Facing Jedwabne

Facing Jedwabne

Alvin H. Rosenfeld

Well before the day in early July 2001 when my plane touched down at Warsaw airport, I was aware that the map of Poland was being redrawn. The borders remained the same, and the topography looked familiar, but the moral landscape of the country had shifted dramatically since my last visit. Jedwabne, a small northeastern town not far from Bialystok, had moved from its almost invisible place on the periphery of Polish consciousness to the very center of national and international concern. Its sudden prominence was not owing to any notable economic or cultural achievements, for this little farming community could lay claim to nothing of that kind. Rather, like Bitburg, an undistinguished town in Germany that had gained unprecedented notoriety in the spring of 1985 when President Ronald Reagan visited its military cemetery, Jedwabne drew attention to itself for its wartime past, which had come to light almost overnight. I would soon discover just how unsettling that past was for people in Poland by visiting Jedwabne and learning about its contested history firsthand. Meanwhile, it was apparent that all the attention focused on this formerly inconsequential place was unforeseen and, for a great many people, unwelcome, the result of a book by a Polish emigré scholar that fell on Poland like an accusing hand and prompted a fierce debate within the country that carried on for more than a year and has not yet entirely been put to rest.1

The slim volume that American readers know as Neighbors was first published in a Polish edition under the title Sasiedzi in May 2000. It was preceded and partly inspired by a documentary film Where Is My Older Brother Cain? by the Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold, which included a segment about Jedwabne.2 The book's author, Jan Tomasz Gross, was born in Poland in 1947 and has lived in the United States since 1969. A professor of political science and European studies at New York University, Gross is the author of several works on Polish history and society during World War II-but nothing he had published previously had had anything like the impact of Neighbors. Indeed, few works by anyone in the postwar period have drawn the kind of widespread attention or provoked the intensity of collective soul-searching that Neighbors did.

Soon after arriving in Warsaw as a member of a small delegation of Polish-Americans and American Jews under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee, I went to a bookstore near the university to buy a copy of Sasiedzi. As I handed my purchase to the clerk at the cash register, another customer, almost beside herself with anger over the volume in my hand, cursed me roundly in Polish. Whatever else one may think about it, a book that evokes that kind of passion matters. But why? What is it that explains the remarkable force of Gross's volume?

Jedwabne's Wartime History

In spare but often riveting terms, Neighbors recounts and, in one significant respect, overturns the story of a wartime atrocity that occurred in Jedwabne. Briefly told, the story is this: On July 10, 1941, virtually the entire Jewish community of the town was wiped out in the most ruthless manner. By Gross's count, some 1,600 people-approximately 60 percent of the town's population-were massacred on that day. The young and the old, men, women, and children, were bludgeoned and savagely butchered in individual assaults, but most of Jedwabne's Jews were destroyed en masse by being herded into a barn where they were burned alive. Only a handful survived, including seven who were sheltered by a Polish couple, Antonina and Aleksander Wyrzykowski, in a nearby village.

In the 1960s, a boulder with a memorial tablet was placed in an open field in Jedwabne, not far from the barn, bearing the following inscription: "Site of the Suffering of the Jewish Population. The Gestapo and the Nazi Gendarmerie Burned Alive 1600 People July 10, 1941."

Gross documents the crime in all its appalling detail. He also reveals that the criminals were not, in fact, members of the Gestapo and the German occupation forces, but the Jews' very neighbors-Polish Catholics who had lived side by side with their fellow Jewish townspeople for generations, but turned on them in a wild orgy of killing. As Gross succinctly puts it, "One day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half." The monument's inscription, attributing the slaughter to the Nazis, was a lie. Moreover, the citizens of Jedwabne knew it to be a lie and tolerated the deception for decades.

The Polish Debate about Jedwabne

To say that these revelations about the crime and its cover-up shocked people in Poland is to understate the case. The character of the debate about Jedwabne that took place over many months revealed the country to be in the grip of an intensely painful encounter with its wartime past and an anguished, in some ways disorienting, confrontation with its own national identity. Over the past half century and more, Poles had been taught to think of themselves as members of a martyred country-of a Poland sanctified through its suffering as the "Christ of nations." In countless ways they saw themselves either as innocent victims of the Nazi crimes or as people who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives to shelter Jews against these crimes.

