Those neighbors turned almost overnight into very willing, and unspeakably brutal, executioners. And until now the participation of Poles in this massacre has been denied: even a memorial plaque erected in Jedwabne in 1962 blamed the destruction of the town's Jewish population on the Gestapo and German police units. (During the furor that followed the publication of Neighbors in Poland about a year ago, the plaque was removed.)

What really happened in Jedwabne, as indicated by the documents unearthed by Gross, has deep and tangled roots that, like almost everything that touches upon Polish-Jewish relations, reach centuries back. For practical reasons, one may begin the historical explanation with the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, signed on the eve of World War II, which divided Poland into German and Russian spheres of occupation. The Soviet zone covered much of the territory that Moscow had long considered its legitimate buffer zone. It also happened to include most of the old Jewish settlements in Poland. For Polish Jews, the pact was a lucky development. Though they were subjected to property confiscations, deportations, and other forms of Soviet political harassment, they were spared for the time being the fate of their friends and their relatives in the German zone.

The Germans occupied Jedwabne briefly in 1939, burning a synagogue in the process, but they withdrew three weeks later and yielded the town to "friendly" Soviet troops. The Polish population quickly organized an anti-Soviet resistance, which consisted of several partisan units operating from the neighboring marshlands. The Soviet security forces quickly crushed them. The traitor who led the Soviet enemy to his fellow fighters seems to have been a Pole, but the Poles nevertheless blamed the Jews. Arrests, executions, and deportations followed.

It is quite possible, though documents and testimonies are scarce, that in carrying out those repressions the Soviets used local collaborators mostly communists or communist sympathizers and that some of them were Jews. Although communists were a small minority among Polish Jewry, and traditional Jewish communities looked on the materialist and messianic heresy with abhorrence, Jews had a higher proportional representation in communist organizations, and in the leadership of those organizations, than their Polish neighbors. Before the war, the dominant political force among local Poles was the National Democratic Party, which openly called for the removal of Jews from Polish lands.

When, in 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and the Germans started pushing eastward, the unprepared Soviets quickly packed up and ran, probably taking with them most of the collaborators. Gross's story begins shortly after June 25, 1941, the day German units occupied Jedwabne. During this tense, chaotic time of transition, the first attacks on Jews took place. It did not take the Germans long to notice that, unlike in the Polish territories taken in 1939, Poles from the former Soviet zone greeted them without much hostility. Sometimes they were even welcomed as "liberators," releasing the Poles from the hands of the Soviet commissars. As indicated in several dispatches from the front, the Germans likewise observed that Poles seemed to share their enmity towards Jews, and quite easily absorbed Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. The occupying forces grasped that anti-Semitism was useful for their purposes.

On July 10, 1941, the Germans called a meeting with the Jedwabne authorities. The Poles apparently agreed to help the Germans round up Jews, and to guard them in the town's marketplace. It seems that the locals who reported for the job did so willingly. There were also volunteers from neighboring villages, who came to town in their horse-drawn carts. Then things got out of hand. During the round-up Jews were beaten and humiliated, then savagely tortured, and finally killed with knives, stakes, iron pipes, and stones. (The Germans refused to supply the Poles with firearms.) Those who tried to escape were chased on horseback and dragged back. Some victims were mutilated and dismembered, or buried alive. There was at least one reported rape. A witness testified that a group of men played ball with the severed head of a girl. A rabbi was ordered to march around with a red flag. At some point during the pandemonium, a musical ensemble was rustled up to drown out the screams of the victims. Finally those who were still able to walk were marched through the town, packed into a barn, and burned alive.

Who did all this? The answer, writes Gross, is that "half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half some 1,600 men, women, and children." In various sources ninety-two participants were identified by name, and according to Gross's calculations, they constituted roughly 50 percent of the adult male Polish population of Jedwabne. Most of them must have been average citizens of this poor, deeply provincial part of Poland:

In Jedwabne ordinary Poles slaughtered the Jews, very much as ordinary Germans from the Ordnungspolizei Battalion no. 101 did in Jozefow, as documented in Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men. They were men of all ages and of different professions; entire families on occasion, fathers and sons acting in concert; good citizens, one is tempted to say (if sarcasm were not out of place, given the hideousness of their deeds), who heeded the call of municipal authorities. And what the Jews saw, to their horror and, I dare say, incomprehension, were familiar faces. Not anonymous men in uniform, cogs in a war machine, agents carrying out orders, but their own neighbors, who chose to kill and were engaged in a bloody pogrom willing executioners.

