THE IGNORED COLLABORATION
by Prof. Dr. Tomasz Strzembosz
translated by: Mariusz Wesolowski
I did not want to take part in the discussion caused by the publication of Prof. Jan T. Gross's book "Neighbors" which deals with the murder of Jews committed in July 1941 in the town of Jedwabne in the Podlasie area. Primarily because the said discussion, picking up various motifs, has been so far bypassing the most important fact, i. e., what has happened in Jedwabne after the entry of the German army into that territory, that is, who, when and under what circumstances committed the mass murder on the Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne.
This is the subject most worthy of discussion, all the more because Gross's statements, in the light of specific sources, seem to be not quite true. At the same time, however, the documentation at hand does not allow me yet to take a public stance in this key question...
Before I come to the main topic, I must begin with the basic statements. Nothing can justify murders perpetrated on any group of the civilian population. Nothing can justify killing men, women and children only because they represent some social class, some nation or some religion, for any application of justice must have an individual character. Such crimes cannot be motivated either by one's own convictions, or by superior order, or by "historical necessity", or by the good of another nation, class, religion and social group, or by the good of some organization, military or civilian, visible or secret.
I would like the reader of this article to keep in mind that such is my basic position. I am also in principle against murdering the members of any military or police force only because they belong to them, especially when they are unarmed or in the process of surrendering. Whoever, then, commits such a murder (the power or reason behind it notwithstanding) is for me simply a murderer.
Before we try to evaluate the attitudes and behavior of different social and national groups in the territories occupied by the Workers' and Peasants'
Red Army (RKKA), it is necessary to recall the fundamental facts, since without learning about the reality of those times we won't be able to understand the people who lived there or who had been brought there by the perturbances of war.
The entry of Germans into the Podlasie area was accompanied by a great fear among the local populace,
who received German armies with undisguised hostility. They gave support to the Polish units being pushed eastward, and many unmoblilized reservists and youths in the pre-conscript age went in large numbers also eastward to find a military body prepared to accept them and give them arms. That's why a number of men from that region (including the unmobilized reservists) took part in the battle of Grodno and the region of Sopockinie - this time already against the Red Army.
The population of Podlasie was also giving support -especially after the battle of Andrzejow (in which took part the 18th Infantry Division of the Polish Army) - to the locally organized locally partisan groups which had been active till mid-October  in, among other places, the vicinity of Czerwony Bor and Bagna Biebrzanskie [the Red Forest and the Biebrza Swamps], which protected them from destruction. The anti-German attitude of the inhabitants of Podlasie was monolithic and unwavering.
The period after the entry of the Red Army into the eastern territories of the Polish Republic can be divided into three subperiods. The first, called by Prof. Ryszard Szawlowski (and not only by him!) the Polish-Soviet War, lasted for two weeks, until the first days of October 1939, when the organized resistance of the larger combat groups of the Polish Army ceased, although some smaller units continued the fight as guerrillas. The second subperiod was the subjugation of the territory, combined with the implementation of the social "revolution" - political and economic, planned in advance and realized with the help of the army and special services. That's why I call it "revolution on a leash". During that time the first arrests had taken place. This subperiod ended in November 1939 in the official incorporation of the Polish north-east territories into the Byelorussian Socialist Soviet Republic, and the south-east territories into the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic.
Actually it was extended by two months, i.e., until the Soviet administrative system (a republic, an "oblast'", a region) was finally introduced in the annexed lands. The third subperiod, from the beginning of 1940 to June 1941, was characterized on one hand by the unification with the economic-social system of the Soviet Union (the forceful introduction of collective farming, strenghtening of the sovkhoz system, finalizing the process of nationalization of industry, commerce, banks, etc.), while on the other hand it brought a rapid escalation of repressions, especially in the first half of 1940, which took the form of mass arrests and deportations; the latter lasted in the so-called Western Byelorussia till the end [of the Soviet rule] and encompassed about 150,000 people. I would like to discuss this phenomenon in more depth, as it was - and very few people realize that - an activity based on the idea of collective responsibility.