Like all popular reconfigurations of the past, these images simplify the complex history that has given rise to them. While they do find ample confirmation in Poland's wartime reality, which brought massive suffering and million-fold deaths to the population at large, a national myth developed in the postwar period that was not always consonant with Poland's actual experience during the war, especially with respect to the intermingled experiences of Poles and Jews. It is the case, for instance, that numerous Polish Catholics gave protection to Polish Jews, thousands of whom owe their lives to the efforts of these good people. But in numerous other instances, Jews were betrayed by Polish szmalcownicy-bounty hunters and extortionists-who informed on Jews in hiding and gave them up to the German authorities. These things had long been acknowledged. The story of Jedwabne, though, revealed a side of Polish-Jewish relations that went well beyond anything widely known before, and it forced a great many people in the country to reconsider and revise the positive images of themselves nurtured by the national myth.

For Poles today to face up to Jedwabne is to acknowledge that, in addition to being victims of Nazi brutality, some of their countrymen were willing accomplices of the Nazi murderers and guilty of murderous actions of their own against Polish Jews. And not only in Jedwabne, as the historical record increasingly reveals, but in nearby Radzilow, Wasosz, Wizna, Stawiski, and perhaps other towns as well, collaboration between Poles and Nazis took place.

In presenting such a challenging revision of history to his former countrymen, Jan Gross had shaken Poland to the core and forced it to take stock of itself as never before. That has proved to be a wrenching experience for many. As the Polish journalist Jacek Zakowski acknowledged, "I share with many other people a fear of opening up Polish-Jewish wounds. Justifiable emotions, as well as unjustified and completely irrational ones, are still too fresh for an unimpassioned, rational, public debate to be possible.... There is no use pretending that this is a history like every other one-for it is not. The element of the irrational is incomparably greater here than anywhere else." And yet the debate proceeded-in Poland's leading newspapers and magazines, on radio and television talk shows, on the Internet, in university lecture halls, in public places, and in people's homes.

An important part of this process has taken place on the scholarly level, as various historians have grappled with Gross's arguments and reconsidered the tangled story of Polish-Jewish interconnections in the wartime period. A comprehensive investigation of the Jedwabne killings is being conducted by a team of researchers under the direction of Professor Leon Kieres, a respected lawyer who is the president of Poland's National Institute of Historical Remembrance. The findings of this group are due to be released in the near future, and they are sure to attract major attention and revive some of the arguments that fueled the public debate in the first place. Meanwhile, some historians are already on record as challenging Gross's use of sources and his analysis of them, while others are more supportive of his findings. Did Gross dig long and far enough into all the available records to uncover the whole picture of the Jedwabne massacre? Did he err by not placing this atrocity more fully within the context of other wartime and postwar atrocities? Did he underplay the role of the German occupation forces? Are his numbers always reliable? These are all legitimate questions, and as scholars continue to pursue answers to them, Gross's account of the Jedwabne killings may be revised. However, the core of his argument-that Polish Christians from Jedwabne and its environs were responsible for the torturing and killing of Jedwabne's Jews-will remain, as virtually all historians are now prepared to acknowledge. In this respect, Gross's contribution has been transformative. According to the historian Tomasz Szarota, whose views on Jedwabne differ in some key respects from Gross's, the facts that Neighbors brought to light "are so shattering that they force even me, a historian who has read much and written a good deal about various instances of disgraceful behavior by Poles under German occupation, to come to completely new conclusions.... We did not realize that Poles were also perpetrators of the Holocaust. In Jedwabne, they were.... Gross has forced us to change our views on the subject of the attitudes of the Poles during the Second World War, and that is an unquestionable service."4

The Contentious Nature of the Debate

Beyond these scholarly considerations, the discussions provoked by Neighbors sometimes took on a sharply polemical character, as reporters, intellectuals, political figures, church representatives, and a range of others debated issues of real consequence to Polish self-understanding and self-esteem. The debate they launched was a serious one. It was also highly contentious, for it turned on vital questions of national history, character, culture, honor, guilt, innocence, responsibility, self-image, image abroad, and more. There were those who wrote out of anger and indignation, rejecting Gross's arguments outright and refusing any acknowledgment of Polish guilt or responsibility for wartime atrocities against Jews. Some were apologetic, admitting a degree of culpability but pointing to mitigating circumstances to explain the wartime killings of Jews. Disturbingly, earlier charges of zydokomuna, Jewish collusion with the communists, were revived, leading to explanations that said, in light of such treachery, the Jews of Poland only got what they deserved. At its farthest extreme, a kind of "Jedwabne denial" took hold, and contributors to right-wing publications and Internet chat rooms commonly claimed that the whole Jedwabne matter was nothing but "Holocaust business," a plot by Jews to defame Poland and prepare the ground for massive restitution claims.

