Book Review // The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne

By | Sep 15, 2015


The Crime And The Silence
Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne
by Anna Bikont
Translated from the Polish by Alissa Valles
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2015, pp. 544, $30.00

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When Neighbors Killed Neighbors

by Konstanty Gebert


What had we done to us?

As a university student in Warsaw in the first half of the 1970s, I used to spend much of my summer vacation hitchhiking around the country. This is how one fine July day I found myself in Jedwabne, a nondescript but beautifully located small town in Poland’s Northeast. Wandering through the meadows and forests, I lost my sense of direction and eventually had to ask a local for the road out of town. The gentleman, somewhat inebriated, pointed vaguely toward the church belfry rising in the distance and said: “That way, by the place where they burned the Jews.” Shocked, I responded, “What do you mean, ‘They burned the Jews?’” “Oh, in the war,” he explained, matter-of-factly.

Yet there was something in his voice that made me ask:

“You mean the Germans?”

“Nah, what Germans? Ours.”

“Which ‘ours?’”

“Well, the guy who lives over there,” he said, pointing to a nearby cottage. “And her father,” pointing to a woman passing down the road. “And…”

I thanked him, found the road out and immediately forgot the conversation. I simply had nowhere in my mind to file that information. We Poles were the victim nation, right? Of 30 million Poles, six million were killed. Half of them Jewish—a Jew myself, how could I not know, but we all learned that at school anyway—but the other half Polish. The Poles didn’t do any murdering, they were being slaughtered themselves, right?

Okay, there was some scum—the word szmalcownik (somebody who extorted Jews by threatening to turn them in) needed no explanation, nor did pozydowskie (property that used to be Jewish, and then wasn’t)—but they were marginal, the shameful exception. That wasn’t what the guy in Jedwabne seemed to be talking about. He was talking about regular people. And regular Poles fought the Germans, guns in hand, in the Underground and in the Warsaw Uprising, while heroically saving Jews in the process. This is what we were taught in school and what everyone apparently believed. It never occurred to me then that a language does not produce common-use words just for marginal, exceptional scum. And I failed to remember Jedwabne.

The name surfaced again just a few years later when, in the Jewish Flying University, the underground study group my friends and I had set up, we delved into Communist Poland’s taboo history. So much of it had proven to be lies that we now were able to process the information that my Jedwabne interlocutor had given me: Poles had burned their Jewish neighbors alive there—at the Germans’ bidding, to be sure, but under no duress. Yet this knowledge was limited to the very small group interested in Jewish matters: When in 2001 the émigré Polish sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross published his trail-blazing Neighbors, describing in detail the July 10, 1941, mass murder and the events that had led to it, the nation was shocked and refused to believe.

Like myself years earlier, people simply had nowhere to file that knowledge. Heroes don’t get to be mass murderers, do they? Imagine an Israeli historian discovering only recently the massacre at Deir Yassin and the national reaction to his findings.

Gross was viciously attacked as a “Jewish slanderer” (in a memorable quote, historian Janusz Kurtyka called him “the vampire of Polish historiography”), and nationalist opinion rallied around the flag. Eventually, however, the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a state institution tasked with researching, prosecuting and teaching about Nazi and Communist crimes against Poles, published a magisterial two-volume study, fully confirming the brunt of Gross’s findings. In a public opinion poll published soon after, 52 percent stated they accepted the study’s conclusions. Even more strikingly, 85 percent declared they were aware of the debate surrounding the issue, making it one of the two or three most salient public debates of post-Communist Poland.

Yet one did not need to be a dyed-in-the-wool nationalist to disbelieve Gross. Veteran dissident Adam Michnik was hated by the nationalists for being another “Jewish slanderer,” and even more for having been a hero of the anti-Communist struggle that most of his latter-day critics had sat out. Yet he, too, was initially absolutely certain that the author of Neighbors, incidentally a friend of his since childhood, was simply wrong: Poles would not do such things. As editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, the country’s widely successful independent liberal daily, set up at the fall of Communism by formerly underground journalists, he simply initially decided the paper would not cover Gross’s revelations in depth. In the meantime, Rzeczpospolita, a somewhat more right-wing competitor, made journalistic history with its reporter Andrzej Kaczynski’s extensive coverage of the case.