TIME OF DEPORTATIONS
The first deportation, on the 9/10 February 1940, included the military and civilian settlers and foresters with their families. The second, on 13 April 1940, encompassed everybody whose relative(s) had been captured as Polish soldiers, policemen, etc., escaped abroad or went into hiding, or had been arrested as conspirators or "enemies of the people", that is, the socially dangerous element (SOE). The third, on 29 June 1940, which affected especially the cities, included the so-called "bezhentsy" [refugees], among them many Jews, particularly those among them who had registered with the authorities for voluntary return to the German zone of occupation. This fact partly demolishes the myth about the joyful welcome given to the Red Army by Polish Jews exclusively because of their fear of Nazis. The last deportation, started in the Wilno region (which had been snatched by the Soviets at the time of the liquidation of the Lithuanian Republic in June 1940) on 14 June 1941, and on the territory of the Byelorussian Republic on 20 June 1941, was interrupted by the German invasion.
All of them, as we can see, were acts of violence undertaken on the basis of collective responsibility.
For the father, who was a soldier, the whole family was held responsible; for a brother, who was a refugee - his close relatives; for a forester - those who lived with him. The strike was aimed at the "nest". On the other hand, for example, in Warsaw the Germans in revenge for an armed action of the underground executed people from the nearest appartment building, prisoners from the Pawiak gaol, or the inhabitants of a village near which a military train had been blown up; in short, people completely unrelated to the perpetrators. This collective responsibility included children, women and old people. It was most often the weakest ones who paid with their lives on the way and in exile - in Siberia or in the "hungry steppes" of Kazakhstan.
TREASON IN THE DAYS OF DEFEAT
Who was the executor of the [Red] terror? The NKVD and, in the first period, also the Red Army (RKKA) which supervised the "chekhist operational groups", a relationship similar to that between the Einsatzgruppen and the Wehrmacht. And the militia? Very few people know that in the years 1939-1941 there were three different kinds of militia.
The first kind was the various "red guards" and "red militias", composed of the locals armed with clubs, cut-down rifles, axes and revolvers, although sporadically they even had automatic weapons, who gave support to the Red Army in its "liberation march" and who performed the acts of "class anger" in the name of social groups oppressed by the "lordly Poland". As a rule, these groups surfaced immediately after 17 September 1939 (or even on that very day, which is telling) and operated, usually in a very bloody fashion, not only behind the lines of the Polish Army, but also after the entry of the Red Army, which gave the local "revolutionary elements" a few "free" days to settle personal accounts and exercise class revenge.
Later on those "militias" would be replaced by the Workers' Guard, organized on the occupied territories under the order of the Byelorussian Front Commander of 16 September 1939, as well as by the Citizens' Militia, formed on the basis of a similar order of 21 September 1939. Next, after the incorporation of "Western Byelorussia" into the Byelorussian Socialist Soviet Republic, these two were replaced by the closely connected to the NKVD Workers' and Peasants' Militia (RKM), at first composed solely of newcomers (so-called "vostochniks", "easterners"), later on absorbing also the locals.
The Polish population, apart from a small group of city communists and an even smaller one of village communists, received the Soviet aggression and the system brought by it in the same way as they had received the German invasion. This is confirmed by literally thousands of various testimonies. The participation of Polish peasants in the so-called selsoviets (village councils) does not mean anything, because these were purely "decorative" bodies. The real power rested with the executive committees, and especially with their supervisory party and police apparatus.
On the other hand, the Jewish population, and especially Jewish youths and the city poor, participated en masse in giving welcome to the invading army and in introducing the new order, also by violent means. This is confirmed as well by thousands of Polish, Jewish and Soviet testimonies; there are official reports of the C-in-C of the Association for Armed Struggle [ZWZ,later the Home Army],General Stefan Grot-Rowecki, there is the [famous] report of the emissary Jan Karski, there are accounts written during and after the war. After all, even the [earlier] works of Jan T. Gross speak about these facts; Gross based his clear and undisputable conclusions on the materials preserved in the Hoover Institution in the States.
The Soviet Army was welcomed with enthusiasm not only in the territories occupied formerly by the Wehrmacht, but also in the Eastern Borderlands, where the Germans never arrived. What's more, those "guards" and "militias", growing like mushrooms right after the Soviet aggression, consisted in the main part of Jews. And not only that. Jews undertook acts of rebellion against the Polish state by taking over towns, organizing there revolutionary committees, arresting and executing the representatives of the Polish state authority, and attacking smaller or, sometimes, quite large (like in Grodno) units of the Polish Army.