Germans were present, too, but as amused witnesses, not as active participants. They mixed with the crowd, or stood on the sidelines taking photographs and shooting films. Nobody has discovered those obscene materials, but Gross believes that they may still exist, and so one day we may view the horror with our own eyes.

But there is no dearth of other documentation, and much of it must have been known of for years. The story of Jedwabne was told immediately after the war by Szmul Wasersztajn, one of several Jews saved by Antonina Wyrzykowska, a Polish woman who was one of the very few "righteous gentiles" from this area. Wasersztajn's testimony was deposited in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and it was later used in a criminal case brought against some of the perpetrators in 1949. Twenty-one people were tried, and nine were convicted and given sentences of anywhere from eight to fifteen years in prison. One person was sentenced to death, though in Gross's view his culpability was less than certain. Testimonies of the accused and of witnesses, which mostly corroborated Wasersztajn's version, were preserved in legal archives. In 1980, a Jedwabne memorial volume was published in Israel and the United States, and it is today available on the Internet.

Of course, the memory of the horrible incident persisted in Jedwabne among eyewitnesses, and their children, and even their grandchildren. Several Polish historians who took part in the passionate and often vitriolic debate that surrounded the publication of Gross's book in Poland displayed a surprising familiarity with the details of the crime. And yet for all those years, not only under communism but also after its fall, an event of this magnitude was never considered worthy of scholarly inquiry. It remained buried deep within the "silent zone" of the Polish mind.

This may have been because the word "pogrom" is almost unutterable in Poland. Pogroms belong to the threatening, cruel domain of the East, to Russia and Ukraine and Belarus. Poland, in the mind of the Poles, is squarely rooted in the West; it is the bulwark of the West, the first and last line of defense of true civilization. Even the notion of anti-Semitism occupies a curious blind spot in the Poles' otherwise sharp historical vision. Poland had powerful political parties that openly preached the hatred of Jews; and the Catholic Church in Poland perpetuated anti-Jewish prejudices; and the anti-Jewish rants sometimes reached even the highest strata of Polish culture; and during the interwar period of independence there existed written and unwritten anti-Jewish laws; and violence against Jews was practiced brazenly and often with impunity: all this may be admissible. But there was no anti-Semitism! The very mention of the term still provokes indignant denials, and charges that one is trafficking in accusations of collective guilt.

Gross seems aware of how volatile and sensitive his compatriots' feelings on this subject can be. He stresses that probably none of what happened in Jedwabne would have taken place without the German presence in the town. Throughout the massacre, the Germans remained firmly in control. They likely set the events in motion, and they could have stopped them: "the tragedy of Jedwabne Jewry is but an episode in the murderous war that Hitler waged against all Jews." Elsewhere Gross writes of the moral chaos, the "institutionalization of resentment" into which both totalitarian systems plunged eastern Poland; and the ghosts of Hitler and Stalin do indeed hover over the Jedwabne massacre.

But Gross is right to note the presence also of Polish demons. Pogroms do not just happen. They are paroxysms of hate that has simmered for a long time, long enough to engulf considerable sections of a society; and they must be organized. "We must be clearheaded enough to remember," Gross observes, "that for each killing only a specific murderer or group of murderers is responsible. But we nevertheless might be compelled to investigate what makes a nation (as in `the Germans') capable of carrying out such deeds." What would be worth investigating, for example, is the history of Polish nationalism and its gradual (and to Poles all but imperceptible) contamination with hatred. It would be useful to have a critical look at the weak points of the Polish concept of nationhood, which is understood as a community of language, culture, and faith. And a thing or two could be said about the spiritual model of Polish Catholicism, and about the chasm that was allowed to grow between Poles and Jews until it was possible for the former to understand the latter as being beyond the pale of human commonality.

That many Poles are still steering clear of such reflections was made plain during the public debate that ensued upon the publication of Gross's book in Poland. Some people received it without objection. Some people, mostly on the extreme right, rejected it as yet another instance of Jews slandering Poles, or accused the author of having ulterior motives. ("It must have something to do with Jewish property claims," suggested one of the readers.) One of the most startling statements of this kind came from former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. In a radio interview, Walesa called Gross a "mediocre writer," a "loser," and a "Jew who tries to make money" by sowing discord between Poles and Jews. The majority accepted the basic facts, but clearly hoped that under scrutiny the whole event would eventually prove to be less rooted in irrational anti-Jewish resentments than it seemed.