On the other side of the debate, there were those who were shocked by Jedwabne's history into a new awareness of how deep the Polish-Jewish wounds really are.5 Several of these people published impassioned pleas for their countrymen to acknowledge the presence of anti-Semitism and the irrefutable facts of Polish participation in the murder of Jews. Only by doing so in a forthright and unambiguous way, they argued, could the nation's conscience be cleansed and its future freed from the sins of the past. As one participant in the debate from Lomza, a town close to Jedwabne, put it, "We should bear in mind that we have children and grandchildren. Our parents did not deal with this issue.... If we do not deal with [it], it will pass to the next generation. And why should our descendants have to be tormented? It is enough that we ourselves are tormented."6 As these conflicting positions indicate, a lot was at stake in these discussions, and it is to the credit of the country's new and still-developing democracy that the debate proceeded in an open atmosphere and in a spirit of courageous and sometimes bruising candor. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the national debate over Jedwabne almost certainly marked one of the most important moments in Poland's postwar existence.

To be sure, not everyone approved of the public airing of such contentious matters, and some clearly were opposed, especially regarding the matter of a public apology for crimes committed against the Jews. For several months, the country's president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, was under pressure to forgo making such an apology, which many argued would amount to an unnecessary and shaming admission of collective guilt. Poland's former president, Lech Walesa, in a radio interview, declared himself strongly against such a gesture: "The Jedwabne crime was a revenge for the cooperation of the Jewish community with the Soviet occupant. The Poles have already apologized many times to the Jews; we are waiting for the apology from the other side because many Jews were scoundrels."7 The primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, also voiced his displeasure, asserting that Poland has been "constantly vilified" for its alleged mistreatment of the Jews. In a statement that made many people uneasy, he declared that an apology to the Jews should be issued only when Jews were themselves prepared to apologize to Poles for helping to foist communism on the country in the post-war period. This kind of quid pro quo argument won a certain measure of support, as if there were a moral equivalency between Polish misdeeds against Jews and what some continue to see as Jewish plots against Poland.

Given the importance of his position, Cardinal Glemp's views obviously matter, but the Polish population, including the Polish church, is far from monolithic. There were Catholics, including priests, who took the liberty to differ with the church leadership on these issues and voiced their own sharply opposing views. Wiez, a high-level Catholic monthly, opened its pages liberally to representatives of all serious positions in the Jedwabne debate, and some of the leading voices urging full and honest disclosure were prominent Catholic intellectuals. One such figure, Father Stanislaw Musial, summed up the debate in these terms: "One cannot be surprised that after the publication of the truth about Jedwabne, public opinion has split into two camps. One, undoubtedly the more numerous, is situated on the center and the political right, thinking nationally. It either negates the participation of Poles at Jedwabne, or tries to play it down.... The second, smaller camp sees in the publication of the truth about Jedwabne a chance for cleaning Polish memory of the period of the occupation, and a stimulus toward fighting anti-Semitism in Poland today."8

The Polish President's Desire to Confront the Past

It was against this backdrop of polarized opinion and often bitter debate that President Kwasniewski decided to bring the matter of Jedwabne to a resolution through commemorative ceremonies at the site of the massacre itself. Judged strictly in terms of domestic politics, the decision could not have been an easy one, for repeated opinion polls showed that roughly half of the Polish citizenry was against a public ceremony at which the head of state would issue an apology to the Jews in the name of the Polish nation. Important segments of the Polish population, including the Roman Catholic Church episcopate under Cardinal Glemp, let it be known in advance that they would not attend any such public day of repentance. One opinion poll, commissioned by the weekly newsmagazine Wprost, even showed that half of all Poles believed it was a "good thing that there are fewer Jews in Poland today than before." As the newspaper's editors commented, "Is that not a general acceptance of the Holocaust?"9