Dr. Marek Wierzbicki (who for the last few years has been researching Polish-Byelorussian relations in the so-called Western Byelorussia in 1939-1941, and therefore also recording facts related to Polish-Jewish relations) in his large, still unpublished, article speaks of a 3-day-long battle between the rebellious Jews of Grodno and the Polish army and police (starting on 18 September 1939, before the arrival of the Red Army), of the two-day struggle for the nearby Skidel, about Jewish revolts in Jeziory, Lunna, Wiercieliszki, Wielka Brzostowica, Ostryna, Dubno, Dereczyn, Zelwa, Motol, Wolpa, Janow Poleski, Wolkowysk, Horodec and Drohiczyn Poleski. In these localities nobody had seen a single German - the attacks were directed against the Polish state.
It was [nothing else but] armed collaboration, going over to the enemy, treason in the days of defeat. How numerous was the group of [Jews] who had participated in all this? The specific number will be probably never known. In any case such incidents took place everywhere in the zone of operations of the Red Army's Byelorussian Front.
NEW ORDER IN ADMINISTRATION
The second question concerns the collaboration with the terror apparatus, especially the NKVD. It was undertaken first by "militias","red guards" and revolutionary committees, later on by the already mentioned workers' guards and citizens' militias. In the cities they were composed mostly of Polish Jews.
Later still, when the situation was taken firmly in hand by the Workers' and Peasants' Militia (RKM), the Jews - according to Soviet documents - were substantially overrepresented in that body as well. Polish Jews in civilian clothes, wearing red armbands and armed with rifles, in large numbers took part in the mass arrests and deportations. This was the most drastic sight, but equally galling for the Polish society was the massive presence of Jews in all the offices and institutions, especially since these had been dominated before the war by the Poles.
On 20 September 1940, during a conference in Minsk ..., the chief of the NKVD City Department stated: "We have been following this practice: Since the Jews have given us their support, one could see them - and only them - everywhere. It became fashionable that every director of an institution or a company boasted about the fact that he didn't employ a single Pole. Many of us were simply afraid of Poles."
At the same time the minutes of communist party meetings in the Bialystok "oblast'" record numerous "complaints" about hearing only Russian and Yiddish in the Soviet institutions [and] about the Poles' feelings of being discriminated against... It was both true and in accordance with the current "party line" because at that time the highest Soviet authorities had introduced a "new policy" in regard to the Poles.
Marek Wierzbicki in his article sums up that situation as follows: "The extensively developed structures of Soviet administration gave the masses of unemployed Jews a chance to find a job, which - in borderland towns with no industry and a very limited job market - was to them of great importance. The Jewish population, representing on the whole a much higher level of education than the Byelorussian society, provided numerous clerks, teachers and security police functionaries, which had a definite impact on Polish-Jewish relations because the Jews most often took over the positions of Polish clerks and teachers... Moreover, in September-December 1939, there took place numerous arrests of those representatives of the Polish population who had held before the war higher positions in the administrative and political hierarchy of the Polish state, or who had been involved into social activities. Local Jews - members of the provisional administration or militia - had been at that time actively helping the Soviets in hunting down and arresting such persons."
He goes on, referring to none other than Jan T. Gross:
"It was also a frequent occurrence that some representatives of the Jewish population jeered at the Poles, pointing out the sudden reversal of fortunes of the two nations. The Poles often heard vicious remarks along the lines of "You wanted Poland without Jews, now you have Jews without Poland", or "It's all over for you.""
Thus we can see that the Jewish participation in the Soviet power structures is unequivocally attested to in Polish testimonies (especially those on the basis of which Jan T. Gross has been for the last quarter of the century constructing his books and articles) which have been recorded already during the war, and which are preserved - among other places - in the Hoover Institution in the United States; the same applies to the Soviet state and party archives recently made accessible, as well as to the reports of the Polish underground command [from the period in question]...
It seems, then, that the following statement expressed by Prof. Gross in his "Neighbors" does not have much justification [in facts]:
"Frankly, the enthusiasm of the Jews at the sight of the entering Red Army was not a common phenomenon, and it is not clear why the collaboration of the Jews with the Soviets in 1939-1941 should be considered exceptional."
The second part of the quoted paragraph, which refers to the Poles, goes thus: "On the other hand there can be no possible doubt that the local population (with the exception of the Jews) enthusiastically welcomed the Wehrmacht units in 1941, and collaborated with the Germans, also in the extermination of Jews. The earlier quoted segment of Finkelsztejn's testimony about Radzilow - confirmed also by the quoted reminiscences of peasants from nearby villages - forms a precise negation of the common tales about Jewish behavior in the Eastern Borderlands in 1939 at the sight of the coming Bolsheviks."
