Letter to the newspaper "The Age" in Melbourne, Australia
Christopher Janiewicz

"The Age", Melbourne, Australia
Online News Editor: Gary Hughes
Email: [email protected]


Dear Mr. Hughes:

I would like to voice my strong objections regarding the article "Poles' day of shame exposed" by Paul Heinrichs, published in your newspaper on Sunday 18 March 2001.

The above mentioned article is prejudicial and slanderous towards Poland and the Polish people in general, and the population of the town of Jedwabne in particular.

Mr. Heinrichs is using the interview with the widow of Mr. Bienstein (Neumark) and the book "Neighbours" written by Prof. John T. Gross.

With due respect for Mrs. Bienstein, I will refrain from detailed analysis of her late husband's testimony. I will only say that Mr. Bienstein's testimony is quoted only once in the book by Prof. Gross and even then, not in regard to the day in question, but in regard to the Soviet occupation of Jedwabne. (Page 33, Polish original)

By saying, "...Although some details of the massacre provided by Janek Bienstein in 1980 figure in Sasiedzi..." Mr. Heinrichs would like to create an impression that the book contains or is based on large portions of Mr. Bienstein testimony, when it is clearly not.

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 and author of essays on the subject of Polish-German-Jewish relationships in the years 1939-1948.

Gross names various sources that he relied on. Unfortunately, as one reads his book, one is assailed by doubts whether the version presented in it is trustworthy. Although Gross mentions various sources and refers to numerous historians, yet in his argumentation he is relying on the statements of one man only - Szmul Wasersztejn, a Jew living in the town, but according to some witnesses, not present there during the massacre. (Teodor Eugeniusz Lusinski to the Institute of Jewish History, 20.03.95, according to Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz). This crown witness of Gross, in Poland went under the name of Calka and not Wasersztejn, who after the war was an agent of U.B. (Communist State Security Forces). This fact was established by Prof. Tomasz Strzembosz, who has been researching this period of Polish history for many years, based on depositions of two reliable witnesses who were interrogated by Wasersztejn (Calka) at the UB after the war. Strzembosz draws attention to the credibility of sources and witnesses on which Gross relies.

When on the subject of the witness testimonies and methodology that a historian should use in analysing his sources and then disseminating his findings, I would like to mention the statement that Prof. Gross himself made in the book "Neighbours":

"As far as the craft of the historian who deals with the era of the gas ovens is concerned, I think we must radically alter our attitude toward the sources. Our initial attitude toward each testimony of near victims of the Holocaust should change from the inquisitive to the affirmative."

This is a startling statement because it would be practically tantamount to abandoning the scholarly standard.

In each instance, if possible, historians must attempt to verify the sources, testimonies, recollections and memoirs against other documents. A history scholar needs to apply a rigorous litmus test to each testimony by checking it against other witness account and contemporary documents: Jewish, German, Polish, and Soviet. Finally, he has to divide recollections into first- and second-hand observations and classify their reliability accordingly.

Unfortunately, Prof. Gross doesn't adhere to such standards in his book. That's why "Neighbours" should be classified as a literary work and not as historical research, ergo not factual in every aspect.

Further Mr. Heinrichs, following a lead of prof. Gross, mentions trials of 22 Poles sentenced for the crimes allegedly committed in Jedwabne in 1949. Indeed, prof. Gross is extensively using their testimonies in his book, therefore one can say that the whole book is based on their testimonies and the testimonies of Mr. Szmul Wasersztejn and Mr. Finkelstejn.

That would bring us to the next problem with prof. Gross's methodology and integrity.

In the matter of the Polish witnesses, Gross is extensively using the testimonies of people who were interrogated by the U.B. (Communist State Security) in 1949. That organisation was well known for extracting statements from the suspects by using such methods as torture, sleep depravation, beatings and the threat of deportation to Siberia, not only for the suspects, but also for their families.

Most of the accused recalled their "confessions" in front of the court. This was not only an act of self-defence. It was also a sign of bravery. After all, the accused were immediately returned to the "tender, loving care" of secret police officers, who had tortured the confessions out of them in the first place. The confessions were in accordance with a preordained scenario, unofficially promoted by the Communist leadership who promoted the idea that Polish society was "fascist" and "reactionary", what was supposed to create an explanation for the repressive regime and an excuse for the West inaction.

Prof. Gross himself writes extensively on this subject on pages 21, 23, 24, 25, 26. (Polish original). Yet, it would appear that such facts have no meaning to him, because throughout his book he extensively uses the testimonies of Karol Bardon, originally sentenced to the death penalty, which was commuted to a 15 years prison sentence. Any man subjected to such circumstances would tell anything that the interrogating officer wants him to say, simply to survive. What sort of pressure did the interrogating officers exert on him?

Testimonies and confessions obtained by such methods wouldn't be admissible in any court of law in any democratic country.

In regard to the Jewish witnesses' statements, they are very contradictory in some important parts.

For example, Mr. Heinrichs mentions in his article "Some of the Jews committed suicide rather than face their attackers."

