In a shadow of Jedwabne
dr hab. Paweł Machcewicz

polish version
translated by: Emilia Wisniewska



There is a doubt that the book by Jan T. Gross and the emerged discussion about it are the most important events of the last few years in Polish disputes about the future. "Neighbors" and also the earlier by two years (and almost unnoticed) Ghostly Decade, touch upon the most significant for Poles matters, such as: creating the picture of us in such a key subject as German and Soviet occupation, attitudes of Polish society towards Germans and Jews, and relation of Poles to the holocaust.

It is no wander that these matters, regardless of decades passing by, move our strong emotions. Exemplification of it was the last meeting at the History Institute of PAN dedicated to Gross's book, with over hundred participants. The even was unusual mainly due to the atmosphere of the dispute, whose participants at the end either shouted at each other or cried.

It there a chance to talk about books by Gross in peace, accounting for other arguments that just ourown?

Facts and questions.

Lets try to reconstruct both, the most important facts, as well as questions that thus far do not have answers.

On tenth of July 1941, in a small town with only about three thousands of residents, several miles from Lomza, the murder of the entire Jewish community has been committed (the numbers of atrocities oscillate between 900 to 1500-1600 people: Gross assumes the highest number). Neighbors, Poles, were involved in the killing of Jews. Of course, not all of them did it. Author, basing it of the record of the prosecutorial investigation and trial in 1949, selects the group of more than a dozen of the most active murderers.

Almost no one questions these facts. However, there are doubts related to the role of Germans. The events certainly were not spontaneous. They were registered by the German camera crew, which showed up in the morning in Jedwabne. During the investigation, the information was retrieved that the talks between Germans and the administration of town had been held for several days. To understand the context of the events in Jedwabne one must remember that more than 10 days before, the officers of Germans police battalions murdered two thousands Jews in Bialystock by burning many of them in a synagogue.

Striking is, at least, a similarity of the method, as in Jedwabne at least several hundred of Jews were burned in the barn. Gross does not deliver much attention to these leads (as well as he ignored other versions of the events, according to which there was between several tents and over more 200 Germans officers, coming into the town), prejudging that, this does not present a key significance, in the whole picture, of what has happened on 10 of July.

What were the motives

Historians pay attention to the other circumstances as well, which Gross did not take into consideration at all or in the insufficient degree. The key question applies to the motives, for which Polish neighbors murdered the whole populations of the Jews in town. One of them could be anti-Semitism (those areas were the only ones in Poland, where ONR has influence in the rural areas) or the plain greed ' the intention of taking over the assets of the murdered. However, this is not all.

According to the written records about the events of July 10th, the other circumstance was the motive of retaliation for (alleged or real ' now we can not determine that yet) collaborations of Jews with the Soviet aggressor between September 1939 and July of 1941. Gross asserts, that there was no premises to think, that Jews of Jedwabne collaborated with NKWD to the larger extend than Poles did, and that they play any role in turning in and liquidating the guerrilla formations in the area. We know already, that the young Jews before their death had been forced to carry the large Lenin monument built in the town by Soviet occupants, and singing before their death, "The war is because of us".

Professor Szarota called attention to the fact, that one of the main murderers, brother Laundanski, has lost their sister, who was arrested and murdered by NKVD. Other lead consists of the information (lacking in "Neighbors") that a few days before pogrom, the group of prisoners, who were the former participants of anti-Soviet conspiracy, released by the German occupants, arrived to Jedwabne.

The referenced leads do not give a ready answer, however they indicate the role of the believes about co-responsibility of the Jews for the soviet crimes, that they could have played in the matter, even if they were far from reality.

This does not the change the moral judgment of what has occurred in Jedwabne, and do not excuse the murders. Regardless of German inspiration for the crimes and the retaliatory motive for the alleged cooperation with the soviet occupant, there is no doubt, that their Polish neighbors had killed Jews. The same occurred in Kielce on July 4th 1946: even if that pogrom has been a product of the provocation by the Public Security Office (there are bases for such a statement), there must have been Poles who with knives and bars moved to the house on 7 Platy Street to murder the Jews. Historian can not, however, stop at the moral assessment, but has a duty to explore the secondary conditions, which could allow understanding a sense of the events as they unfolded. It is worth listening to the critics of Gross, who allege that he is minimizing facts and interpretations that does not support his assumptions in "Neighbors". These critics do not come from the need to minimize the responsibility for the crime (this opinion could be heard in the History Institute), but approaching the truth as close as it possible, as well as modesty in approaching historical body of knowledge, which seems to be more complicated and less explained, than Gross concluded it.