Given sentiments of this sort, the Polish president's determination to go to Jedwabne on the sixtieth anniversary of the destruction of the town's Jewish population and to speak honestly about this atrocious crime was a noble and hardly risk-free thing to do. Some cautioned him not to do so, lest it damage Poland's image abroad at a time when the country was looking to reach beyond its borders and become part of a larger Europe. President Kwasniewski's answer to such objections was that "lack of response would tarnish Poland's reputation and would be more damaging to her prestige than a sincere apology." He cited the examples of Willy Brandt falling to his knees in an act of contrition before the Memorial to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto and President Yeltsin apologizing at the Katyn Cross in Warsaw's Powazki Cemetery for the Soviet massacre of Polish POWs at Katyn. Both acts, in his view, helped to bring about a significant change of attitude among people in Germany and Russia, and he wanted to do something similar for Poland. As much as the Polish president might wish the Jedwabne massacre were untrue, "sadly, Jedwabne is a fact.... This cruel murder...was committed by Poles, our fellow countrymen. Therefore, one has to do what is done in such circumstances: to apologize and ask for forgiveness."10 These words set the tone for the ceremonies the Polish government would hold on July 10 and were meant to advance the process of historical and moral reflection already underway.

It is a huge undertaking to change the consciousness of a people and the political culture of a nation, but as a result of Jedwabne, Poland was set on such a course. Such change could not come easily or quickly, for what was being asked for in this instance was nothing less than a major shift in Polish collective memory. As a result of Jan Gross's book and the emotionally charged debate that it triggered, such a shift had begun, but opposition was strong in key sectors of Polish society, and it was still too early to know how matters would develop. In the space of less than a year, three books were published in Poland opposing the arguments presented in Neighbors and even calling the work a fraud. And more were promised. Anticipating the book's publication in America, Cardinal Glemp remarked that the release of the English-language version of Gross's work was a source of anxiety in Poland "because the truth thereby revealed to Americans is expected to unleash Jewry's sharp attacks on Poles."11 Passions were running high on all sides, and nuanced arguments gave way to strongly asserted positions-one favoring the lifting of all taboos and an honest reckoning with horrific, heretofore unacknowledged, events in the country's past; the other, determined to resist such acknowledgment and defend what it saw as the national interest and national honor against "unfriendly circles" that purportedly wished to defame Poland and the Poles. Both these tendencies were in evidence in the events surrounding the memorial ceremonies at Jedwabne.

The Memorial Ceremony at Jedwabne

As a member of a small AJC delegation of Polish Americans and American Jews invited to participate in these ceremonies, I was privileged to be at Jedwabne on July 10. There was rain throughout much of the morning and early afternoon and, for a July day, it was also uncommonly cold and windy. We traveled to Jedwabne from Warsaw on police-escorted buses, and some two and a half hours later disembarked in a wet field outside of town. From there it was a short walk to the main square, where the opening ceremonies were to take place.

On the way, we passed many of the villagers, some of them standing in the front gardens of their homes, others lined up outside on the streets. With journalists coming and going over the course of the year, it had been a strained time for the people of this small town, who were not used to being at the center of so much attention, almost all of it negative. They resented being stigmatized for a crime committed 60 years ago, when many of them were not even born, and they feared that the stigma would pass on to their children. As they looked at us looking at them, I had to wonder who was on display and what we made of one another. If they were anticipating hostility on our part, they were disappointed. And if we were searching their faces for signs of ingrained animosity, we, too, came up short. A few had posted notices reading "We do not apologize," but apart from these, there was nothing out of the ordinary to be seen.

The ceremonies at the town square began with the playing of Chopin's Funeral March, whose solemn tones set the mood for what was to follow. Krzystof Godlewski, the mayor of Jedwabne, opened the program with brief words of welcome on behalf of his townspeople, most of whom chose to stand aloof from what was taking place that day. In office since 1992, Godlewski was caught in a difficult situation. Ever since the story of Jedwabne had broken, the media had come flocking to his little village as if it rivaled Warsaw in importance. As mayor, it fell to him to negotiate between government officials who were intent on holding major ceremonies in his town and his townspeople, many of whom were opposed to hosting such ceremonies.

A thoughtful man, Godlewski personally encouraged the people of Jedwabne to acknowledge the truth and learn what they could from the past history of their town. By and large, he was rebuffed. He suggested at one point that the local school be named after Antonina Wyrzykowska, the brave woman who sheltered Jews fleeing the conflagration in Jedwabne. The idea found few takers. He also advocated the release of municipal funds to build a new road leading to a memorial to the murdered Jews, a move that the town council turned down. These positions put him at odds with most of Jedwabne's residents, and for a time Godlewski was given special police protection. The strain evidently became too much for him, and soon after the memorial services in July, Godlewski resigned his post as the town's mayor.

