Why didn't Gross come to Jedwabne?
translated by: Stefan Poniecki, Calgary 2001
J E D W A B N E
On the 10th of July 1941, in the small town of Jedwabne in the vicinity of Łomża, took place a murder of Jews. Jan Tomasz Gross gave it publicity in his now famous book "Neighbours" published in Polish last year. The English edition is to appear simulatneously in different countries in April amidst vigorous advertising campaign. The author puts forward a thesis that over 1,600 Jews living in Jedwabne were murdered by their Polish neighbours. Gross is also accusing the local bishop and the Catholic clergy of indifference, if not outright refusal of succour to the Jews.
- A judgment has been pronounced without a trial. We have been slandered and spat upon - say the indignant inhabitants of Jedwabne on the 7th of February 2001 at an agitated meeting with the public prosecutor Radosław Ignatiev of the Institute of National Memory in Białystok who is conducting the investigation of the murder. He invited people from the town with the idea of inducing them to make statements. From the moment of publication of the book, Jedwabians feel that they are hounded by part of the media (in Poland and even in North America), which declared them anti-semites and murderers.
- Why didn't Gross come to Jedwabne? Why didn't he talk with us instead of assuming a priority that it is we and not the Germans who are responsible for these deaths? - they ask. They do not want to talk with journalists because they are convinced that their statements will be distorted or censored. (The names of Jedwabians and their statements are known to the Catholic Information Agency. The majority of them made statements before prosecutor Ignatiev, but those cannot be revealed until the completion of the investigation). - I request of you to relate everything that you know, everything that you have seen, what you have heard from people near to you. Only in this way will we get to the truth, this is your only chance to repulse the accusations which you consider untrue - Mr. Ignatiev appealed to the inhabitans.
CIA established that Szmul Wasersztajn, the crown witness, whose statement is the basis of reconstruction of events by Gross, after the war worked for the Office of Public Safety (U.B.)
The question of Jedwabne forces us to go back to the up to now not completely explored and unsettled period of our history of the last 60 years, a period which saw a tragic entanglement of fates of Poles, Jews, Germans, Russians, and to a lesser degree, other inhabitants living in the eastern neibouring territories of the Polish Republic. Even a superficial attempt to recreate the history of this region during World War II brings up questions which to this day have no satisfactory answers. Up to the beginning of the war in 1939 Poles and Jews lived in the eastern territories of Poland in relative amity. Of course there were individual conflicts, but those happen everywhere people live. The population of little towns on this territory very often consisted of 50% Poles and 50% Jews. This was also the case of Jedwabne before the war. It had 2,500 - 3,000 inhabitants which can be verified in existing voters list for municipal elections. Jewish and Polish children attended the same school. A participant of the meeting with Mr. Ignatiev who was 7 years old in 1941, vividly moved, remembers that he sat on the same bench with a Jew, was able to name some of his Jewish friends with whom he was not only studying, but played and was friendly with.
Problems surfaced with the outbreak of the war. Two totalitarian systems: fascism and communism released evil in people and brought upon us misfortune - says Rev. Edward Orłowski, now parish priest of Jedwabne, formerly for three years vicar to Rev. Józef Kembliński, administrator (deputy parish priest ) of the Jedwabne parish in the years 1940 - 1945.
First came the Germans. However when on the 17th of September Soviet troops invaded Poland, Germans retreated and the town came into Russian possession. In October 1939 in the neighbouring woods on the western shore of Biebrza and in Jedwabne appeared a Polish unit of resistence consisting of soldiers from central Poland and local Poles. The main organizers were the parish priest of Jedwabne Rev. Marian Szumowski and Rev. Stanisław Cutnik of Burzyn. In spite of frequent changes of billeting, the unit was dispered after a bloody engagement with the Soviet troops on the 23rd of June 1940. After its liquidation followed mass arrests by the Russians of some 250 people, including Revs. Szumowski and Rev. Cutnik.