Some proposed, for example, that robbery was the real motive for the massacre, because "Jews controlled all stores and warehouses." Others suggested that the role of Germans must have been larger than Gross admits, or that a gang of bandits had terrorized the rest of the Poles. (Apparently a few Poles in Jedwabne pleaded for mercy for the Jews, but there are no indications of any attempts at forceful resistance.) Still others obsessively dwelled on minute details, as if expecting that some small discrepancy in the testimonies would magically undo Gross's whole case. Thus one polemicist, Slawomir Radon of the National Remembrance Institute, was perplexed that Gross did not account for the presence of the gasoline used to set the barn on fire. How was it obtained, when there were fuel shortages? Was it sold to the rioters, and if so, by whom? Other historians, such as Tomasz Szarota of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, questioned the reliability of eyewitnesses due to the "emotionally disturbing character of the related events," or hinted that the massacre was able to take place only because of the victims' passivity. (As proof of this alleged submissiveness, Szarota quotes the words of one Jedwabne Jew, whom the killers wanted to spare but who chose to remain in the barn, saying, "Wherever my rabbi goes, I shall go.")

Probably the most prominent of the Polish historians to take part in the debate, Tomasz Strembosz of Lublin's Catholic University, published an essay in Rzeczpospolita, one of Poland's largest daily newspapers, in which, while averring that nothing could justify the savagery of the crime, he insisted that the widespread collaboration of the Jews with the Soviets that was the way he put it was a necessary context in which to understand the events. Strembosz, an expert on the wartime history of eastern Poland, suggested that what happened in Jedwabne was not an eruption of anti-Jewish hatred, but an understandable, though unjustifiable, act of political retribution. It is worth remembering that a similar argument was often evoked to explain Polish hostility toward Jews after the war: Jews were supposed to enjoy a privileged relationship with the communist authorities. After all, communism itself was a "Jewish thing." Indeed, this was what the National Democrats preached before the war that communism was nothing but a Jewish plot, a "Judeo-Commune," the greatest threat to Polish independence and Polish identity.

It is a fact that during the worst years of Stalinism in Poland the dreaded Ministry of Public Security was run by several Jews. One can speculate about the elaborate games that Stalin played in his Polish province. It is quite possible that he was planting those individuals in such prominent and universally hated positions so as to position them as future lightning rods that could be used, in case of emergency, to channel popular resentment into mere anti-Semitic outbursts, which would be less threatening to the communist structure of power. And there must also have been Jews among the Soviet collaborators in Jedwabne.

But if this was what incited Poles to slaughter the town's entire Jewish population, then the spark must have fallen on very combustible ground. It takes an anti-Semite to see a Jewish communist or a Jewish collaborator as acting on behalf of all Jews. Documents quoted by Strembosz clearly indicate that the Soviets recruited both Jewish and Polish sympathizers, who worked in concert implementing the new order, formed auxiliary police units and "proletarian guards," and occasionally meted out summary justice against the "enemies of the people" and yet he speaks consistently about "Jewish collaboration." But when the Polish population starts looting property after the Soviet withdrawal, they are plundering "Soviet stores and depots," not Jewish stores and depots. Thus the bad things that Jews do, they do as Jews; but they suffer always as somebody else. If this kind of logic can surface in the writing of a prominent Polish scholar, what must the semi-literate nationalists from Jedwabne have thought?

Gross advances an interesting and plausible theory about Jewish collaboration with the Soviets and the Germans during the war, and later with the Stalinist regime. He proposes that "communities where Jews had been murdered by local inhabitants during the war were especially vulnerable to sovietization." For totalitarianism always needs a degree of social atomization, the breakdown of basic human bonds of solidarity and trust. Towns and villages where anti-Semitism was rampant, and where some people had blood on their hands, were already in a state of moral disintegration. Members of such communities were easily blackmailed, controlled, set against their kin. Should this hypothesis be correct, Gross says, one could posit that, contrary to Polish conventional wisdom, "anti-Semites rather than Jews were instrumental in establishing the Communist regime in Poland after the war."

Such truths are especially difficult to accept for a nation in transition such as Poland today, struggling to achieve the status of equal partner in the global community. Perhaps that is why so many people, even those who accepted not only Gross's historical account of events but also its moral meaning, expressed regret that Neighbors is being published in the West, where it could irreparably damage Poland's image. It could even provoke an anti-Polish campaign, they warned, or a new brand of historical revisionism, in which Poles would be presented together with Germans as jointly responsible for the Holocaust. This camp included Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, former director of the Polish service of Radio Free Europe and one of the most respected leaders of the Polish community in America. While stating that Poles should face the horror of Jedwabne squarely and should resist the temptation to look for moral loopholes, Nowak-Jezioranski warned nevertheless that there exist among Western Jews, especially American Jews, "extreme chauvinists and sworn enemies of Poland, who equal in their rancor Polish militant anti-Semites." Such Jews, Nowak-Jezioranski and many others argued, may use Gross's book as proof that Poles are even more anti-Semitic than Germans or Russians.