The centerpiece of this part of the memorial program, following Godlewski's brief welcome, was Aleksander Kwasniewski's much-anticipated address. Advance word was that the Polish president would, in fact, offer an apology. But would it be hedged about with qualifiers of various sorts to soften the blow for those who did not want it at all? Polish national elections were due to take place in September, less than three months away, and while Kwasniewski himself was not running for office, his appearance at Jedwabne and his close association with what are sometimes referred to as "Jewish causes" could have political implications for others. In the end, his words, plain and to the point, said what needed saying.

The president began by acknowledging the crime against the Jews of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941. Poles had to speak about that "dreadful day, a day of hatred and cruelty," in "truth" and in an "open voice," he declared, "face to face with the victims' families" and "before the judgment of [our] own conscience." In reply to those who cite mitigating circumstances to explain the crime, Kwasniewski pointedly stated, "It is justified by nothing." While German occupying forces are credited with giving permission for the slaughter of the Jews and may even have inspired it, he insisted, "We know with certainty that Poles were among the oppressors and assassins. We cannot have any doubts-here in Jedwabne citizens of the Republic of Poland died from the hands of other citizens of the Republic of Poland." And, he went on to add, such death, grief, and suffering were visited on the Jews of Radzilow and other places as well. The Polish nation as a whole does not bear a collective guilt for these crimes, he emphasized, but a "collective self-examination" is called for, and denial of the facts that comprise the "dark pages in our history" leads only to "moral self-destruction." He recognized that acknowledging the truth of what happened "will not redress what happened," but only the truth-in its moral as well as historical dimensions-will allow for a purification of the "wounds of memory." In addition to paying homage to the victims, therefore, the president felt compelled to offer the following words of apology: "For this crime we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. This is why today, as a citizen and as the president of the Republic of Poland, I beg pardon. I beg pardon in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime."12

The people assembled at Jedwabne could not have missed the honesty and moral courage with which these words were spoken. President Kwasniewski's speech recalled the address that Richard von Weizsäcker gave on May 8, 1985, when as president of West Germany, he publicly apologized for the Nazi Holocaust and told his countrymen that they could not deny their country's severe legacy. The president of Poland did not have to assume so heavy a burden of guilt or responsibility, but in acknowledging that "one cannot be proud of the glory of Polish history without feeling, at the same time, pain and shame for the evil done by Poles to others," he showed himself willing to look the truth in the eye and call it by its proper name.

Given those who could have been at Jedwabne but chose not to be, however, one had to wonder how much support President Kwasniewski had in this matter. The local priest, Father Edward Orlowski, made a point of boycotting the event "because it's all lies, and I will not take part in lies." Cardinal Jozef Glemp also chose to be absent, as did the rest of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. Some explained their absence as a consequence of a special prayer service held on May 27 at the All Saints Cathedral in Warsaw, attended by many of Poland's bishops, at which the church acknowledged that Polish Catholics had participated in the killings of Jews and expressed its pain and regret over these actions. All the same, the absence of church leadership in Jedwabne was prominently noted and disappointed many, including numbers of faithful Catholics.

It was also widely noted that the man who was then prime minister of Poland, Jerzy Buzek, who was up for reelection in September, found it inconvenient to attend, as did others allied with him on the political right and right-center. On the other hand, Leszek Miller, a remade former communist (like Kwasniewski himself), who was widely expected to unseat Buzek and, in fact, went on to do so, was at Jedwabne, as was Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who went on to become the country's next foreign minister. Some centerist intellectuals of the Freedom Union, Bronislaw Geremek and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, also attended. Otherwise, though, Poland's political elite chose to stay away. Thus, while the events of July 10 were moving and meaningful for those who participated in them (a fair estimate of the crowd would be about 1,500 people, including many from abroad), the gathering was hardly representative of Polish society as a whole.

In addition to the absences already noted, there was a lack of representation by certain Jewish groups and institutions, including Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and Holocaust survivor organizations in America. Their refusal to be at Jedwabne had nothing to do with whether the president of Poland would or would not issue a public apology, but rather turned on major differences over the wording on the new monument. The old monument, with the bogus inscription, was removed in March. A new monument was to be installed in time for the July 10 ceremonies. But what would it say?

