Another "Rush to Judgment" ?
In this past year, Pogranicze Publishers, Sejny in Poland published a controversial monograph by John Thomas Gross titled "Neighbors". It attempts in some 115 pages, to describe and "adjudicate" a set of incidents that took place nearly sixty years ago - the gruesome killing of Jews in Poland's Lomza County (in the region of Radzilow and Jedwabne) during the German occupation in July, 1941, and so almost immediately upon the retreat of the previous occupiers - the Soviet army. The English language translation of this book is scheduled to appear in April of this year in the United States. We can also expect to see the release of a film under the same title by Agnes Arnold. Unfortunately, a critical appraisal of "Neighbors" leaves many disturbing questions regarding Gross' handling and interpretation of the evidence on which his contentions are based. These cannot be left to stand alone without commentary. But first, a brief summary of his work.
The introductory part informs us that at the start of World War II in 1939 about 1,600 Jews lived in Jedwabne, constituting around 60% of the town's population. In the almost two years of Soviet occupation (just before the war) mutual relations between Poles and Jews were good, but abrupt changes occurred soon enough, according to Gross in the latter part of June, 1941, when the Germans entered the territory of Bialystok; he ascertains that at that point in time, the subjugated Poles joyfully received the conquering Germans. In Radzilow (p. 41, Polish text) he says, "they built in honor of the German army a triumphal arch, decorated with a swastika, Hitler's portrait, and a slogan reading 'May the German Army Live - Which Frees Us From the Chains of the Judeo-commune' ". Gross then follows with "the first question these 'hooligans' asked was 'can we kill the Jews?' ". On apparently receiving a favorable reply, the Poles, Gross claims, started a brutal massacre - as an example he presents the story of the beheading of a young Jewess whose torso was then thrown into the water. He further asserts that the Jews were kicked, robbed, and viciously beaten. His description of these various acts runs for several pages. On page 46 (Polish version), he discovers increasingly worse things about the Poles; they "were the masters during the massacre for not a single German was present". But in the end, the Germans determined that the "Poles allowed themselves too much". Gross now goes on to relate that eighteen Jewish lives were saved as they later came out of hiding (seemingly "protected" by the German police?). "Together with the Jews also eradicated was everything that was Jewish in the town - schools, the synagogue, and the cemetery" he notes. On page 51, the action passes to the nearby town of Jedwabne. In the interlude since the German entry, a new town administration is installed with mayor Marian Karolak (appointed by the Germans, Gross fails to note that Karolak was a Silesian and ethnically German (a Reichsdeutsch)). This "Polish" administration of the town "planned and arrived at an agreement with the Germans to "murder the Jedwabne Jews" (p.51, Polish text).
"Certainly, many people had access to this information since the local men began to congregate in the town and massively gathered already in the early morning, though it was not market day the coordinator of the Jewish murders at Jedwabne was the town's new mayor, Marian Karolak ... though the entire town administration … took part in the murders". It is difficult to determine who exactly initiated the pogrom (on p. 52, for example, his star witness, Szmul Wasersztajn is quoted thus "this command was given by the Germans"), but according to Gross his observation is really not pivotal since everyone (apparently that is the conquerors and the conquered) had come to a mutual understanding" and here Gross makes for the connection "a taxi came with four or five Gestapo functionaries and they started talking with the town administration" (headed by Reichsdeutsch Karolak Yet, it is uncertain on which day this Gestapo visit took place, whether on the day of the massacre or earlier… nor what this understanding was exactly is also unclear and Gross does not seek to elucidate it. But he does venture into a personal guess, "Most probably the Germans gave the Poles a free hand for eight hours to do to the Jews whatever they wished (p. 43, Polish text). Gross moves on from here to his next guess, another hypothetical reconstruction. "The authorities of course, in Jedwabne, were the Germans and only they could take up the decision to kill the Jews". But he holds that "they did not do so; they even suggested keeping alive a certain number of Jewish skilled workers though they did that without conviction since finally all (the Jews) were burned" (p. 56, Polish text).