So even the apologies and the public gestures of contrition that surfaced in Polish society were mixed with old stereotypes of hate-filled Jews waiting for the opportunity to exonerate the Germans and to blame the Holocaust on the Poles. But this endless obsession about "image" disguises the true problem that Gross's book poses for Poles. What really matters is not how others view them, but how they must view themselves. Gross is right to suggest that the whole sphere of PolishJewish relations simply did not fit into the established Polish narrative of innocent, heroic suffering. "The memory, indeed the symbolism, of collective, national martyrology during the Second World War," he writes, "is paramount for the self-understanding of Polish society in the twentieth century." Poles want to regard their experience during the war as a direct continuation of a centuries-old pattern of noble resistance to foreign oppression as the romantic epic of a noble nation struggling against barbarian hordes.

It is a rather simple narrative, with the roles of villains and heroes neatly defined and quickly recognizable. Conflicts are easily divided into "us" and "them," the forces of good and the forces of evil. And there are no third parties or other complicating factors: whatever is not "us" and not "them" is incidental, a footnote at best. But the narrative proved too simple to flourish unchallenged by reality. While re-living this mythic drama during World War II and the German occupation, the Poles encountered something both unexpected and deeply disorienting something that certainly did not fit the pattern. Simultaneous with their own immense suffering, they beheld the annihilation of another people.

It is as if two wars were taking place in the same geographical area: a war against the Poles and a war against the Jews. They were separate wars, and yet they became entangled in an uncanny tapestry of human fates. And to complicate things even further, the "other" victims were a people about whom the Poles had always had ambiguous feelings. Indeed, they were a people whose disappearance though certainly not in such a brutal and horrifying way many Poles openly desired.

We do not know, of course, how this complication imprinted itself on the minds of average Poles. From what we do know, it is possible to conclude that between the heroism of some and the wickedness of others there stretched a vast sea of moral and emotional opacity, of dim and contradictory feelings, of callousness, contempt, compassion, denial, guilt; of actions and inactions whose motives were equally obscure and unnamable. Testimonies of Jewish survivors in Poland and those who survived in Poland owed their survival to the assistance of Poles often mention the hesitation with which they approached even those Poles whom they considered their friends before the war, and the strange misgivings that they felt about those who risked their lives for them. Poles sometimes call it a lack of gratitude, or "Jewish over-sensitivity"; but in those days everything must have looked twisted, clouded, unintelligible. Perhaps even Poles saw themselves as strange, mysterious, unknowable not at all like the bright and simple nation that they knew from their prayer books and their national legends.

The old narrative was broken; and this should have marked the end of innocence, and the beginning of maturity. But the romantic legend of Poland was revived after the war. After all, Poland was once again in bondage, and once again there was a demand for myths about a nation that, by the strength of its own purity, would triumph at last. We can never know this with any certainty, but it is at least possible that the zone of silence about Poles and Jews and all that had happened and was happening between them was conceived and constructed as a dam against the dimension of Polish experience that could undermine the cherished and protective myth.

But now the time of maturity has truly come. We are three generations away from the war, and the Polish nation really has survived. Political freedom begets the moral obligation of intellectual freedom. Today's Poles have no need to feel that they are guilty of the sins of their grandfathers. And collective apologies, which some have suggested, seem rather meaningless. We know that Polish history was not only about anti-Semitism, and that even the history of Polish-Jewish cohabitation in Poland cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional chronicle of unhappiness. But the obstacle has to be surmounted, somehow.

Gross's book has proved, among other things, that the existence of the silent zone is more troubling to Poles than to anyone else. It is a constant moral and social irritant, a cause of pointless recriminations and irrational fears. As Gross writes at the end of his book, the history of a nation is a biography in which everything connects with everything else:

And if at some point in this collective biography a big lie is situated, then everything that comes afterward will be devoid of authenticity and laced with fear of discovery. And instead of living their own lives, members of such a community will be suspiciously glancing over their shoulders, trying to guess what others think about what they are doing. They will keep diverting attention from shameful episodes buried in the past and go on "defending Poland's good name," no matter what. They will take all setbacks and difficulties to be a consequence of deliberate enemy conspiracies. Poland is not an exception in this respect among European countries. And like several other nations, in order to reclaim its own past, Poland will have to tell its past to itself anew.

With the appearance of this extraordinary book, the telling has finally begun.

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