The martyrdom of the Jews commenced with the outbreak of the German-Russian war on the 22nd of June 1941. The Germans occupied in a few days the eastern parts of Poland and at once proceeded with the liquidation of the Jews. Some were murdered on location, others e.g. from Brańsk, were taken to concentration camps or to ghettos constructed in bigger conglomerations such as Białystok. In Jedwabne they arrived probably on the 25th of June and the annihilation of the Jews took place three weeks after the start of the German-Soviet war, on the 10th of July 1941.
It is an incontestable fact that Jews who found themselves in Jedwabne were driven on to the main square, herded into a barn and burned alive. What is contested is the number of Jews killed, the sequence of events and the participation in the crime of Germans and Poles.
Credibility of Gross' version
Perusing the first few pages of Jan Tomasz Gross' book "Neighbours" one's hopes rise that here we will learn the truth about the crime of Jedwabne. The author is being introduced as a noted historian (by education he is a sociologist), professor of political sciences of the University of New York, author of essays on the subject of Polish-German-Jewish relationships in the years 1939-1948.
Gross names various sources that he relied on.
This fact was established by Prof. Tomasz Strzembosz, who has been researching this period of Polish history for many years, on the basis of depositions of two reliable witnesses who were interrogated by Wasersztajn at the UB after the war. Strzembosz draws attention to the credibility of sources and witnesses on which Gross relies. He underlines for example that Wasersztajn's story is too spacious and "all knowing" for someone who in that moment of time himself was obliged to hide and fight for survival.
Gross does not quote, for example, the reports of members of Anders' army deposited in the Hoover Institute, now also available in the Eastern Archives in Warsaw, which differ considerably from the author of "Neighbours" on the subject of "pogrom" in Jedwabne and the matter of Jewish collaboration with the Soviet authorities.
The author of "Neighbours" relies also on the files of the trial of 22 Poles dealing with the pogrom in Jedwabne conducted by the Office of Public Security (UB) in Łomża in 1949 and in Białystok in 1953. The UB proceedings were a mockery of legality. The trial lasted only two days, on the 16th and 17th of May 1949. People meeting with Mr. Ignatiev were stressing that their fathers were forced to confess by beatings and that some of the witnesses were bribed with vodka.
The lack of scientific honesty has been commented on by numerous historians, among others by Dr. Sławomir Radoń, chairman of the College of IPN (Institute of National Memory) conducting the present investigation. They accuse him of drawing premature conclusions without a solid research in Polish and German archives and following up all possible leads.
It is significant that Gross did not visit Jedwabne, did not bother to contact witnesses or participants in the crime and talk with them. Gross merely quotes current depositions of Poles based on notes made by journalists, e.g. Agnieszka Arnold, on the occasion of her making the film "Neighbours" in 1998.
The role of the Church
In view of doubts as to the honesty of Gross' exposition, KAI decided to investigate the probity of some of the contentions concerning men of the Church contained in the book. In Gross' book priests are not in the forefront, they are kept rather in the background, accused obliquely as the "ideologists of the crime."
Gross suggests that if priests act as brakes on pogroms, they do it not for moral and religious reasons, but rather as a means of obtaining tributes.
In the quoted testimony in "Neighbours" of Menachem Finkelsztajn describing the murder of Jews in the neighbouring Radziłów we read:
"We were sure, that the Jews were murdered. Who murdered them? Polish murderers, dirty hands of people from the underworld, people blinded and driven by animal instinct after blood and loot, taught and nurtured over decades by the black clergy which was building its existence on racial hatred."
The author of "Neighbours" mentions two priests and the bishop of the diocese of Łomża. Describing the relationship of the Catholic priests and the two religious communities in Jedwabne, Gross stresses that almost to the outbreak of the war the relationships between the local priest and the rabbi were good, and that Jews "fared no worse than anywhere else in Poland." However it was no idyll: "Apart from regularly occurring tense moments such as the time around Easter, when priests were evoking in their sermons the picture of the Jew as God's assassin, there was always the potential of some evil happening through a simple coincidence of circumstances."