Before analyzing the contents, I would like to take note of the style of Gross's approach. Hundreds of extant testimonies and numerous reports of the Polish underground authorities (including the report of the pro-Jewish Jan Karski) do not offer sufficient grounds for drawing any conclusions. This may be correct - after all, we should try to investigate the situation in various specific localities without relying too much on widespread but general opinions. But, at the same time, a [single] testimony of Finkelsztejn's plus a few accounts of neighborhood peasants suffice [for Gross] to pronounce a sweeping judgment not about specific individuals but about the entire local population (except the Jews.)
The same applies to the thesis that it was the Polish inhabitants of the small town of Jedwabne who murdered their Jewish neighbors - based on the testimonies of a few Jewish escapees who managed to survive, and on the materials of the Security Office originating from the (undoubtedly sadistic) investigations of 1949 and 1953, during the period when Polish bishops had been sentenced for treason against the Polish nation and espionage on behalf of "imperialists".
Let's talk now about that Polish collaboration. It has been discussed by Andrzej Zbikowski... It consisted, among other things, in murdering the Jews by Polish "bands" composed mainly of ex-Soviet prisoners (recently liberated by the Germans), and in attacks on "the retreating smaller groups of the Soviet Army" by the same "bands". A simple equation between 1939 and 1941...
But, for God's sake, a joyful welcome given to the Germans, who arrived in the middle of a horrible deportation and released hundreds of people from Soviet abattoirs (in Brzesc, Lomza, Bialystok and Jedwabne, among many other places) is different from attacks on the Red Army soldiers (our yesterday's occupiers), and these are different still from the murder of soldiers of the Polish Army. True, Jews didn't have an easy life in Poland, there were undoubtedly "accounts of injustices", to quote a line from the poet Broniewski, but they weren't deported to Siberia, or shot, or sent to concentration camps, or killed by hunger and overwork. Even if they didn't consider Poland their homeland, they did not have to treat her as an alien power and join her mortal enemy in killing Polish soldiers and murdering Polish civilians escaping to the east. They did not have to take part either in selecting their neighbors for deportations, these terrible acts of collective responsibility.
THERE WERE NO RED FLAGS ONLY ON THREE HOUSES
Let's move now away from general issues to the situation in the town and district of Jedwabne. Jan Gross is correct in stating that there are not too many testimonies related directly to this place, but their number is not minuscule, either, and, in any case, there are many more in existence than the small selection utilized by Gross in his narrative on the events on 10 July 1941. "The new approach to sources", postulated by Gross in relation to the Jewish depositions, could be used also in this case. After all, these are testimonies by persecuted people, who were saved from annihilation only thanks to the Sikorski-Mayski agreement of July 1941. The survivors speak here as witnesses to a crime, and they touch upon the "Jewish problem" without any prompting, spontaneously, "from the fullness of their hearts."
Did the Jews of Jedwabne, like so many others, offer a warm welcome to the Red Army? Various depositions taken both during the war and by myself at the beginning of the 1990s, give a positive answer to that question.
Let's first have a look at the accounts deposited with the Polish Army of Gen. Anders and archived in the Hoover Institution, which are now also available in the Eastern Archive (Archiwum Wschodnie) in Warsaw.
Acount no. 8356, by Jozef Rybicki, a cartwright from the town of Jedwabne: "The Red Army was received by the Jews who put up [triumphal] gates. They changed the old government and introduced a new one from among the local inhabitants (Jews and communists). Policemen and teachers got arrested (...)."
Account no. 10708, by Tadeusz Kielczewski, a local government worker in Jedwabne: "Immediately after the entry of the Soviet Army there was spontaneously organized a municipal committee composed of Polish communists (the president, Czeslaw Krytowski, was a Pole, the members were all Jews). The militia was also composed of Jewish communists. At first there were no repressions because they [i.e., the Soviets] did not know the [local] populace, only after a series of denunciations by the local communists the arrests began. House searches had been conducted by the local militia among the people who were thought to possibly possess arms. The main wave of arrests by the Soviets started only after the first elections."
