Jedwabne - Polish massacre of innocent Jews?
by Robert Strybel
Mr. Strybel is a journalist whose articles appear in Dziennik Zwiazkowy
and Polish News [see bio below]; he is a long-time member of the Siec.
Contribution is courtesy of the author.|
Jedwabne -- Polish massacre of innocent Jews?
By Robert Strybel, Our Warsaw Correspondent [sorry - I don't know where was published the original article - WK.]
WARSAW--A year ago hardly anybody in Poland or anywhere else had heard of Jedwabne. Now it is fast becoming one of the most loudly publicized Polish-Jewish controversies. Some say it is another case of rich, influential Jewry accusing poor Poles of eternal anti-Semitism and shifting the blame for the Holocaust from the Germans to them to bolster their property-restitution claims against the Polish government. For others it is a case of asking forgiveness for the worst Polish pogrom against Jews and seeking true reconciliation between the two nations, although some wonder if the Jews ever intend to reciprocate. Still others insist that all the facts must be brought into the open so any historical inaccuracies can be righted.
The issue can also be viewed as a challenge to the political maturity of Poles who should choose an approach that will do the least harm to Poland's international image and strategic interests. Jedwabne is all that and probably much more. But let us start at the beginning.
The basic facts are that on June 10, 1941 an estimated 1,600 Jews in the little northeastern town of Jedwabne were beaten, stabbed, stoned or bludgeoned, then herded into a barn and burnt alive. The inscription on a memorial erected in the town in the 1950s blamed the killings on "the Gestapo and Nazi Gendarmerie", but a book by Polish émigré Jew Jan T. Gross contends that the killings were the work of local Poles. The book "S_siedzi", whose English-language version is due to appear in America shortly, has naturally stirred up a hornets nest of angry controversy. While historians of every persuasion agree that some Poles did take part in the pogrom, the extent of their participation, the role of the Germans and even the number of victims have remained in dispute.
Gross states that 92 Poles took part in the massacre, but the post-war communist regime put only 23 men on trial, of which only 12 were found guilty and sent to prison. The number of Germans in Jedwabne on that day is also contested. Gross claims there were only a couple, but a cook testified she was ordered to prepare supper for 60 German gendarmes that day, and some historians suggest that a 230-strong German force had been sent into the area to exterminate the Jews. The number of victims also remains unclear.
Tomasz Szarota, a Polish historian of Jewish descent, doubts whether 1,600 people could possible have fit in a small barn. The victims? bodies were all buried in a nearby ditch so the mass grave could be exhumed to determine the exact number. Jews, however, oppose such a move, insisting their religion does not allow the bones of the dead to be disturbed.
The issue has divided Poles and Polish Americans, religious leaders, historians, politicians, journalists and even the townspeople of Jedwabne who are sick of being badgered by the reporters and TV crews that have descended on their town. Edward Moskal, leader of the Polish-American Congress, who has frequently defended the Polish image against Jewish attacks, wrote in the Chicago Polish daily "Dziennik Zwi_zkowy": "Gross's cry of outrage is hardly the proper methodological tool for an historian. And in the case of Jedwabne it certainly does not confirm his thesis alleging the spontaneous and mass participation of the Polish community" in the Holocaust. (...) Those were truly sad events, but before a proper evaluation can be made, the world must become acquainted with Poland's entire history. That is becoming impossible in view of the pseudo-history being pursued by so many prejudiced historians in their untruthful and distorted presentation of Poland (...) The truth, if it is now to be revealed, is that not all Jews were angels, nor were all Poles. But the Jews have not given up pointing fingers at others, while refusing to admit their own sins."
Rather than mulling over any balance of blame, Jan Nowak-Jeziora_ski, underground Poland's World War II "courier from Warsaw" and former Radio Free Europe director, has expressed a largely pragmatic approach: "Films and photos of the massacre were made by German crews and deposited in Ludwigsburg (Germany), and there exists a strong probability they will soon be shown on TV screens world-wide. What can be done to limit the harm caused by such a spectacle" There exists an urgent need for some symbolic act that would express regret and atonement for the crime committed by our countrymen (...) It is important for it to take place before Gross's book appears (in English--RS) and before the film is found and disseminated, and for Polish and foreign media to publicize it. Only then will we be able to effectively and credibly defend Poland's good name from the slander alleging that Poles were Hitler"s partners in the crime of extermination. If we justify or diminish the crime, shift the responsibility to the victims or seek out extenuating circumstances, then in the eyes of the world, the whole nation may become an accomplice in the crime."