Such a coincidence was the murder of a Jewess and shortly thereafter the death of a Polish peasant in 1934. The populace of the town interpreted the death of the Pole as a revenge for the murder of the Jewess, and a pogrom was hanging in the air. So the generally respected Rabbi Avigdor Białostocki in company with Jony Rothschild paid a visit to the local parish priest (which is mentioned in the Souvenir Book of Jedwabne). Gross asserts that "This episode fits exactly within the norms of Jewish existence which accepted that the threatened community almost always knew in advance of the approaching scourge (just as they knew of the approaching extermination "actions" during the occupation) and took it as natural, that in such situations the civil and religious authorities were due a tribute for taking care of them and averting the anticipated calamity." This time the calamity was averted and the relationship between the leaders of the two communities continued as before.
Up to the time - writes Gross - when, just before the war, arrived a new parish priest of nationalistic sympathies. Here Gross writes an untruth. If he had checked this information in the history of the Łomże diocese, he would have found that Rev. Szumowski was the parish priest of Jedwabne from 1931 to July of 1940 when he was arrested by the NKWD for organizing the movement of resistance. Just before the war there was no change of parish priest. From Gross' account it appears that either the alleged pogrom of 1934 was averted by the priest in spite of his nationalistic leanings, or by the predecessor of Rev. Szumowski - Rev. Andrzej Gawędzki, the builder of the church in Jedwabne 1921-1931, later a prisoner in Buchenwald and Dachau. Therefore the date of the event is wrong. After his arrest Rev. Szumowski was shipped to Mińsk, where on the 27th of January 1941 War College of the Supreme Court of the ZSRR sentenced him to death. Documents confirming these facts, together with information of the General Consulate of the Republic of Belarus of 1997 in Białystok about the circumstances of the arrest and murder of Rev. Szumowski, are now in the parish office of the church of St. Jacob in Jedwabne.
Rev. Józef Kembinski - vicar of Jedwabne at the beginning of the war and administrator of the parish after the arrest of the parish priest, remembered years later that a local Jew collaborating with the NKWD also took part in the arrest of Rev. Szumowski.
Another clergyman mentioned in the book of Gross is Bishop of Łomże Stanisław Łukomski, whom Gross accuses of accepting from the Jewish delegation a silver candelabra, yet failing to save the Jews of Jedwabne from the pogrom. Ross writes:
"The leaders of the Jewish community sent to the Bishop of Jedwabne a delegation which took with them beautiful sliver candelabra, with the request that the bishop assure them of his protection and intervene with the Germans that a pogrom do not take place in Jedwabne. One of the uncles of the witness from whom this report stems, went with the delegation to Łomża.
And indeed, the Bishop of Łomża kept his word for a time. However the Jews were placing too much faith in his assurances and would not listen to warnings from sympathising Polish neighbours."
However, as research by KAI shows, while the Jewish delegation, according to Gross, was supposed to be meeting with the Bishop of Łomża, he was not there because he was hiding from the Soviet occupants - predominantly in Tykocin and Kulesze Kościelne. This information confirm numerous documents in the diocesan archives of Łomża, and most of all recordings of the bishop himself.
The southern part of the diocese during the war was in the care of the auxiliary bishop domiciled in Ostrów Mazowiecki, while the northern part remained in the care of Bishop Łukomski, when he was there. After the start of hostilities in 1939, the bishop's residence was sequestered by the military and devastated by two conquering armies. When the German-Soviet conflict erupted on June 22 1941 and the Russians left the area, Bishop Łukomski decided to return to Łomża. In part VII of his memoirs he describes his steps as follows:
"Wanting to return to Łomża as soon as possible, but knowing that the bishop's palace and the curia were occupied by the Germans, I wrote to the German military authorities in Łomża requesting that the dwelling be cleared of soldiers. Upon receiving from the Commandant the reply that there is no hindrance to my return and that suitable accommodation will be assigned to me, I left for Łomża on the 9th of July."