Account no. 8455, by Marian Lojewski, a locksmith-mechanic from Jedwabne: "After the entry of the Red Army into our town an order was published to surrender all the weapons in the hands of the local population. For keeping any arms the penalty was death. Later on many house searches were conducted because of denunciations by Jewish merchants who accused the Poles of stealing various items during their absence. Numerous arrests were made among people against whom the local Jews had a grudge for persecuting them by the Polish state."
Account no. 2675, by Aleksander Kotowski, a wood sorter from Jedwabne: "During the entry of the Red Army I was absent, [later on] the power was given to Jews and Polish communists, who had been imprisoned before for Communism. They led the NKVD to appartments and houses and denounced Polish citizens-patriots."
Finally the account of Lucja Chojnowska, nee Cholowinska, deposited on 9 May 1991. Mrs. Cholowinska, the sister of Jadwiga Laudanska, in the spring of 1940 found herself in the partisan camp at Uroczysko Kobielne situated deep within the Biebrza swamps and - after a battle between the Poles and the Soviet army there on 23 June 1940 - was taken prisoner. Our conversation, conducted in Jedwabne, was concerned with that battle and not with the relations in the town where both ladies used to live. Nevertheless, at some point Lucja Cholowinska-Chojnowska stated: "In Jedwabne, inhabited mostly by the Jews, there were only three houses without a red flag during the entry of the Soviets. One of them was our house. Before the first deportation a Jewish woman, our neighbor, came running to us (we always had excellent relations with the Jews), and warned us that our names were on the deportation list. Then I, with my sister Jadwiga and her 4-year-old daughter, run away to Orlikow, taking with us just a few clothes." Note well: the Jewish neighbor knew who was on the deportation list, and that was the most strictly guarded secret. So much about the beginnings.
THE ARRESTS BEGIN
Now some more questions. Of whom did the Jedwabne militia consist and what was its attitude toward those of the locals who had been considered too closely attached to the Polish state, the malcontents, the enemies? How (if at all) did the red terror manifest itself there, and had it been implemented only by the transplanted Soviet citizens, the "vostochniks", or also by the "old" Polish citizens, the permanent residents of the town and district of Jedwabne? Let's look for the answers in the same (in historians' parlance) "personal documents", deposited still during the war and later.
Account no. 1559, by Kazimierz Sokolowski, a worker from Jedwabne: "The Soviet authorities created a militia, mostly from among Jewish communists, and the arrests began of farmers and workers who had been denounced by the militiamen. The populace had to pay high taxes, churches were also taxed, the priest was arrested. Mass house searches had been conducted among the people unfriendly toward the regime, the "enemies of the people"... The majority of the local populace tried to avoid taking part in the elections (on 22 October 1939, T.S.). All day long the militia was dragging them at gunpoint to the polling station. The sick were also carried there by force. Shortly after the elections they carried out a night roundup, arrested entire families and deported them to the Soviet Union."
Account no. 1394, by Stanislaw Gruba, a worker from Jedwabne: "House searches were conducted in order to find weapons, anti-communist literature, etc. The suspects had been immediately arrested, just like the families of Catholic priests, and put in prison for further investigation."
Account no. 2589, by Jozef Karwowski, a farmer from the Jedwabne district: "In October 1939 the NKVD announced pre-election meetings. The NKVD and militia assembled the audiences by force. If someone protested, he was immediately arrested and he afterwards disappeared without trace."
Account no. 2545, by Jozef Makowski, a farmer from the Jedwabne district: "They arrested people, threw them into cellars and pigsties, starved them, didn't give them any water to drink, beat them bestially and in this way they tried to make them confess to their membership in Polish organizations. I myself was beaten unconscious during NKVD interrogations in Jedwabne, Lomza and Minsk."
Account no. 8356, by Jozef Rybicki of Jedwabne, already know to us: "House searches were conducted among the wealthier farmers, they took away furniture, clothing and precious objects, and after a few days they came at night and arrested them. They dragged people by force to various meetings - whoever tried to oppose them, he was denounced as a "vreditel" (saboteur) and then arrested. The village elder was preparing lists, going from house to house and writing down the names and dates of birth. The electoral commission was composed of professional soldiers and Jews and local communists. The candidates had been chosen in advance, mostly Jews and communists from the Soviet Union."
THEY PUT ON RED ARMBANDS
Let's move now to the postwar accounts collected by myself in the context of my inquiries about the battle at Uroczysko Kobielne.