The German police station, Gross writes, was a haven that day and a few Jews were saved only because they found themselves there. On pages 65-73 (Polish text) a description is given of
Conflicts within the Documentary Sources
From where does Gross obtain his information to provide these detailed accounts. Does he evaluate and reconcile his sources and are his inferences defensible? The primary sources consist
of Polish court records as well as the testimony of witnesses before Jewish organizations in Warsaw in the middle nineteen-forties. The main trial over the killings of Jedwabne Jews was held at the Circuit Court in Lomza, Poland where following an investigation, proceedings took place on May 16th and 17th, 1949, and so during the bleakest days of Stalinist terror. We all know how investigations were conducted then (torture, shakedowns, intimidation) and how justice was made to serve the policy and propaganda interests of that totalitarian state. John Gross himself, hesitatingly agrees with this, writing on p. 21 of the Polish text that "equally the courts and the prosecutors enjoyed a deservedly bad reputation (presumably he means among the populace). He writes regarding the proceedings that "each after the other remonstrated that they were beaten during the investigation and in this way were forced to testify which in view of the methods then in use by the Security Bureau is very likely". But regardless of this crucial admission, the greater part of the sources Gross utilizes for the book "Neighbors" come precisely from such tainted documents and witnesses. Does Gross at least attempt to critically evaluate these questionable hearings and testimonies. Most pertinent here are accounts of two "foundational" witnesses to the events described by Gross, Szmul Wasersztajn and Menachem Finkelstein. They both testified in 1945 before the Jewish Historical Institute as well as later before the Jewish Historical Commission in Warsaw in 1946. The records are a "loose translation" from the Yiddish into Polish as Gross confirms. These witness's formal statements differ between themselves regarding details (perhaps due to the "loose translation").
On page 12 (Polish text), we find Gross providing this description of the shocking death of two Jewish women as it was related by Wasersztajn. "That same day I observed a terrible scene; Chaja Kubrzanska, 28 years old, and Basia Binsztajn, 26 years old, both with newborns in their arms seeing what was happening went to the pond, preferring to drown themselves with their children rather than fall into the hands of the bandits. So they threw their children into the water and drowned them with their own hands. Then Basia Binsztajn jumped in and went immediately straight down. Chaja Kubrzanska suffered for a few hours. The gathered hooligans made a spectacle of this; they chided her to turn herself about face, down into the water so she would drown more quickly... she seeing that the children had drowned already threw herself more energetically into the water and there found her death". But this same terrible story in the book of
But we can go even further into the background of the story of these suicidal drownings. An immediate question arises... why did the Germans pick Kubrzanska and Binsztajn for such severe maltreatment. Perhaps on account of their husbands collaborating with the Soviet occupiers, since during the communist occupation of 1939-1941 both their husbands served actively in important positions with the NKVD (the dreaded Soviet secret police) in Jedwabne.
If the testimony of Ryvka Fogel contradicts Wasersztajn's in many respects, how should his testimony of Ryvka Fogel contradicts Wasersztajn's in many respects, how should his testimony then be understood (this part as likewise the remainder)? Most Poles in Jedwabne in those times knew that Wasersztajn was an informer against his country. According to these respondents, during the Soviet occupation of September, 1939 to June, 1941, Szmul Wasersztajn denounced Polish families to the NKVD and assisted in their removal and exile to Siberian gulags. And yet it is to this class of witness that Gross pays the greatest homage. Another instance of Gross' carelessness in drawing inferences from available sources is the following invented account
is blatant, for we know that the Bishop escaped and hid during the entire period of Soviet occupation at the location far distant from Lomza. He returned to his diocese only in August, 1941 ard even then his whereabouts were kept secret ard only known to few trusted Catholics. The attempt to make out that the Polish Catholic bishops enjoyed privileges in Hitler's occupied Poland is ludicrous. Both the Polish intelligentsia and the Polish priesthood were being bestially exterminated by the Germans at that time.