The Inscription on the Monument

Many people, including most Jews, wanted the inscription to refer directly to the perpetrators, but others resisted such wording. As one municipal official in Jedwabne explained, "If we write that it was Poles who murdered the Jews, we will have to post a 24-hour watch over the monument. The Poles include my father, my mother, and my grandparents."13 Mayor Godlewski agreed, stating that the wording on the new monument should reconcile and not divide the population. Otherwise, it would irritate people and "attract anti-Semites from all over Poland." And "what good is a monument that won't last a year?"14

Michael Shudrich, the American-born rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, argued strenuously for full disclosure, insisting that "the inscription must state the truth" about the identity of the perpetrators. Short of that, it would be "better to have no inscription than half an inscription." He did not prevail. Nor did the government's advisers on this issue, who proposed that the last line on the stone should read: "Forgive us, as we have forgiven others." This proposal, emphatically expressing Christian sentiment, evidently did not win approval among all the interested parties and was scrapped.

In the end, a new six-foot-tall stone was carved and set in a large green area surrounded by gray stone blocks. These blocks mark the site of the barn where the Jews of Jedwabne were burned on July 10, 1941. Sixty years later, those of us who had come to mark the anniversary of that unspeakable cruelty proceeded from the town square to the vicinity of the old Jewish cemetery and the military cemetery, where, amid strong winds and never-ending rain, psalms were recited and the Kaddish and other prayers for the dead were sung. The cantor, Joseph Malovany, of New York's Fifth Avenue Synagogue, poured his heart and soul into these prayers, which carried far beyond the cemetery area and brought to the residents of Jedwabne sounds that had not been heard there for decades. The venerable 87-year-old Rabbi Jacob Baker, who had been born in Jedwabne and left as a young man, spoke movingly of the Jews of his former town and asked that the memory of these martyred people serve as a blessing for a new and better Poland. Various people then entered the blocked-in area of the old barn and, following different traditional practices, placed wreaths, memorial candles, and stones at the foot of the new monument.

A large image of a burned Jewish gravestone occupies much of the monument's face. The new inscription, engraved in Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish, reads:


Gone is any mention of the perpetrators of this crime, and gone as well is any reference to the numbers of Jews who perished. Some believe that both these omissions will be corrected at a later date when the Institute of National Remembrance will have completed its study and ascertained more precisely how many Jews were murdered and just who it was who murdered them. At that time, it is surmised, the engraving on the monument will be redone to include the missing information. This point was made emphatic by Israel's ambassador to Poland, Shevach Weiss, who in his own address at the Jedwabne market square expressed his confidence "that when the research and investigation process is completed, the memorial stone here will contain the full truth of what happened in Jedwabne, terrible though it may be."

Others are more skeptical and believe that such a thing will never happen-that Polish society will simply never tolerate the designation of Poles as perpetrators. The present monument is an improvement over the previous one, but like most products of compromise, it hardly pleases everyone, and the dispute over the inscription's wording no doubt will continue. Meanwhile, the public debate over Jedwabne might itself be seen as a fitting monument to the murdered Jews, for it has served to keep alive their memory more vividly than any words engraved on stone. As for the murderers, as the prominent Warsaw journalist Konstanty Gebert has said, even if "the inscription does not identify the perpetrators of the crime ... we know who killed Jews in Jedwabne that day."17

Thoughts on Polish Jewry, Past and Present

We know, but not everyone in Poland is willing to own up to such knowledge, as the strongly contested memory of Jedwabne proved. As a witness to these lengthy and heated debates, though, I now had my own memories to deal with. And so at the close of the memorial services, I lingered awhile at the site of the former barn and paid a personal, silent tribute to the Jews of Jedwabne. Before they were murdered, these people comprised more than half the population of this small town. Today Jedwabne is judenrein, as is much of Poland as a whole. That is more than just a sad fact of life, for this country had once been the very heartland of European Jewish civilization and saw the flourishing of a deep and varied Jewish culture. From a prewar population of 3.3 million Jews, though, only a minuscule remnant of 3-5,000 remains (if one includes people of Jewish origin or of mixed and more distant Jewish ancestry, the number may rise to about 10,000).18