Jerzy Tarnacki, a partisan from Kobielne, wrote in a letter of 24 October 1991: "A patrol consisting of Kurpiewski, a Pole, and Czapnik, a Jew, came to arrest me and my brother Antek. We managed to escape from our own backyard. I went into hiding in the village of Kajetanowo, at the house of my friend Waclaw Mierzejewski. I learned from him that there was a Polish partisan unit behind the river Biebrza. I stayed in hiding until mid-April 1940."
Stefan Boczkowski from Jedwabne observes in a letter of 14 January 1995: "The local Jews in Jedwabne put on red armbands and were helping the militia in arresting "the enemies of the people", "spies", etc."
Kazimierz Odyniec, M.D., the son of Sergeant Antoni Odyniec (killed in the battle of Kobielno on 23 June 1940), wrote in his letter of 20 June 1991: "By the end of April 1940 a local Jew in the uniform of the Soviet militia came to our appartment and ordered Father to report to the NKVD office... Father bid us goodbye, first sending out Mother to follow that militiaman to see where else would he go, because the list [he had noticed] contained a score of names. Later on it turned out that Father didn't go to the NKVD. The next day the NKVD arrested Mother, trying to force her to reveal Father's hiding place."
Dr. Odyniec, in a letter sent to me after the publication of Jan Gross's book, stated: "Gross stresses the cruelty of the Polish side without mentioning the behavior of a large group of Jews who had openly collaborated with the Soviets and who denounced the Poles deserving arrest or deportation. I'll give you an example of my own family (here comes a repetition of the description quoted above, T.S.). I also remember that the bodies of partisans killed at Kobielno were carried away by a Jew named Calko, a neighbor of my uncle Wladyslaw Lojewski" (letter of 25 October 2000).
Roman Sadowski, an officer of the Home Army, the husband of Halina (sister of Kazimierz Odyniec, deported on 20 June 1941 to the Soviet Union), wrote to me on 10 November 2000: "During the Soviet occupation the Jews were "rulers" of those territories. They totally collaborated with the Soviet authorities. According to the statements of my wife's cousins, it was the Jews together with the NKVD who were preparing deportation lists."
As we can see, although I did not undertake a systematic search for this kind of information, a substantial collection of spontaneous and unsolicited testimonies about the Jewish behavior practically "gathered itself." Therefore, I cannot agree with Gross's statement that "I have found only one account specifically concerned with the welcome given to the Soviets in the town [of Jedwabne] in September 1939 - as we know, that was the moment which fixed for many Poles the memory of Jewish disloyalty - and even this account is not very reliable, having been written down more than 50 years after the events." And then Gross talks about the bit of information collected by Agnieszka Arnold during her preparations of the documentary film about Jedwabne.
Not being an expert in this specific field, I have quoted above five testimonies, for the most part written down before 1945, which talk about the attitudes of the Jews from Jedwabne toward the new Soviet authorities, and nine relations about the activities of the militia (composed predominantly of the Jedwabne Jews, although its commandant was a Pole, Czeslaw Kurpiewski, a known prewar communist.)
Let's also add a very characteristic information, repeated in two independent sources: Apart from the Jewish militiamen in uniform, Jews in civilian clothes also participated in the arrests, just with red armbands on their sleeves and armed with rifles.
A CHARACTERISTIC INCIDENT: TRZCIANNE
The very same documents from the Hoover Institution, supposedly so well known to Jan Gross, mention a whole list of cities and towns where the Jews enthusiastically welcomed the Red Army, and later on filled the ranks of militias: Zambrow, Lomza, Stawiski, Wizna, Szumowo (with the Jewish militia commandant by the name of Jablonka), Rakowo-Boginie, Bredki, Zabiele, Wadolki Stare, Drozdowo.
In the Red Forest [Czerwony Bor] the fighting still continued.
It wasn't the Soviets but a group of 10-15 Polish cavalrymen who were crossing that neutral zone. They came upon the triumphal arch, the rabbi with bread and salt on a platter... The uhlans charged into the crowd, destroyed the arch, laid about with the flats of their swords, trashed a few Jewish stores, they even wanted to burn the town but it didn't come to pass. The rabbi's daughter died of a heart attack. The cavalry went away. The Jews in Trzcianne were armed..."
