On July 10th, 1941, in the Polish town of Jedwabne, at least 340 Jewish citizens were murdered – burned to death in a locked barn after having been publicly beaten and humiliated in the town square ‑ not, as one might have expected, by the country’s Nazi occupiers but by a group of twenty-three Polish men, acting, more or less enthusiastically (“more” seems likely), at the instigation of the German gendarmerie, who were on hand to shoot down anyone who tried to escape from the barn.
The Jedwabne murders – and a dispute over what actually happened in the town, how many died, who exactly was responsible and whether or not any “contextualising” circumstances or “back story” should be taken into account ‑ have continued to provoke controversy in Poland and among Jewish and Polish communities in the United States, principally since the publication of Jan T Gross’s book Neighbors in 2001. Gross claimed a death toll of 1,600 and contended that Poles bore sole responsibility for the killings. In 2003, The Neighbors Respond, a comprehensive collection of impressively argued articles from differing points of view, many of which had first appeared in the Polish press, was published. The newspaper Rzeczpospolita at the time listed over 130 articles in Polish on the massacre. One of the contributors to The Neighbors Respond was Anna Bikont, who worked in the democratic opposition in Poland from the late 1970s and was one of the founders of the country’s leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, which emerged from the Solidarity movement. In 2004 Bikont published the fruit of her research on Jedwabne, My z Jedwabnego, which, translated into French as Le Crime et le Silence, won the European Book Prize in 2011. It has now been translated into English as The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30) and is reviewed by Julian Barnes in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. He writes:
[A] reader to whom Bikont showed her manuscript had this response: “For me the hardest thing to bear is not that the Jews were massacred in Jedwabne and the area, but that it was done with such cruelty and that the killing gave so much joy.” This is indeed the hardest part to stomach, the part that quietly urges you to give up on humanity, yielding to a dismay that this is probably what we are all like, or all capable of being like, at some level, underneath. The joy, the mockery, the exultation of slaughter, and then the shamelessness of the killer’s wife turning up at church on Sunday in a looted fur coat only recently worn to synagogue.
It is this relish for killing and the flaunting of spoils that asks us the hardest question. We can identify proximate causes of what happened: the extreme anti-Semitism of public life, the moral trahison of the professional classes, the particular circumstances by which Jedwabne and nearby towns changed hands in wartime, the age-long resentment of those who are different, and so on. These are the small “whys,” which lead us to an overwhelming “why”—one at which language as well as thought often fails. Given that most of those involved, on both sides, had and have religious belief, or at least religious observance, the question looms the greater. “I just don’t know where God was at that moment,” commented a Catholic Pole who saved and subsequently married a Jewish woman.
Another witness, after running through the accumulated prompts (including his sarcastic admission that things had already “turned out well in Radziłów [another site of massacre], they’re rid of the problem”), concluded: “And finally, fourth, Satan got into the town.” A similar explanation is given to account for the bad faith, lies, and anti-Semitism of a hitherto admired Polish historian, Tomasz Strzembosz. A fellow historian and friend explained that “the Jedwabne affair awoke a demon in this traditional Polish patriot.”
God taking leave of absence for a day? Satan slipping into town? Demons awakening? For those with a nonreligious, and more mechanistic view of the world, explanation might be slightly easier, though no less bleak. It will tend to be located in a lack—a loss—of the imagination, a kind of mass autism, and a habituation to the banality of evil. A Pole whose mother had hidden two Jewish children on the day of the massacre remembered that as a boy he had taken sand from Jewish graves and stones from the burned barn for the foundation of his family’s house …
But it goes beyond historic prejudice, moral indifference, plus a coveting of your neighbor’s goods. One of the killers is quoted drunkenly boasting that “a man to me is nothing more than a whistling of the air.” And we are back to the “joy” in and within the slaughter. As the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising put it, “There’s something in man that makes him like killing.”
We talk a lot of “coming to terms with the past”. But are we – consumers of written history ‑ not just as often concerned to raid it for justifications for what we already know to be the truth? Professional historians must come to terms with it certainly, and must evaluate both evidence – what exactly, in so far as we can now establish it, happened? – and context – is there something in the lead-up to the events being recounted which helps to explain them or without which one might be to a large degree at a loss to explain them? Many Polish historians have rejected Jan T Gross’s version of events, both because of his apparent acceptance of oral testimony from survivors – sometimes survivors who were not eye witnesses ‑ without sufficient corroboration and because of his elision of an historical context in which “the Jews” were seen as having recently been enthusiastic collaborators with the Russian NKVD secret police and thus complicit in the deportations and deaths of many Polish (Catholic) citizens in the “Soviet” period (1939-41) immediately predating German occupation of Jedwabne. Other Polish historians have argued that a context which may help partially explain an atrocity does not begin to excuse it and point to a longer tradition of Polish anti-Semitism, particularly virulent in the 1920s and 1930s, much of it sponsored by the Catholic church, or elements within that church, frequently the most senior ones.
Anna Bikont has argued that Poland has done more than almost any other nation that finds itself in similar circumstances to “come to terms” with the unsavoury aspects of its history (which also must of course be considered beside the tragic aspects, those aspects in which it was a victim of its voracious neighbours). Barnes is not so sure. Perhaps Bikont’s praise is more deserved by a number of courageous and independent historians and intellectuals, motivated by professional scrupulousness and the voice of conscience (often the voice of Christian and Catholic conscience) than it is by the people as a whole. Barnes writes:
[Bikont] reports the findings of a Polish sociologist that “after the Jedwabne affair flared up, the number of anti-Semites in Poland increased significantly. Why? Jedwabne sharpened our sense of competitive suffering.” Holocaust-denial remains: in 2002 a survey showed that only 14 percent of Poles believed that in Auschwitz they mainly killed Jews (90 percent of those killed there were Jews). Bikont herself—who as an adult discovered by chance that her mother was Jewish—is frequently denounced: as “polonivorous,” a “chief Jewish slanderer,” and a “journalistic hyena.” At various points the reader fears for her safety …
The town of Jedwabne remains, by her own account, negationist. The signpost to the site of martyrdom has been removed; the new monument to the victims has been vandalized with green-painted swastikas and the slogan “They Were Flammable.” A counter-monument to ethnic Poles deported during the war now stands in the marketplace … Two of the town’s truth-tellers and principal witnesses have emigrated to the US. (One of them, [former mayor Krzysztof] Godlewski, dismayingly reports that in its anti-Semitism “Jedwabne is nothing compared to Chicago.”)