(Following the release of the film “Aftermath” in Poland in September, 2011, Polish deniers of the Jedwabne massacre of Jews during World War II strike once again)
My father was born a short distance from Krakow in 1913 when Poland was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and fortunately was able to immigrate to the United States in the mid-1930s, though many of our extended family would eventually perish in Auschwitz. Growing up my father would tell me stories about what it was like to live among Polish Catholics in his village and the abuse that he endured. Years later I read the book NEIGHBOR: THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN JEDWABNE, POLAND by Jan Tomasz Gross in 2002 that described the pogrom committed by Polish Catholics against the Jews of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941 and was shocked, but not surprised. The outcry against the book when it was published in Poland arguing that it was the Gestapo or other components of the German army that was responsible was to be expected. With the publication of Anna Bikont’s haunting history, THE CRIME AND THE SILENCE: CONFRONTING THE MASSACRE OF JEWS IN WARTIME JEDWABNE in 2004, recently translated into English by Alissa Valles, the Polish people once again must face the historical reality of the actions of many of their co-religionists and not resort to the standard denials shifting blame to the Nazis.
Bikont a journalist for the Gazeta Wyborcza has written a book that is part history and part memoir as she assiduously gathered oral histories of events that took place in Poland during the war. The narrative adds to Gross’ work and the reader learns immediately that Jedwabne was not the only pogrom that Polish Catholics engaged in. In fact three days before the massacre at Jedwabne, in a village close by, the entire Jewish population of Radzilow was rounded up and burned, with no Germans present. As we read on there are numerous examples of the liquidation of Jews with the assistance of the Poles, or were conducted solely by the Poles.
Bikont’s approach is to alternate chapters detailing her investigation through research in the Bialystok region, Canada, the United States, Israel, Argentina, and Europe or wherever her research took her, as she conducted interviews of individuals who lived in the area during the massacre with chapters dealing with the overall history of the area in the 1930s and 1940s. The author does a good job chronicling the deterioration of the plight of the Jews in the 1930s, a period that began with Jews trying to be good Polish citizens despite the increasing level of anti-Semitism that would continue to manifest itself throughout the decade. The arrival of Hitler in power in Germany in 1933, in part provided an opportunity for “the Camp for Greater Poland,” the National Party, and Catholic prelates to egg on the peasant population to perpetrate a pogrom in Radzilow in March of that year. Marching to the slogan “We raise our plea before your alter/Lord, rid Poland of the Jews,” the peasant population that was suffering from the depression could focus its hostility on the Jews. Throughout the 1930s the Catholic press did its best to instigate and heighten Polish hatred of Jews and encouraged acts of violence that by the summer of 1937, 65-70 acts of violence against Jews were reported monthly to the Interior Ministry. This on top of parliamentary action against Jewish religious practices and education made Jews very wary of remaining in Poland. As the Zionist movement expanded many families hoped to at the very least send some of their children to Palestine. By September 1, 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland that avenue of escape was severed.
(Jedwabne, Poland synagogue, circa, 1913)
Bikont makes extensive use of archival material that support her thesis as to the role of the Poles in making the lives of Jews one of misery and death, during the prewar period and during the war itself. Her use of the Jewish Historical Institute and Jewish Historical Commission archives produces microfiche of Holocaust survivor testimony reflecting that not only were their pogroms in Radzilow on July 7, Jedwabne on July 10, but also in Wasosz on July 5. For Szymon Datner, a renowned historian what happened at Wasosz rivaled the slaughter that took place in Kishinev in 1903 Czarist Russia. Datner also documents the murder of Jews in 1945 as they came out of hiding by Polish peasants. Bikont’s journal entries for the first six months of 2001 are especially important as the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne murders approaches. She is confronted with outright denial or refusal to speak with her by individuals who were present in 1941. Further, even Jews who survived are apprehensive to speak with her because they have either hidden the fact that they are Jewish, even from family members, or are just afraid of the repercussions. One of the dominant excuses that is offered is that once the Soviet Union invaded Poland the Jews collaborated with the NKVD and turned Polish citizen’s names over to Russian authorities causing them to be sent into exile in Siberia. Another argument is that it is being raised now, if it actually happened, so the Jews could collect billions in reparations from the Polish government. This line of thought is seen as justification for burning 1600 human beings in a barn, and shooting another 42 in the market place area.