Is he aware that there are two eyewitness testimonies regarding such an incident, testimonies that totally contradict each other? To such an extent, that one testimony blames Poles for the active participation in the suicide, with another testimony saying that Poles tried to prevent the intended suicide and attempted to rescue the two women in question.

Then there is a problem with prof. Gross's statement that there was no Germans present in Jedwabne, and that after he had done an extensive research of the German archives, he didn't find any documents mentioning the town of Jedwabne. On such basis prof. Gross arrived to the conclusion that citizens of that town, on their own volition murdered their Jewish neighbours.

But according to the latest research, such documents exist in the German Federal Achieves in Ludvisburg, Bavaria, and the town of Jedwabne is mentioned in these documents a few times.

So, now the question would arise, did prof. Gross really researched those archives, or didn't he?

There are many such questions one can ask after analytically, not emotionally reading prof. Gross's book and comparing his statements with various sources and researches done by Polish recognised historians. Many questions could be raised about the methodology used by prof. Gross.

There is a very important problem with the number of victims, According to historical sources such as the Soviet census conducted in 1940, only 1400 Jews were in the Jedwabne region, which also included the outlying town of Radzilow and the village of Wizna. In Radzilow, only three days earlier, an alleged 1500 Jews were also burned in a barn.

If we also take into account the number of Jews that fled approaching German armies, this would put into serious question the number of victims in Jedwabne. Never mind the size of the barn that couldn't accommodate 1600 people.

Also, according to the most recent news, archaeologists have localised the mass grave of the Jewish population in Jedwabne. In the opinion of prof. Andrzej Kola from the UMK Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, the grave is approximately 5 meters long and 2 meters wide and could contain approximately 300 bodies.

If one wanted to analyse the whole book, such work would take many more pages, so here I have mentioned only a very few examples.

The lack of scientific honesty on the part of prof. Gross, has been commented on by numerous historians, among others by Dr. Sławomir Radon, chairman of the College of IPN (Polish National Remembrance Institute) conducting the present investigation headed by the public prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew. They accuse prof. Gross of drawing premature conclusions without a solid research of Polish and German archives and following up all possible leads.

Then Mr. Heinrichs mentions the statements made by the Polish President Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Buzek. Here I would like to draw Mr. Heinrichs's attention to the fact that neither of them is a historian. They didn't conduct any investigation into the Jedwabne matter, the current investigation by the appropriate investigative body hasn't been concluded as yet, and that the various statements made by politicians usually don't have much factual value in such circumstances.

Our own politicians from time to time are prone to make statements that are not corroborated by facts or are not necessarily truthful. Why in Mr. Heinrichs opinion, should Polish politicians be any different or better informed?

So why, as is Mr. Heinrichs's opinion, should statements made by politicians convince the majority of Polish academics, nota benne professional historians with the highest scholarly honours? Or anyone else for that matter? Does he remember some very "truthful" statements made publicly and under oath by the American ex-President Bill Clinton?

Now, in regard to the interview conducted with prof. Gross on the subject of the works by prof. Strzembosz and the collaboration with the Russians by many members of the Jewish population.

Ironically, prof. Strzembosz in his proof of Jewish collaboration with Russians, quotes earlier works of prof. Gross himself, now in the archives of the Hoover Institute, containing reports of this collaboration.

Is prof. Gross blessed with such a short memory that he forgot his own book published in 1983 under the title "In the 1940 they exiled us to Siberia"?

But I don't wish to enter a discussion with Mr. Heinrichs or anybody else regarding who did what sixty years ago. Evil people were on both sides.

The article that prof. Gross speaks about to Mr. Heinrichs, and written by prof. Strzembosz, is far from being "the most significant of the articles". Far more significant would be, for example, the article written by prof. Strzembosz and published on the 15.03.2001 "Germans forced Poles to participate in Jedwabne murder". Also, at this moment of time he is conducting further historical research into the case of Jedwabne, and also new facts, contradicting the very thesis of prof. Gross's book, are coming to the fore nearly every day.

So, maybe, as Mr. Heinrichs says, the "soft pedal" approach and general attitude of sections of Melbourne's Jewish community and Mr. Nadworny is the right approach to have and the antagonising attitude of Mr. Heinrichs is the wrong one?

After the meeting held on 18.02.2001, that marked the end of the visit to Bialystok by prof. Gross, when asked by the reporter if would he be writing more about Jedwabne, he rebuffed: " This is not my interest any longer, now it is a matter for historians".

Shouldn't he take such an approach before writing his book? First historical research and investigation, and then the writing of the book afterwards, based on facts uncovered by such investigation, not the other way around. Now it is too late to leave the matter of Jedwabne to the historians. Prof. Gross has already done a lot, or maybe even irreparable damage, by publishing his book without doing proper historical research, and by stating a lot of sweeping conclusions and inflammatory statements in it.

To conclude, I would like to advise Mr. Heinrichs to do some research of the topic next time, before he writes another offending article. I would advise him to research historical sources and works of the professional historians, not to draw conclusions based on badly researched literary works of sociology professors. Or maybe he should make a career in writing science fiction novels?

Christopher Janiewicz

PS. The article in "The Age": http://www.theage.com.au/news/2001/03/18/FFXCJ5M6EKC.html

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