In the face of the growing mountain of facts, Michnik eventually relented and, months after Rzeczpospolita, Gazeta started writing extensively about the wartime murder. The daily was lucky: Its leading investigative reporter, Anna Bikont, had been going to Jedwabne and talking to people even during Michnik’s ban. But while Kaczynski had concentrated on the actual historical events of July 1941, Bikont was drawn more and more to the Jedwabne of today, and to how its present-day inhabitants view the crime committed there by a previous generation. At the same time, the information she gathered made it possible to draw a much wider and richer picture of the summer of 1941 in Jedwabne and the surrounding area (this was not the only mass murder committed there at the time). But possibly even more importantly, Bikont realized—and made her readers realize—that Jedwabne is not only a problem of Polish historiography of World War II. It is even more a problem for the Poland of today.

Bikont (full disclosure: we have been friends since high school and followed similar trajectories) was uniquely qualified to address the issue. Having by chance discovered as an adult that she was Jewish (her parents hid that knowledge from their two daughters, believing that this would make them safer in Communist Poland), she embraced her rediscovered identity with a passion and became a pillar of the Jewish Flying University. Joining the Polish democratic opposition of the 1970s, then the Solidarity movement and eventually the underground as a journalist, she has a long and distinguished track record in the struggle to make her country democratic and independent. Her coverage of Jedwabne was an anguished attempt to answer the terrible question: What had we done to us?

Partially published in Gazeta and then in book form in Poland in 2005, Bikont’s reporting took her to the town itself and to other localities in the area, tracking down the surviving eyewitnesses. She soon realized she needed to broaden her search: Jedwabne survivors lived in New York, Israel and Costa Rica. In one case, death would beat her to their door. More often, in the case of Polish eyewitnesses, the doors would shut in her face. Denounced by “defenders of the good name of Jedwabne” as yet another “Jewish slanderer,” she had to resort to subterfuge to be able to talk to some. And in that, she was helped by other Poles, who realized that the good name of the town, indeed of the country itself, demanded that accusations be accepted, not deflected, to enable a moral accounting.

The facts are clear. In 1939, Jedwabne had fallen under Soviet occupation and was conquered by the Germans in the first days of their war against the USSR in 1941. After a visit by German officials, on July 10, the local mayor ordered Polish inhabitants to round up Jedwabne’s Jews in the market square. From there they were marched to a nearby barn, where 250 to 300 of them were locked up and burned alive. Others were murdered, individually or in groups, in and around the town in the next few days. This account is based on post-war trials and some Jewish survivor reports (Bikont is very critical of one of them, by Szmul Wasersztajn, which she proves contains falsifications). The eyewitness testimony of Chaja Finkelsztejn from nearby Radziłów, where a very similar pogrom had occurred two days earlier, and which Bikont has brought to public attention, gives a good description of what happened.

A revised and updated edition of Bikont’s extraordinary reporting is now available in English. It is indispensable reading for historians both of the Shoah and of contemporary Poland. Bikont is not a historian, but nonetheless she verifies, develops and deepens (and occasionally corrects) both Gross and the IPN report. In one striking example, she shows that the somewhat rosy hue of Polish-Jewish relations in Jedwabne before World War II described in Neighbors is widely off the mark. In fact, it emerges from the sources she had reached that the persistent and ever-present pre-war anti-Semitism, articulated principally by the Catholic Church, was a prime cause of the eventual massacre. Gross had probably relied too much on the testimony of Rabbi Jacob Baker, who had left Jedwabne for New York just before the war and continued to maintain that things had been good until the Germans came. In a fascinating exchange, Baker admits to Bikont that this had in fact not been the case, but that it was better to pretend otherwise.

Verifying eyewitness testimony is what historians are for, and Baker would have eventually been found out. What Bikont does in her book, however, is show what journalists are for. She tirelessly finds source after source, witness after witness, collects, parses and confronts their testimony—and confronts herself doing this.

The Crime and the Silence is a multilayered book. Organized in the form of a diary, it shows the author in her dogged effort to find out what happened in Jedwabne on that terrible July day. What had happened to people before that to make them behave the way they did, and after, to make them remember or forget. What happens to them now, once they are confronted with the truth about what happened. And what happens to the author, as she is confronted with that reality.

Bikont is no dispassionate observer, nor does she pretend to be one. She feels genuine admiration and sympathy for Stanisław Ramotowski, a local boy who saved a Jewish girl he had loved from the pogrom, hid her, married her and spent the next 60 years with her—still living in Jedwabne, with murderers as neighbors. Bikont does not edit her feelings about them from her book, as a historian might have felt obliged to do. In fact, one feels that Ramotowski and other Polish heroes she discovers are in a way saviors still: They enable Bikont to continue confronting the unspeakable evil she strives to uncover. They show her—and through her, show the reader—that there is more to us than that evil.