There are those who talk of a revival of Jewish culture in Poland, but given these numbers, the basis for such optimism is slim. On the positive side, the Lauder Foundation sponsors a Jewish school in Warsaw, and some 240 children attend (not all of them Jewish). One can hear klezmer music during the summers in Krakow and eat gefilte fish and cholent in some of Warsaw's newly established kosher-style restaurants, but for the most part what passes for Jewish culture in today's Poland is only the thinnest imitation of what once was and is enjoyed mostly by the non-Jewish Poles themselves. Warsaw, once the second largest Jewish city in the world, has but a single synagogue, and its seats are mostly unfilled. The same is true of Krakow, where before the war some 70,000 Jews lived and Jewish life flourished. Today, the population numbers 150-200 Jews, many of them elderly. One can wander the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierez and find traces of former synagogues and study houses. One of these buildings now houses the Center for Jewish Culture, but the director, Joachim Russek, himself a non-Jew, is quick to explain that his is not primarily a place where local Jews congregate, but rather an institution that aims to preserve and exhibit the richness of Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust and also foster discussion of present-day Polish attitudes and responsibilities. By transmitting knowledge of this heritage to the population at large, the Center for Jewish Culture serves a useful purpose, but like so much else of Jewish interest that one comes across in Poland, it is mostly a memory house. As much as one might wish otherwise, a vibrant Polish-Jewish life seems largely a thing of the past.

It is ironic, therefore, that more and more Poles are coming to recognize the points of contact that their own culture and Jewish culture once shared, and there is a genuine desire on the part of some to renew such contact. One frequently encounters a wish for "dialogue" with Jews, and various efforts are under way to improve what is commonly called "Polish-Jewish relations." These efforts continue the work of a small number of Catholic and secular intellectuals who began to move in this direction in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. Under the communist regime, however, a rapprochement with Jews and Judaism was not a priority. With the political turnover, conditions for such ties are better, and there are Poles who wish to pursue them in a serious way. A Polish Council of Christians and Jews exists and seeks to further mutual understanding, overcome harmful stereotypes, and advance interreligious contacts. These are obviously all worthwhile aims, but given the demographic facts of life in this country, interreligious dialogue involves the institutionalized church and various other Catholic representatives on one side and only a handful of people on the Jewish side. The advancement of Polish-Jewish relations and Christian-Jewish relations has the blessings of everyone from the pope to the president of Poland, but in actuality these "relations" take place without anything remotely resembling parity between Polish Catholics and Polish Jews. As positive as the sentiments behind these activities often are, the effort on the part of well-meaning Poles to reengage Judaism and the Jews is sadly belated.

With thoughts like these, I left the area of the Jedwabne Jewish cemetery in an elegiac mood and doubted that I would ever return. This is a tormented land, presided over by fratricidal ghosts, as President Kwasniewski referred to Jedwabne, and an encounter with it leaves one feeling forlorn. At the same time, I knew I had been more than superficially affected by the story of this town, which forces one to ponder the melancholy history of Polish-Jewish relations in its most ferocious aspect and, in particular, the staggering moral breakdown that turned neighbors into killers. What accounts for such behavior, and what can one do to prevent it from erupting again in the future?

Necessary Questions

These are necessary questions, made all the more urgent by Jan Gross's book, and they have come powerfully to the fore through the contributions of some of the more thoughtful participants in the Jedwabne debate. While historians seek to reconstruct the events in Jedwabne of July 10, 1941, and establish the historical, social, and political contexts in which the killings took place, others point to explanations that should already be obvious. One is the literary historian Michal Glowinski: "The primitive residents of Jedwabne and the vicinity ... not only lived in hate, they were brought up to hate.... The organizers of the pogrom had been taught about various Jewish iniquities, including their objective of ruling over the world. The organizers had already been taught that a Jew was no different from the devil and, in fact, was the devil." Thus, Glowin-ski observes, "the hatred that pushed them into crime was not some sudden plunge or murderous epiphany; it had its roots and it was fixed."19

It would be comforting to think that these roots have been severed once and for all and can no longer take hold in present-day Poland. Among the enlightened segments of the population-including those who stand strongly behind President Kwasniewski's words-that no doubt is the case, but elsewhere traditional stereotypes of the Jew persist. One hears them in the political rhetoric about who is a "real" Pole and whose loyalty to the country is to be questioned; one sees them in the anti-Jewish graffiti on public streets and buildings, including the ubiquitous image of a star of David hanging in a noose; one encounters them in the anti-Semitic literature that circulates across the land (some of it even in church bookstores); one recognizes them in behind-the-hand accusations about who is and who is not a Jew (President Kwasniewski is himself a "Jew" according to some of those who don't like him); etc. These attitudes persist not only among hard-core anti-Semites, but also among those whom Tadeusz Mazowiecki referred to as far back as 1960 as the "good, kind people," those who say, "He's a decent fellow even though he's Jewish...."20