Poland's ex-communist President Aleksander Kwa_niewski, who has a record of bowing to Jewish pressure, said he would personally travel to Jedwabne for the 60th-anniversary commemoration and "apologize to the Jewish nation on behalf of Poles". Solidarity-rooted Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek said: "It it was our duty to pay due homage to the victims and uncover the whole truth (...) and the inevitable truth is that Poles were involved in the crime in Jedwabne; no serious-minded historian denies that". But he added: "The Murder in Jedwabne was not carried out in the name of the Polish nation or state. At that time Poland was an occupied country (...) We are ready to face even the darkest facts of our history in the spirit of truth. Nevertheless, we cannot allow the Jedwabne case to spread false notions about Poland's co-responsibility for the Holocaust or the Poles" inborn anti-Semitism."
Many historians and others taking part in the debate point out that the pogrom occurred nearly two years after the area was invaded by the Soviets who were welcomed and aided by many local Jews. Throughout Poland"s Soviet occupation zone, pro-Soviet Jewish militiamen and informers fingered their patriotic Polish neighbors who were arrested by Stalin's NKVD and sent to Siberia, often never to be heard from again. Jews took over the jobs of ethnic Poles and threatened and blackmailed their Polish neighbors in various ways. It is understandable -- although not in any way morally excusable or justifiable -- that some Poles, who had seen their loved ones exiled or killed or had themselves been persecuted by Jewish collaborators were seething with revenge against them. Others -- various thugs, thieves and assorted low-lives -- saw the pogrom as an opportunity to get their hands on the homes and possessions of the murdered Jews. It is a known fact that such scum exists in every society and seems to crawl out of the woodwork especially during wars, revolutions and other violent upheavals.
But many Jews regard any such clarifications as an attempt to explain away the pogrom and diminish Polish guilt. When I noted that all wars deprave people and that both Jews and Poles not only betrayed one another to save their own skin but also turned in their fellow countrymen, the chief rabbi of Warsaw, American Michael Schudrich, replied: "This is only about Jedwabne, about Poles killing Jews. Period. Let's not try to relativize everything. Since the partitions, Poles have perceived themselves as victims, and that has largely been the case. But in this particular instance it wasn't, and Poles must come to terms with that specific situation. Let them not worry about what others did to them but rather own up and set an example for others to follow. Let Jews learn from Poles."
It would indeed be good if Jedwabne became a springboard for mutual reconciliation in the spirit of the Polish bishops' 1965 appeal to their German counterparts: "We forgive and ask for forgiveness." Both Poles and Jews can produce a long list of grievances against each other, and it's too bad a "hooray for our side mentality" continues to dominate in the way those problems are addressed. We (here meaning Poles and Jews) continue seeing a blade in the other side's eye and not the beam in our own. Too bad some Polish historian wasn"t the one to first expose the Jedwabne pogrom. To correct that Polish oversight, perhaps some Jewish scholar will finally decide to research and publicize the April 1944 massacre in Koniuchy where 300 Polish men, women and children, the entire population of this tiny village near Zamosc, were killed by a largely Jewish Soviet partisan unit for daring to defend their property against repeated communist plunder.
Over the years, Pope John Paul II and other Polish churchmen,
Presidents Lech Wa__sa and Aleksander Kwa_niewski, plus other high-ranking Polish
government officials and leading intellectuals have all beat their
breasts and apologized to Jews for whatever harm they may have suffered at the
hands of Poles. There is no doubt that an official apology for Jedwabne will
also be forthcoming shortly.
ROBERT STRYBEL, a native of Detroit, Michigan, received his Master's Degree in Polish Language and Literature from the University of Wisconsin. He has taught Polish-related subjects at the secondary, college and adult-education levels and has spent many years working as the American Polonia's correspondent in Warsaw. His articles currently appear in a dozen Polish-American publications. He and his Polish-born wife have one son (born 1972).