Neighbors. The Crime and the Silence; Massacre… Poland.

The Crime and the Silence; Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne by Anna Bikont and Alissa Valles, trans. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016.

Neighbors; The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan Gross. Penguin, 2016 paper.

Anna Bikont is a journalist who writes for the Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw’s leading newspaper. The Crime and the Silence was first published in Polish in 2004. It is a record of her discoveries as an investigative reporter looking into the events of July 1941.  She began work on the story in the spring of 2001 and finished three years later, after trips to Israel, New York City, and Buenos Aires to visit their expatriate Polish-Jewish communities.

Jan Gross’s Neighbors; The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland was published by Princeton University Press in 2001 and was a National Book Award finalist. Both were available in Poland at about the same time.

In the 1960s a commemorative monument was placed in Jedwabne town square with the inscription: “Site of the Suffering of the Jewish Population. The Gestapo and the Nazi gendarmerie Burned Alive 1600 People on 10 July 1941.” (The monument has since been defaced with a swastika and other graffiti.)

There are several ‘misrepresentations’ of that day in the inscription. The number killed was more likely between 200 and 340. The 1600 figure would, however, be a rough estimate of the total number of Jews killed on the day of the atrocity and several days before and after. Or that larger number might also be countig Jews from surrounding towns that were herded into the Jedwabne square.

Also both Bikont and Gross reject the implication that the Nazi Gestapo and various German paramilitary groups were responsible. There were Germans present on that day, and perhaps they urged the Poles to put to death their “Jewish neighbors.” But the killing was done by Poles, often by Poles that the Jewish victims knew, hence ‘neighbors.’ They were killed with axes and scythes, weapons available to the Poles. To expedite the killing, Jews were forced into a nearby barn, which was then set on fire.

At the same time, many Poles were hiding Jews from the Germans and from those Polish ‘neighbors.’ This was dangerous business. If a Polish household were found to be hiding Jews, the Jews and the entire Polish family would be immediately shot by the Germans.  A recent film “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on a novel by Diane Ackerman, is a good portrayal of the risk involved and the bravery on the part of many Poles.

Poland had been divided into two occupation zones after the Russian and German joint invasion of Poland in September 1939. Most of the two districts involved in this account were occupied and administered by the Russians. Under Russian communism both the land and the economy were nationalized. Poles supported Russian-style social reforms were appointed to the new administrative offices. Jews had been excluded from public office under the older Polish regime and now took advantage of the new situation to obtain appointments. Hence the Jewish “collaboration” with the Russians.

In June 1941 German armies invaded Russia through Poland. They were welcomed in Poland as liberators. The Jewish involvement with the Russians was added to a highly combustible anti-Semitism. The Jews were said to have fingered Poles who had been friendly with the Russians. Thus a burning barn and public killing of these collaborating Jews. And then all Jews.

Both authors give details of the slaughter and the brutality involved. Just one story, perhaps a composite. A Jewish man and his young daughter had not been found until after most of the Jews in the square were forced inside the barn and it was set afire. His throat was cut in front of his daughter, and while he was still alive to witness it, his daughter was thrown into the fire.

After World War II, there were numerous investigations – hearings – where evidence was collected of Polish complicity. But Poland was now subject to another Russian occupation and another version of the slaughter to add to the Jewish, Polish, and German. It is no wonder that “truth” was given the silent treatment. And the Poles were not required to confront the enormity of their crimes. Poles are still reluctant to tell stories that they heard from their mothers and grandmothers.

Often if pressed, the locals will admit that household goods were stolen from vacant Jewish property. Jews, largely traders and shopkeepers, were wealthier than the Polish peasants and tradesmen they lived amongst. Hence acquiring some of those possessions would have been a motive for the murder of their owners.

There is no good answer to the question: Why certain Poles and certain communities murdered their Jewish neighbors and others did not? Bikont is inclined to think that there was a strong correlation between these anti-Semitic Poles and families of men who had participated in the Home Army, particularly in the districts occupied by the Russians.

What surprised Bikont was the lingering Anti-Semitism she continued to confront when she did her interviewing of the locals in the early 2000s. Some potential interviews would literally slam the door in her face. “That doesn’t concern me.” Or “Gross has written a pack of lies.” Amongst German allies in World War II, Poland lags in its restitution payments.

Many Jedwabne Jews did escape, either by migration to Palestine, or Argentina, or to New York. Immigrants in the US from Jedwabne built a synagogue in the Lower East Side on Henry Street, now the Congregation Anshe Yedwabne.

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