The question arises, how did the delegation, which was to hand the bishop the candelabra, know that he would be in Łomża? The murder of the Jews took place on the 10th of July, Bishop Łukomski was negotiating by mail with the Commandant before he returned to the capital of the diocese. Were these negotiations so open that everybody in the area knew that the Bishop of Łomża was returning from banishment? This puts the veracity of this report under a question mark. Bishop Łukomski mentions that he did not move into the assigned quarters until August and only then started officiating.
"Having taken over the quarters in August of 1941, many repairs were
required. The household was made functional from offas found on location."
This information confirm chronicles of Benedictine Sisters of the Holy Trinity Abbey in Łomża 1939-1945 written by S. Alojza Piesiewiczówna. Under the date of July 8 1941 she wrote: "Bishop Stanisław Kostka Lukomski returned to Łomża". The bishop himself gives the date of July 9th, but even if some delegation took off to see him with silver candelabra, how to explain that "the Bishop of Łomża kept his word for a time"? The pogrom in Jedwabne took place next day, at the latest two days after the return of Bishop Łukomski to Łomża, if the notation of the Benedictine Sisters is correct.
In his memoirs Bishop Lukomski writes also about the annihilation of the Jews. His notations are not those of an indifferent man, but of a person looking with horror at the bestiality of Hitlerites. As to the attitude of Bishop Lukomski vis a vis the extermination of Jews, can bear witness the reports of priests who lived at that time in the diocese, e.g. Rev. Kazimierz Lupinski who recalls a verbally transmitted instruction of Bishop Lukomski not to grant absolution to Poles who took part in murdering Jews by the Germans.
The years 1939-41
The perusal of Gross's book raises further doubts. Gross attempts to trifle with the co-responsibility of Jews for the persecution of Poles in the period 1939-41 under Soviet occupation. For example, the betrayal of the Polish unit stationed in the region of Jedwabne, he ascribes to some Pole. According to the inhabitants, and also according to the report of Rev. Kemblinski passed on to Rev. Orlowski (the present parish priest who had been Rev. Kemblinski's vicar) it is explicitely the Jewish inhabitants of the town collaborating with the NKWD who betrayed the Polish Partisans.
- It's the Jews who were the first to spoil the good relationship with the Poles, and from that time on something cracked - related Rev. Kemblinski.
The problem of collaboration of the Jews with the Russians discusses at length and proves its existence Prof. Tomasz Strembosh, inter alia in article "The Silent Collaboration" in Rzeczpospolita from 27-28 January 2001.
N.B. Prof. Strembosz in his proof of Jewish collaboration with Russians, quotes earlier works of Jan Tomasz Gross, now in the archives of the Hoover Institute, containing reports of this collaboration. Alas, in "Neighbours" we do not find them.
At the unusually heated meeting of the inhabitants of Jedwabe with prosecutor Ignatiev of IPN, which took place in Jedwabne on the 7 February 2001, the older men were maintaining categorically that the time of Soviet occupation was the worst of the whole war and were stressing that during that period, less than two years, more Poles were killed and deported to Siberia than during four years of German occupation. It is estimated that from Jedwabne itself 300 persons were deported or killed. For these crimes Poles blame Jews collaborating with the NKWD.
An elderly, modestly attired woman related how on the 20th of June 1941, i.e. two days before the outbreak of the German-Soviet war and the invasion of German troops, the Russians deported her family of six people to Siberia. What is significant, the Soviets who arrived to make the arrests had a detailed list of whom to take in Jedwabne and what their addresses were. The mother of the woman in question asked the NKWD-man where he was from. He answered that he was from Moscow. If you are from Moscow, where did you get such such exact details? His answer: your Jews have betrayed you. "I can still hear his words" - affirms the woman. And indeed a Jew was accompanying them on the cart which took them to the train. After 5 years they returned from Siberia, just four of them because they buried there a brother and grandmother dressed in rags.