One of the more interesting chapters concentrates on the three Laudanski brothers, two of which were convicted of murder for the events of July 7, 1941 and their rationale that they too suffered under Soviet and German occupation. The third Laudanski brother, Kazimierz claims to have not been in Jedwabne on the day of the massacre and arrived three days later, though there is some evidence he was actually present. Of the ten men convicted in the 1949 trial for the murders in Jedwabne, Zygmunt and Jerzy Laudanski, as of the publication of Bikont’s book in 2004, were still alive. From all accounts and by their own admission they forced hundreds of Jews into the market place and then led them to the barn were they were burned alive. There is also testimony that they beat and killed Jews while coercing them to reach the market place. For their crimes Zygmunt Laudanski was sentenced to twelve years in prison of which he served six, and his brother Jerzy was sentenced to fifteen years, and served eight. From her interviews with the brothers, Bikont points out that they blamed the deportation of the Poles, including their family members under Soviet occupation on Jewish communists. Among their comments Zygmunt Laudanski states, “there was nothing as horrible as all that. People are making it up now in revenge.” Kazimierz Laudanksi comments, “Like all of the Polish people, we suffered under the Soviets, under the Germans, and under People’s Poland…Our people organized the roundup of the Jews, but didn’t take part in the burning, they behaved as peaceful people.” The Poles kept saying, “It’s God’s punishment. It was a diabolical stunt organized by the Germans. The Germans directed it, and used the Poles like actors in the theater. But Poles wanting to burn Jews, there was nothing like that.” (119)
(as per Jewish tradition, Rabbis place stones on top of the monument denoting the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne, Poland massacre)
The remembrance monument for the massacre is another controversial issue for the people of Jedwabne. The monument that commemorates the events of July 10, 1941 states, “Place of Execution of Jewish Population. Gestapo and Hitler’s Police Buried 1600 People Alive July 10, 1941.” Which of course is not accurate. Bikont’s journal entries from 2001 reflect the animosity as the inscription is about to be changed as the 60th anniversary of the massacre approaches. Jedwabne residents are upset that their town cannot escape the stigma of the massacre and resent journalists revisiting what they see as “ancient” history and the calls for a more accurate inscription. These feelings are manifested by certain political and religious figures statements denigrating the monument and the impact it has on their lives. One of the most distressing aspects of the book is Bikont’s exploration of the debate in the Jedwabne town council over the plans for the ceremony at the monument commemorating the massacre. A majority of the council members refused to approve funding for the road that provided access to the Jewish cemetery for the ceremony. What remains quite clear that Polish anti-Semitism remains very pervasive as of Bikont’s writing and many sections of the Polish population cannot overcome their hatred and view of history no matter what evidence is presented i.e., the creation of the “Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne,” dominated by the families of those convicted, and those who have taken over the homes of Jews in the town, or have seized Jewish property. As Mayor Krzysztof Godlewski, later forced to resign because of his support of the new inscription and his assistance to Bikont during her research, tries to bring the council together he is met with repeated denial and virulent anti-Semitism.
The most important question that needs to be asked is why did the massacre take place? For Bikont the immediate fuse that set off the events on July 10 was the Soviet occupation, which led to the charge of Jewish collaboration. The Soviet occupation was equally difficult for Jews and Poles alike. The Jewish social fabric and community life was destroyed by the Soviets, but the Jews did greet the Russians in a better frame of mind than the Poles. The reason is obvious, the Poles with their virulent anti-Semitism and violence against Jews were now blocked by the occupation. For the Poles it must have been humiliating to lose control of their own country and government and witness Jews having an element of freedom. With the deportations of Poles as well as Jews it is much more convenient “to replace reality with a stereotype like ‘the Jews collaborated,’ all the more so if you know those who might have corrected this misconception had perished.” The new situation in which “the ‘kikes’ were given relative equality in civil law must have been a provocation to those neighbors raised on prewar anti-Semitism.” (179) As far as the charge that Jews were involved in selecting who was to be deported, it is another Polish fantasy. Bikont’s research points to three great deportations. The first on February 9-10, 1940 resulted in taking away members of the Polish military, foresters, and other specific occupations. The second wave in April, 1940 targeted families of those previously arrested: police officers, senior officials, political leaders and the local intelligentsia. The third wave in June, 1940 involved “refugees” who fled the General Government, 80% of which were Jews. The fourth wave that came in June, 1941 targeting the Polish underground partisan movement. Since Jews were not generally accepted as partisans, to blame them is beyond the scope of reality. Bikont, and Gross before her, clearly debunk the myth of Jewish denunciations as the cause of Polish deportation no matter how often Catholic prelates and Polish politicians repeat the charge. Once the Germans invaded the remainder of Poland on June 22, 1941 and continued on into the Soviet Union, the Poles responded with numerous pogroms against the remaining Jews, one of which was Jedwabne.
Bikont spends a great deal of time exploring the role of the Catholic Church in creating the environment for the massacre to take place, but also facilitating the pogroms that resulted. She provides numerous examples of the statements and actions of Catholic prelates who disregarded the statements of the Vatican, particularly after the war. The prelates continue the rationalization that the Jews deserved what they got because they denounced the Poles. Bikont believed that the Church had reached a turning point in 1945 as it became the bastion against Sovietization of Polish society. However those anti-Semitic feelings did not remain in the background for long as the deaconry in Jedwabne headed by Father Antoni Roszkowski continued spewing his hatred of the Jews. Since 1988, Father Edward Orlowski held sway in Jedwabne and he carried on as if nothing had changed as far as Jewish guilt was concerned. It is interesting to note that once the ceremony took place on July 10, 2001 no high level church representatives attended, though to their credit three priests do make an appearance. For Jews, the fear of retribution was so high that only Awigdor Korchaw, the only Jewish witness who was in the market square the day of the massacre, had the courage to attend.
To Bikont’s credit as she tells the stories of the few Jewish survivors, she integrates their horrific accounts with those Poles who helped by hiding them or facilitating their escape. Bikont follows her subjects around the globe in her quest to learn the truth and find out what happened to these people once the war ended. Her description of the lives of Szmul Wasersztejn, the most important witness to events; Chaja Finkelsztejn, whose unpublished memoir of survival provides a window into the inhumanity of the people who committed the atrocities; Antonina Wyrzykowska, who hid seven Jews; and the author’s constant interaction with Radoslaw Ignatiew, the prosecutor of the Institute of National Remembrance leads one to accept Gross’s earlier finding that, the Poles were the instigators of the massacre and carried out the atrocities associated with it. Her journal continues until July 10, 2004 and her final chapter has the fitting title, “Strictly speaking, Poles did it.” One of the most heart rendering phrases in the book points to the post-war Polish generation when Bikont states, “the blood on the father’s hands burn the children,” which may explain why so many Poles today still have difficulty coming to terms with what happened almost 75 years ago in a country whose 2003 census listed 1100 Jews, out of a pre-World War II census of around 3.3 million.
(a man cleans the memorial to the Jews massacred in Jedwabne, Poland on July 10, 1941 defaced by Polish anti-Semites)