On pages 52, 80, and 81, Gross quotes (from the files and dossiers found in investigative and prosecutorial materials of the communist County Security Bureau in Lomza) with the purpose of establishing Polish complicity "one of the younger ones, for merely nineteen years of age, but also (one of the most brutal participants in these events - a moral idiot and criminal juvenile" who with "Wisniewski and Kalinowski stoned Lewin and Zdrojewicz" and further he finds even "two of them, Jerzy Laudanski and Karol Bardon were later policeman (schutzman) in the German police". On the issue of the person of Jerzy Laudanski we can find a retort by
referring to a letter published in the Republic (Rzeczpospolita) of January 27-28, 2001, from Dr Adam Cynar of the National Auschwitz Museum-Birkenau under the title "Jedwabne-Auschwitz-Sachsenhausen". In this letter, we learn of Jerzy Laudanski's still living brothers, Casimer and Sigmund that they come from one of the more notable Polish families in Jedwabne. Jerzy Laudanski during the war was involved in underground, conspiratorial work with the ZWZ and the Home Army (AK); arrested, he was later sent by the Germans to Pawiak prison and then to Auschwitz (# 63805) and then again from there imprisoned in Gross Rosen and Sachsenhausen. One might inquire of Gross... when indeed did Jerzy Laudanski become a policeman in the German police and whose testimony, the Stalinist Security Bureau of 1949 (which ferociously persecuted Home Army partisans) or Dr. Cynar as worthy of trust and belief? Information provided by Gross in the Chapter entitled "The Soviet Occupation, 1939-1944" (Polish edition) carefully skirts a well-known, documented fact of Polish history in that volatile period. (See Tomasz Strzembosz, Republic (Rzeczpospolita), January 27-28, 2000 - The Forgotten
Collaboration). It documents that large segments of the Jewish population (as yet Polish citizens), and particularly Jewish youth and poorer classes openly greeted with joyful welcome the invading Soviet armies (which raises the interesting question of a preventive camouflaging intent behind the tactic of Gross' absurd description of Poles welcoming Germans into Poland).
Armed and ready, many Jews collaborated with the communist Soviets, brazenly denouncing their fellow Poles and taking active part, along with Soviet marauders in terror, robbery, arrests, and deportations. Documentation of such widespread complicity is plentiful in Polish sources and can also be found in Dr. Cynar's letter. He relates the following scenario as described by Casimer Laudanski, a resident of Jedwabne. "When after September 17, 1939, a communist cell, reminiscent of the Bolshevik revolution, organized a government and a paramilitary, the members of this were a few token Poles but the greater number were the communist Jewish youth". It should not be revelatory that in the next period, that of German occupation, the Poles for practical reasons, did not offer risk their lives and their families lives in defense of the leftist Jews... of these erstwhile fellow citizens turned denunciators and oppressors.
The Massacre in Light of the Facts
John Gross for reasons only known to himself has omitted completely in his book a very essential major work published in 1989, and so already in the post-Solidarity period in the Studium Podlaski (published by the University of Warsaw branch at Bialystok). The Studium is a meticulous study of the destruction of Jewish communities in the Bialystok region in 1939 and 1941 to 1944. The author, of that work, prosecutor Waldemar Monkiewicz, was head of the Regional Commission on the Study of German War Crimes. According to his determination, on July 10, 1941 about 200 German functionaries and policeman arrived in military vehicles (from Battalions 309 and 316) acting within the operational framework of Einsatzgruppen B, sobriquet "Kommando Bialystok" (these battalions were composed in the main of German criminal elements). They were commanded by Wolfgang Brükner from the Warsaw Gestapo. These battalions were usually transferred from place to place, carrying out annihilation of Jews. In Jedwabne, he notes the role of a few Poles was limited to "bringing Jews to the town square and then escorting them beyond the town" under German coercion. Then "the Germans herded the Jews together beyond the town where some 900 of them were burned alive". Prosecutor Monkiewicz was acquainted with the court proceedings of 1949 where several Poles were accused of helping Germans locate Jews and then marching them to the killing field. In that instance, verdicts were issued for sentences of a few to several years (but only half of those accused were found guilty). After many years, Monkiewicz spoke reluctantly of this (in his remarks to Danuta and Alexander Wroniszewski in "Contact" (Kontakt) from July, 1986) he said, "these people had to be sentenced without regard to their degree of guilt. For these were the times
Based almost exclusively on the testimony of Szmul Wasersztajn, Gross articulates a fanciful philosophy of historical evidence. "Our basic point of departure in regard to every transmittal coming from the unexpectedly saved victim of the Holocaust" Gross writes on page 64 (Polish edition), "ought to change from skeptical to affirming".
Is this a serious ground for interpreting evidence by one who purports to write history? Principles based on such a foundation permit endless "new dramas" to be written (just as in the period of Stalinism) and in this particular case lead to preposterous and foolhardy hypotheses... obvious sophisms flowing from a specious foundation. Utilized in this manner, proofs arising from such faulty reasoning are a logic of anarchy and inconsistency. In this book by John Gross we discover many such irrationalisms. If a contest was held where judges were guided with such perverse logic and politics, then the book "Neighbors" would be a prime exemplar of deformed and wrongheaded intellect.