AMONG the most shocking atrocities of the Second World War was the massacre at Jedwabne on July 10, 1941.
On that day the hundreds of Jews in this small Polish town were rounded up and burnt alive in a barn.
Massacres of Jews in German-occupied Poland were not unusual and the inscription on the postwar memorial in Jedwabne read: “Place of Execution of Jewish Population. Gestapo and Hitler’s Police Burned 1,600 People Alive, July 1941.” But the Jews of Jedwabne were not killed by the Nazis.
They were murdered by their Polish neighbours. Indeed, Jedwabne was the third in a series of massacres of local Jews committed by Poles. The week before the Jedwabne killings, 250 Jews were murdered during a house-to-house killing spree in the nearby village of Wasosz.
Only two days after that on July 7, some 500 Jewish inhabitants in the town of Radzilow were rounded up and burnt to death in a barn — a crime that became the template for the horrifyingly similar events in Jedwabne.
In each event, Poles were the perpetrators and their aim was genocidal — to kill all the local Jews.
The Radzilow and Wasosz massacres were actively promoted by the Germans but the Jedwabne killings were initiated by Poles. Up to 100 townsfolk took part in the murders, led by the town’s mayor Marian Karolak who was joined by others of Jedwabne’s social and political elite.
In the postwar period some trials of Poles accused of killing Jews did take place but they were handled badly by the communist authorities and served to reinforce the fiction that Germans should bear the main responsibility for these massacres.
This seemed a perfectly believable story given the millions of Polish Jews who were killed by the Germans. However, the myth was shattered in 2000 with the publication of Jan T Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne.
When Gross, a half-Jewish Polish-American historian, first heard the story of Jedwabne, he found it hard to believe. Yet when he re-examined the evidence and testimony given in the postwar trails he concluded the local Poles were not mere auxiliaries in these crimes but were the main culprits.
Gross’s book caused a furore in Poland and unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic protest. In Jedwabne the local citizenry formed a committee to defend the town’s good name and resisted the erection of a new memorial that pointed the finger of guilt at Poles. They boycotted the unveiling ceremony and vehemently rejected Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski’s apology for the atrocity.
The author Anna Bikont is a prominent Polish journalist who helped to found Gazeta Wyborcza, a newspaper originating in the 1980s Solidarity movement in Poland.
Bikont is also half-Jewish although it was not until adulthood that she discovered this, her mother having survived the war by marrying a Pole and acquiring Aryan identity papers.
Bikont went to Jedwabne to gauge local reactions to the Gross book. She found widespread denial of Polish guilt and scant sympathy for the Jewish victims of the massacres.
The prevailing story locally was the Germans had killed the Jews — evidence suggesting otherwise was rejected — also that the fuss caused by Gross’s book was a Jewish plot to secure compensation from the state for property lost during the war.
Foremost among the deniers was local Catholic priest, Father Edward Orlowski, who demanded that Gross be put on trial for his lies. Orlowski was not the only member of the Catholic clergy in Poland to express such views, although Primate Glemp condemned the massacre and asked for forgiveness. As Bikont points out, before the war there were two bastions of Polish anti-Semitism — ultra-nationalism and the Catholic Church — and it seems little has changed.
Bikont’s book consists of a mixture of journal extracts, interviews, testimony and analysis. At its heart are the diaries in which she recorded her encounters with the witnesses, survivors and perpetrators of the massacres.
Bikont’s quest for the truth about Jedwabne, Radzilow and Wasosz turned out to be long and tortuous, not least because much of the witness testimony had become tainted by myth and misrepresentation. Broadly, she agrees with Gross’s interpretation of what happened but tells a more complex and subtle story.
Bikont’s search to discover an explanation for the massacres begins with an account of prewar Poland’s pervasive anti-Semitism, which proved to be fertile ground for Nazi dogma. She then turns her attention to what she identifies as the key to events — the Soviet occupation of the Jedwabne area from 1939 to 1941.
In 1939. Hitler and Stalin divided Poland between them and Jedwabne came under Soviet occupation, where it remained until the Nazi dictator invaded the USSR in June 1941. For Jews, Soviet-occupied Poland was better than being under the Nazis — at least they had a chance to survive. For Poles, however, the division meant persecution and loss of nationhood as the Soviets violently imposed a new social order.
Hundreds of thousands of Poles were arrested, imprisoned, executed or deported. Polish identity was suppressed by incorporating Poland’s eastern territories into Belorussia and Ukraine (where they remain to this day although not Jedwabne, which the Soviets handed back to the Poles after the war).
The Jewish community also suffered greatly during the Soviet occupation but not as badly as Poles, who increasingly accused Jews of being communist collaborators. In truth, there were as few Jewish collaborators with the Soviets as there were Polish ones.
When the Germans invaded in summer 1941 Poles welcomed them as liberators from communist rule. The Nazi-led forces were happy to fan the flames of anti-Semitism so the massacres in the Jedwabne area came about as a result of the fatal convergence of Nazi persecution of the Jews combined with prejudiced Polish resentment about the alleged behaviour of the Jewish community during the Soviet occupation.
Bikont’s narrative includes heroes as well as villains. Krzysztof Godlewski, mayor of Jedwabne when Gross’s book was published, immediately went to lay a wreath at the memorial.
In the face of virulent opposition from his own town council he fought to facilitate the construction of a new memorial and attended the opening ceremony. Eventually forced to resign, he remained unrepentant.
Szmul Wasersztajn, was a Jedwabne Jew who witnessed the massacre, and without whose testimony (first given in April 1945), it is unlikely the extent of Polish involvement would have come to light. During the controversy about the Gross book Wasersztajn was vilified as someone who had joined the communist Polish secret police after the war. In fact, he had emigrated first to Cuba and then to Costa Rica, where he died in 2000. Wasersztajn’s life was saved by Antonina Wyrzkowska, who helped hide Jews during the war, as did many other Poles.
Wyrzkowska was given the Righteous among the Nations medal by Israel but her daughter threw the award in the rubbish while her son wanted to know why the Jews she had saved did not give her some money.
Bikont spent many hours discussing the case with Radoslaw Ignatiew, the prosecutor appointed by the Polish government to investigate the massacres, although Ignatiew was careful to keep his distance from her and from everyone else during the investigation.
Ignatiew concluded Poles had committed the atrocities but believed most townsfolk and villagers had been passive onlookers. He scaled down the numbers massacred in Jedwabne to a few hundred.
While his conclusions have been challenged by partisans from every side of the debate, his investigation and report remain models of objectivity and it is with his words that Bikont ends her book.
The Polish edition of this book was awarded the European Book Prize as well as Poland’s Polityka Award. This fine English translation by Alissa Valles will bring Bikont’s powerful but disturbing narrative to a broader audience.
Among the most unsettling of Bikont’s conclusions is that the Poles who committed these atrocities were often patriots who were willing to give their lives for their country — but theirs was a patriotism that had been “poisoned somewhere along the way”.
The last word in this review goes to Leszek Dziedzic, one of the few contemporary residents of Jedwabne to speak out against the massacres. According to Dzeidzic the notion that Jews were informers during the Soviet occupation is just an excuse. The motivation for the murders was money — the looting of Jewish property.
When told by some locals that such talk was unpatriotic, Dzeudzic replied: “I’m not a murderer’s patriot, but a patriot of my country, and I’m not betraying my homeland, only the murderers.”
* Geoffrey Roberts is professor of History at UCC.
The Crime and the Silence
A Quest for the Truth of a Wartime Massacre
William Heinemann, €26.50