Antonina Wyrzykowska hid seven Jews on her farm, only to be, after the Soviets had expelled the Germans, beaten to within  an inch of her life by Polish partisans for having “assisted the enemy.” Jews were alleged to be supporters of the new Communist regime. Leszek Dziedzic tirelessly and openly spoke in town of the pogrom, in the face of a mounting wave of anti-Semitic denial. Krzysztof Godlewski, the town’s mayor, stood against the city council’s decision not to participate in the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the murder, and was there with a wreath of flowers. And most powerfully of all, Jan Skrodzki volunteered to help Bikont, whom he would present as a distant cousin, speak to people in town about the events, when they refused to talk with any but “loyal” journalists. His hidden agenda soon becomes visible: He suspects his own father, now deceased, might have been one of the murderers. To his horror he finds his suspicions confirmed. We cannot fathom Skrodzki’s feelings, which certainly were for many others a prime reason to clamp down and refuse to speak about the issue.

But Bikont does manage to speak to two brothers who say they have nothing to hide. A few years after the war, Jerzy Laudanski was sentenced to jail for participation in the pogrom; his brother Czesław testified that he himself had been part of the mob. Today Jerzy claims they were framed by Stalinist prosecutors, and had not only not been murderers of Jews, but fell victim themselves to “Jewish Communism.” In their words, the pogrom was conducted by Germans, with marginal Polish participation. Apparently, as the great Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski sarcastically said in 1968, “the Jews had burned themselves to spite the Poles.”

The Laudanskis’ testimony, together with that of others who have decided to “defend the good name” of their fathers, constitutes the backbone of Jedwabne denial. It holds sway in town: Wyrzykowska, Dziedzic and Godlewski have all been forced to emigrate. Bikont does not conceal her revulsion for the killers, yet some readers might object to the very principle of talking to them as if they were bona fide sources. But the point is that they are: The very same mendacious obfuscations that today they use to justify their past crimes were probably what had made it possible for them to commit these crimes in the first place.

Bikont’s investigation took four years. The book intermingles facts with how the author came to discover them, her reactions to her interlocutors and theirs to her, with occasional events from her personal life: her daughter’s bat mitzvah, meetings with friends. One suddenly realizes that, between talking to murderers who deny their crimes and innocent people who discover their parents had been anything but, there still is a life to be lived. Conducting her investigation, Bikont was largely on her own. Her paper gave her only tenuous support; the Jewish community was distant. She could count mainly on the support of her friends, including a new one, Radosław Ignatiew, an IPN prosecutor who was conducting his investigation while Bikont was researching her book. His dogged determination to get to the bottom of the crime and his unwavering commitment to the law and the values that underpin it were of crucial help.

In a telling moment, Stanisław Ramotowski tells Bikont how one of the murderers, who was dying of illness in his own home, spent the last few days of his life screaming in agony. Not because of the pain, but because he was seeing his victims assembling around him, waiting for him to die and join them. No human punishment can be as cruel—and as just. But when talking about the pogrom in some of the surrounding villages, I discovered a stunning thing. People there do not marry people from Jedwabne: Descendants of the murderers often have to travel elsewhere, to the big cities, to find spouses. Being human, the punishment is just cruel, not just. Yet it reflects a simultaneously brutal and moral judgment.

Bikont’s book is fundamental for our understanding of ourselves. First and foremost, of course, of us Polish Jews, and us Poles and us Jews. But it tells us also something about the species. Something that Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi knew. Something that journalist Jean Hatzfeld has been telling us in his devastating reporting from Rwanda. We do this to ourselves.

Konstanty Gebert is a columnist and international reporter for the independent Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. He has written ten books on the Polish transformation and other works on  modern European history and Israel.

3 thoughts on “Book Review // The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne

  1. George Sternfeld says:

    I have read Jan Gros’s book “Jedwabne”, but this is equally important addition to the tragic events in occupied Poland during Second World Wore. There are two sides to the Polish collective memory; there were good Poles and there were some dreadful individuals. How can we rationalize and excuse their behavior?

  2. Buzz Sienknecht says:

    I’m getting this book tomorrow

  3. Jack Kuper says:

    I am half way through this 500 page book, and feel as if I’ve been catapulted back into wartime Poland and the one I left behind in 1946. This story will disturb your days and keep you up nights ; but you must read it– once you start you’ll be held in its grip without choice, but to continue.

    We have a habit in North America, of honouring questionable individuals, whose names, it is hoped, may attract a crowd of donors to a specific charity. The author of this book, Anna Bikont is, thankfully not in that category, but a truly deserving candidate of the highest degree, for her unrelenting soldiering in giving clear voice to a crime of the unimaginable.

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