This account, recorded by myself almost 50 years after the event, has been confirmed by Soviet sources. They state that, by the end of September 1939, a "band of Polish soldiers", under the command of two local landowners, Henryk Klimaszewski and Jozef Nieczecki, attacked the town and conducted a "robbery and a pogrom among the Jewish population." During this action Henryk Klimaszewski supposedly kept calling for a showdown with Bolsheviks and Jews by saying, "Get the Jews for Grodno and Skidel, it is time to settle the score with them, away with the Communists, we will kill all the Jews."
GERMANS SAVED HUNDREDS OF INHABITANTS
Apart from the Hoover Institution collection, known to Prof. Gross, and the accounts in my possession, there are other testimonies about the behavior of the Jedwabne Jews in the years 1939-1941. Danuta and Aleksander Wroniszewski in an article "Aby zyc" ("Just to survive"), published in the "Kontakty" magazine on 19 July 1988, reproduced an account of an inhabitant of Jedwabne: "I remember when they were deporting Poles to Siberia, on each and every wagon there sat a Jew with a rifle. Mothers, wives, children knelt in front of them, begging for mercy. The last time it happened on 20 June 1941."
Did the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and neighboring villages welcome the Germans with enthusiasm and as their saviors? Yes! They did! If someone drags me out of a burning house, where I could die any second, I will embrace him and give him my gratitude. Even if tomorrow I have to consider him my next mortal enemy. In those days the Germans saved hundreds of the locals (maybe also from Jedwabne?), who had been hiding for several days in the cornfields and among the bushes on the banks of the Biebrza river. They saved them from a deportation to death, somewhere in the deserts of Kazakhstan or the Siberian taiga. And it was already commonly known what such a deportation meant: Letters and other messages had been arriving from the "special settlements". Parallel to the deportations there were taking place mass arrests of the suspects, which often led to prolonged and deadly terms in the gulag or prison.
We shouldn't be surprised, then, by those signs of joy or by those (in Zbikowski's words) "bands" attacking the reatreating groups of Soviet soldiers. Attacking their yesterday's tormentors, representatives of one of the most cruel political systems ever suffered by humanity.
THE MOST TERRIBLE DAY FOR THE POLES
Recently there has been published a new, specific and trustworthy, source, namely, "The Chronicle of the Abbey of the Congregation of the Benedictine Sisters in Lomza (1939-1954)", edited by Sister Alojza Piesiewiczowna (Lomza 1995). Let's quote the fragment describing the events of 22 June 1941:
"June 20. The Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The most terrible day for the Poles under the Soviet occupation. Mass deportations to Russia. From the early morning wagons carrying Polish families drove across the town toward the railroad station. Deported were the wealthier Polish families, families of nationalists, Polish patriots, the intelligentsia, families of prisoners in Soviet gaols; it was even difficult to understand exactly what categories had been deported. Wailing, moaning and terrible despair ruled in Polish souls. On the other hand, the Jews and the Soviets are jubilant. It is impossible to describe what the Poles are going through. A completely hopeless situation. And the Jews and Soviets loudly rejoice and threaten that soon they will deport all the Poles. This may as well turn out to be true because for the whole day of 20 June and the next day, June 21, they dragged people to the train station without interruption...
June 22. Very early in the morning there was heard the rumbling of plane engines, and from time to time the explosions of bombs over the town... A few German bombs fell on more important Soviet posts. A terrible panic overtook the Soviets. They started running away in complete chaos. The Poles were very happy. Every bomb explosion filled our souls with indescribable joy. After several hours there was not a single Soviet in town, the Jews hid in cellars and basements. Just before noon the prisoners broke out of their cells. People were embracing each other in the streets and cried for joy. The Soviets were retreating without weapons, they did not return a single shot.
In the evening of that day no Soviets remained in Lomza. The situation was yet far from clear - the Soviets run away, the Germans still didn't arrive. On the next day, June 23, the town was still unoccupied. The civilian population started breaking into, and pillaging, all the Soviet magazines, warehouses and shops. In the evening of 23 June a few Germans entered - the people were relieved."
No other reaction could possibly take place in those days. A few weeks later, the Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ) was hastily restoring the Soviet-damaged conspiratorial structures and collecting masses of weapons abandoned by the Red Army; this "interregnum" was used to prepare for the struggle with the next occupier. There are as many testimonies in support of this, as there are for the incidents of robbery, revenge and pogroms. As always, the reality turns out to be more complicated than we can ever imagine.
Tomasz Strzembosz (born in 1930), a historian, is a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin and in the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Author of numerous books, he recently published "Rzeczpospolita podziemna".