Another inhabitant of Jedwabne, whose father was tortured by Jewish functionaries of the U.B., was asking Prosecutor Ignatiev whether he could sue the Jewish hangman who delivered Poles to the Russians and tortured them, but now is living in the USA. Mr. Ignatiev assured him that he could, but he would have to have solid proof on which a charge could be drawn up.
The number of Jews murdered and the participation of Poles in the crime evoke strong emotions. Gross maintains that 1,600 Jews were burned and that it was the Poles who did it and who for several days prior maltreated and tortured them. However, the census from 1940 gives the number of Jews living in the whole district as 1,400, of whom a considerable part escaped with the NKWD before the Germans to Bialystok, where they perished.
- Why are we being accused of killing 1,600 people and an exhumation is not being allowed? Their burial site is known; no barn in those times was big enough to hold 1,600 people - voiced a participant at the meeting with Prosecutor Ignatiev while clutching in his hands the weekly "Wprost" carrying the interview with Gross. The Jews oppose an exhumation for religious grounds. According to Rev. Kemblinski in July 1941 there were not even 800 Jews. Prof. Strembosz established a similar number of victims (less than 800) in his research.
According to the Jedwabians and Rev. Kemblinski the events of July 10 took a different turn. As early as July 8th Jedwabne was surrounded by German police and nobody could leave the town. For three days the Germans were herding the Jewish population on to the main square and ordered them "to weed the lawns". On the third day they ordered them to dismantle Lenin's monument and then herded the assembled crowd into Bronislaw Sleszynski's barn and burned them.
The inhabitants of Jedwabne admit that Poles also took part in the pogrom, because, as they were stressing in the meeting with the prosecutor of IPN, you will always find scoundrels and bandits. They also draw attention to the fact that some Poles, against their will, were coerced by the Germans to drive the Jews. The Germans were dragging young men out of their homes, arming them with clubs and forcing them to form a cordon around the Jews.
Commenting on the depositions extracted out of them during the trials of 1949 and 1953, the Jedwabians remember with fear that those were the times of UB when methods were being applied of such a kind that anybody would admit anything. A man whose father was being tortured during the investigation suggested to the prosecutor that he check who was the judge and prosecutor in the trial, and he would find that both were Jews.
From reminiscenses of Rev. Kamblinski we would find that when the German police arrived, he tried to intervene on behalf of the Jews (he spoke German well), and prevent an extermination in Jedwabne. They however merely shrugged their shoulders, saying that that's their order which they have to obey. They surrounded Jedwabne, had dogs with them and coerced the Poles to participate in the murdering (under escort). Whoever was standing by was given a club and was forced to use it on the Jews. According to Kemblinski, if it happened that some Pole abused a Jew, then it was largely because he considered the Jews above all as Soviet confidants and was taking revenge for the sufferings of people dear to him. For a pogrom sufficed a few policemen and a group of coerced Poles, the remaining Germans were surrounding the town preventing any escapes. The Jews were not trying to defend themselves nor escape, were just passively obeying.
How many Poles were murdering the Jews of their own volition, out of revenge, out of greed, or as Gross would have it, out of anti-semitism? According to Gross, all grown-up inhabitants of the town. According to the Jedwabians, those were isolated instances.
What is the truth?
Gross' book is a voice on behalf of this terrible crime, a subjective voice, often emotional, journalistic, drawing unjustified conclusions. It is not a historical study, because even a superficial analysis shows serious failures in methodology.
The book cannot also be considered as objective if only on account of the approach to sources quoted by the author, about which he writes himself. Gross maintains that one must affirm everything what the victims of Holocaust say:
"Our stance in relation to the statements of the would be victims of the Holocaust should change from doubtful to affirmative, simply because accepting what they give in their account, has indeed happened; we would be prepared to admit the fallacy of such an assessment only when confronted
with convincing proofs to the contrary.