One evens but generalized conclusion

Discussion, about the reliability of Jan T. Gross in the reconstruction of the background and the sequence of the events in Jedwabne, is overshadowing what is most significant and controversial in "Neighbors" (and also in "Ghastly Decade"). Based on the study of one town, author is concluding statements about the Polish-Jewish relationships, Polish co-responsibility for the Holocaust and the collaboration with Germans.

His main thesis sounds:" Jedwabne, however, it is perhaps the biggest one time murder, committed by Poles on the Jews ' was not the isolated incident", and "in the collective memory of the Jews, the Polish neighbors in many villages murdered them out of their own unforced will". In a "Ghastly Decade" author asserts, that "Poles, in most cases, had not showed help or even sympathy for the murdered co-citizens and often participated in the process of annihilation of Jews". He also argues that it was possible to rescue a greater number of Jews, as "…none of the police is able to reinforce constantly broken rules. When one Pole in five or ten, but not one in a hundred or two hundred were to try to help Jews, Gestapo would be helpless. The brutal oppression is easiest installed against the small group of people, that is isolated in own society".

India and the General Government

This expression here is unusually strong, and one needs to question to what degree they are justified. Let's begin by agreeing with Gross regarding the numerous reports and memoirs that confirm indifference of Poles towards the destiny of the Jews, even worse - some incidents (however it is impossible to try to estimate how spread was it) money extortion or - in rural areas- seeking out hiding Jews by peasants. However assertion that more widespread help for the Jews would tie down Gestapo and prevent its repression, in the light of the politics of extermination of Poles, seems to belong to the political science fiction. Such supposition better fits to the struggle of Gandhi for political independence from British in India rather than to the General Government. Beyond other consequences, hiding Jews threaten the life of the entire Polish family, while we can reasonably expect from common people their decency but not the heroism.

The most important however is that currently we know much about one case - in Jedwabne- of murdering Jewish population by Poles; there is enough to suppose that the similar events took place in Radziwolow. Perhaps other case will see the light, which is currently unknown, however the categorical assertion by Gross has no foundation. The duty of the researcher - especially in such a delicate matter - is precision of his formulations and responsibility for each world. And these are often missing in the books by Gross.

Lets call upon one more matter regarding collaboration with invader by Poles and Jews. While Gross reject theses about the cooperation of Jews with invading in 1939 by Russians, he is assessing attitudes of the Polish civilians towards Germans after the Soviet -German war was started. "Telling straight"- he writes in "Neighbors" - enthusiasm of the Jews in the view of incoming Red Army was not wide spread, and it is not known, what was the exceptional character of the collaboration of Jews with Soviets during 1939-1941. However there is no doubt that the local population (with exception of Jews) enthusiastically welcomed incoming Wermacht army in 1941 and collaborated with Germans, including also the extermination of Jews".

How top call these opinions other then substituting one stereotype for the other - stereotype Judeo - communism by other stereotype relating in this instance to the war attitudes of Poles towards their German occupant .

The need for research

The book by Gross is needed. It moves our conscience, shaking the heroic picture the German occupation in which there usually was no place for these who extorted money, peasants catching the Jews escaping from the ghettos and Polish participant of anti-Jewish pogroms. Lets hope that this will start the discussion about most painful matters of our past. Most of all, we need the true research, which would allow to verify the assumptions contained in the "Ghastly decade" and "Neighbors".

Such a research (addressing amongst others the clandestine press, persecutions and trials against the money exhorts and collaborates) is undertaken by the Institute of National Remembrance. However, it happens eleven years too late. Neglect in taking up the research that could and should have been undertaken after 1989, will have consequences difficult to repair. The book by Jan T. Gross will be published in several months in the USA and Germany, and it will - not a scientific broad base source materials, which were still not written- will be molding the public opinion of the big part of the world about polish-Jewish relations during WWII. I honor J. Gross for the courage of taking up such a difficult subject and at the same time I have doubts if his multiple simplifications and very risky generalizations do not make it difficult instead of easing the Polish - Jewish dialog and the readiness of Poles to admitting own guilt.

The author is a PhD, a historian, and an author of the books on the subject of history of Poland; recently he has been nominated for the position of the Public Educational Director at the Institute of National Remembrance.

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