A horrendous tale of neighbors


Jedwabne: A book recounting the massacre of 1,600 Jews in a small town prompts soul-searching among the Polish people.

April 22, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

On July 10, 1941, just 18 days after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and World War II once again surged through Poland, about half the people in the small backwater town named Jedwabne murdered the other half.

The town was then under German control but it was Jedwabne Poles armed with atavistic weapons - spiked clubs, axes, knives, stones and pitchforks - who attacked their Jewish neighbors, drove them from their homes, herded them into a barn and burned them alive.

Polish-born Jan Tomasz Gross, a professor of politics at New York University, recounts the history of this massacre of 1,600 Jedwabne Jews in a book recently released in the United States which he calls simply "Neighbors."

Published last May in Poland, "Neighbors" shocked the Polish nation into profound and prolonged soul-searching over its role in atrocities against Jews during World War II. For Gross shook one of the cherished myths of contemporary Poland.

The prevailing national image cast most Poles as victims suffering under and paralyzed by the brutal terror of the Nazi occupation, "wrapped up in their own fears and worries," as one commentator on "Neighbors" has described it, sometimes resistance fighters, observers of the Holocaust, but not perpetrators.

The inscription on a rough memorial stone just now removed from a field near Jedwabne perpetuated this national myth: "Scene of a massacre of the Jewish population. The Gestapo and German police burned 1,600 people alive."

But Gross found that in Jedwabne "ordinary Poles slaughtered the Jews. ... They were men of all ages and of different professions; entire families on occasion, fathers and sons working 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 Jews saw to their horror and, I dare say, incomprehension, were familiar faces ... their own neighbors."

In Poland, his book sparked a yearlong discussion, which has become even more intense with the American publication of his book and the broadcast there of a television documentary on Jedwabne.

The president of Poland, the prime minister, the Roman Catholic primate, the head of Poland's Institute of National Remembrance, which is investigating the Jedwabne murders, intellectuals in cafes and children at school have all joined this national discourse.

Warsaw pollsters indicate 40 percent of Poles think their president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, is right in his plan to apologize for Polish participation in the murder of Jews in Jedwabne, on the 60th anniversary of the event in July.

"People recognize this is a very important moment of truth," Gross, who is now in Poland doing new research, says during a phone interview. "I think a kind of mainstream, statesmanlike segment of public opinion is ready to acknowledge and deal with it.

"Poland has a very difficult political history," he says. "Poland was the first country that was attacked by Hitler. It was divided by Hitler and Stalin. So the losses of life - and I'm not talking of Jewish-Polish life, but just Polish-Polish life - were immense here."

And about equal: 3 million "Polish" Poles and 3 million Jewish Poles died during World War II.

"So this was part of the story of national myths," Gross says. "There was resistance, etc., etc. All of it true. But in the middle of it, unfortunately, there was this very complicated story of Polish-Jewish relations, in which on numerous occasions victimization of Jews by their Polish neighbors took place, including such horrible episodes as the one I have described."

Gross pieces his tale together from the 1945 deposition of Szmul Wasersztajn, a survivor who described the Jedwabne pogrom for a Jewish Historical Commission in Poland; the records of two rather perfunctory trials of the killers; a 1980 Jedwabne memorial book edited by two survivors, Rabbis Jacob and Julius Baker, and the documentary film directed by Agnieszka Arnold.

Wasersztajn told his story with stark simplicity: "Before the war broke out, 1,600 Jews lived in Jedwabne, and only seven survived, saved by a Polish woman, Wyrzykowski, who lived in the vicinity."

Szmul Wasersztajn was one of the seven saved by Antonina Wyrzykowski. For her trouble, after the liberation of Poland, "Antosia" Wyrzykowski was beaten black and blue by "guerillas," hounded from her home and place to place until her husband died and she "escaped across the ocean and settled in Chicago," where she lives today.

"She's really a key person in this documentary film that just played this week," Gross says. He thought the film "great, very powerful."

"It is also one more reason why this debate going on has to be honest and earnest. There is just so much visible evidence: simple people speaking about their experience, Polish peasants describing the horrors that took place," he says.

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