Into the trap of such an assumption falls the author himself who bases the whole book and passes judgment on the account of Szmul Wasersztajn, a funcionary of the Security Office.
The book "Neighbours" is to appear in English in the USA, Canada and other anglophone countries, and exactly it - and not a scientific work - will be shaping the world public opinion in the matter of Polish-Jewish relationships during WW II. Prof. Pawel Machcewicz, director of Public Education IPN, draws attention to this problem, stressing his serious doubts that the numerous simplifications and dangerous generalization will thwart - rather than facilitate - the Polish-Jewsish dialogue and the readiness of Poles to confess their own trespasses.
Gross's conclusions, built on questionable factual ground, have already begun its independent life in the social consciousness. Certain circles consider Gross's book as unimpeachable and constructs on it a series of conceptions, such as atonement of Poles for the pogrom. Stanislaw Krajewski, co-chairman of Polish Council of Christians and Jews (Jewish delegate on this ouncil) demands a spectacular expiation with the participation of representatives of State and the Polish church.
Gross demands the erection of a new monument in Jedwabne with an inscription that 1,600 Jews were murdered by their Polish neighbours; he adds that the monument could be financed from money taken from one collection tray in the Jedwabne church.
There is no doubt that in Jedwabne took place a terrible masacre of the Jewish population, that Poles took part in it and they owe Jews a plea for forgiveness. Yet it is necessary to present all the surrounding circumstances objectively so that the act of apology takes place in the spirit of truth.
We do not hide that we tie with the investigation of the IPN the hope of getting to the objective truth. Prosecutor Ignatiev during his meeting with the inhabitants of Jedwabne declared that he must get as many relations of the events of eye witnesses as possible, and also of those who heard them from the mouths of their near ones. He stressed that in an investigation the nationality of the perpetrators is not important, important is the establishment of truth, facts, independent of whether it should come to light that the murderers were Poles or Germans. "If I find that a Pole was the murderer, I shall accuse the Pole."
Since the publication of Gross' book, the present parish priest Rev. Orlowski had visits from journalists, among others from the socio-cultural Jewish publication Midrasz (appearing in Warsaw), who posed the question whether he celebrates expiatory masses for the crime committed by the Poles. Rev. Orlowski answered that he prays every week at Sunday Mass for all the living and dead of Jedwabne: Poles, Jews, Russians, Germans. There is no hatred amongst them and death has reconciled them; we shall think about other prayers when we know the whole truth.
John Paul II spoke many times about the necessity of Christians atoning for the sins committed in the past. He himself was asking forgiveness for evil inflicted on the Jews at the hands of Christians. At the same time He stresses that at the basis of admitting guilt must lie honest truth. The Vatican document of the International Theological Commission "Memory and Reconciliation - the Church and Sins of the Past" underlines that establishing the sins of the past to be atoned demands above all a correct historical verdict which will be the basis of a theological assessment. In his book "Neighbours" Gross postulates that Poles have revised their history and admit their guilt. For this to happen, they have to see themselves in the mirror of truth. A book lacking scientific honesty is certainly not going to bring it about.
It is to be hoped that the investigation will bring forth a correct historical assessment. The president of IPN foresees that the investigation will wind up in April or May 2001, the time ripe for a "theological assessment."
The words of Rev. Orlowski about the living and dead inhabitants of Jedwabne: Poles, Jews, Russians and Germans - draw attention to a different perspective of the problem, namely what shape should present relationships between nations take, what measures should be taken in order that Jedwabne does not foster hate and aggression, that it unites instead of dividing people. Should not in the eventual expiation for the crime, "the catharsis of memory" of which John Paul II speaks, take part representatives of all the nations concerned?
Katolicka Agencja Informacyjna.