They led the historian Tomasz Szarota to ask, "What is to be done about our poor anti-Semitism, which still exists and still makes itself felt? What to do with a phenomenon that feeds on human stupidity, but is also nourished by those who use it to attain their political goals...? How to achieve a state in which each anti-Semitic statement made in Poland is immediately condemned by listeners and readers?" In recalling the words of a former teacher of his, Professor Franciszek Ryszka, who was asked on a television program how to eliminate anti-Semitism in Poland, Szarota finds a convincing answer to his questions: "He [Ryszka] answered succinctly: 'Stop being an anti-Semite.'"21

Could it really be as easy as that? Ideological anti-Semitism has a history in Poland, as does the expression of more primitive anti-Jewish passions. Such things do not disappear overnight. There are Poles who are ashamed of this history, want it to stop, and are working to see that it stop. And then there are others, some of them now aggressively vocal in the aftermath of the Jedwabne revelations. "Don't mess with Poland" is the slogan of one right-wing Web site devoted to countering what it calls the "propaganda of hatred and lies generated by the "Jewish-Polish-American author," Jan Gross. A contributor to another Polish Web site laments, "That barn was too small." Adds another, "I will create a fund which will be big enough to fit the rest." Reflecting on these crudities, a writer in Wprost ruefully concludes, "The fear that demons, not consciences, will be awakened seems to have been confirmed."22

These thoughts accompanied me as I prepared to leave Jedwabne and make my way through the village toward the bus that would take me back to Warsaw. Along the way, I passed several young children, school-age kids hanging around on the street watching us depart. It must have been strange for them to see so many newcomers in their little town, all here to pay respects to the Jews who are no longer around. Some of these children probably live in homes that once belonged to those Jews. Did they know anything about the fate of these people? Probably not much, for it is unlikely that their parents or grandparents, who came to occupy Jedwabne's "leftover Jewish dwellings," would tell them the full truth. And yet if they are not told, won't they be kept from absorbing the very lessons that the president of their country came to their town to teach?

How much more promising the future of these children would be, I thought, if their school were to be renamed for Antonina Wyrzykowski and their teachers would strive to mold them in her image and inoculate them against the hatreds that had turned some of their elders into killers. Who knows, though, if such a thing will happen? Their priest, after all, chose to remain aloof from the day's memorial events and denounced them as a celebration of "lies." The primate of their church and prime minister of their country also stayed away, as did most people in the present government and the major political parties. Given such examples, what are the chances that their president's words encouraging an honest reckoning with the past will take hold and lead to acts of conscience in the future?

I had no idea, nor did I know what was going on in the heads of these children as I made my way up their street. They lived in a town that no longer had any Jews among its residents, and probably they had never seen a Jew before today. They looked at me in a curious but not unfriendly way. I smiled and waved as I went by. They waved back. Then I boarded the bus that would carry me back to Warsaw.

There was to be a concert in the city that night "in tribute to the victims of the tragedy in Jedwabne." That seemed a nice gesture, but in some ways also an odd one, for the concert was to be held under the patronage of Jerzy Buzek, then the prime minister of Poland, who had not bothered to come to Jedwabne earlier in the day for the memorial ceremonies. Whatever my unease over the inherent contradiction here, I would attend the concert, for I wanted to hear the music, especially the cantata El Maale Rahamim, newly written by the Polish composer Krzysztof Knittel in memory of the Jews of Jedwabne-those "who were killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned, and strangled for the sanctification of the Name." It was a bit strange for a recreation of El Maale Rahamim, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, to have its world premiere in a church and not a synagogue. But this was Poland, and discordances of all kinds-such as the country's bishops saying penitential prayers for the murdered Jews in a church whose bookstore sells anti-Semitic literature-shadow and define "Polish-Jewish relations." The evening's performance was to take place in Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church (Buzek is a Lutheran), located just a short walk from my hotel. I would go there to hear Knittel's cantata and the other musical pieces.

Most of the next day I was due to spend at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but in the morning, if time allowed, I would return to Holy Trinity and see what was for sale in its bookstore.

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