A book review article, by David Mikics, in Tablet reports on how Poland viewed the Jews before the Second World and coming to terms with it decades later. It seems that although many things have improved in Jewish-Christians relations in that country, some have not. Even so, the Poland of today is thankfully not the Poland of yesterday. (My father was born in Poland, and came to Canada after the Second World War.)
In “The Day We Burned Our Neighbors,” (October 20, 2015) Mikics writes about what took place in the Polish town of Jedwabne, in northeast Poland, more than 70 years ago, on July 10, 1941. This was a few weeks after the German invasion and occupation of eastern Poland, which until then had been under the control of the Soviet Union:
“I can’t sleep at night. I see it as if it were yesterday. … That terrifying scream that probably didn’t last for more than two minutes, it’s still inside me.” The woman speaking these words was 10 years old on July 10, 1941, when she saw her fellow Poles driving their Jewish neighbors into the barn. Schoolboys jeered at their Jewish classmates, hounding them toward death. Mothers wrapped their babies tight as they tried to shield them against the blows. Within minutes nearly all the town’s Jews—hundreds of them, from infants to old people—would be burned alive. The 10-year-old girl at the window watched the townspeople of Jedwabne pour gasoline at the barn’s four corners and set it alight. Then came the scream.
This account comes from Anna Bikont’s book The Crime and the Silence, which appeared in 2004 in Polish and six years later in French (it won the European Book Prize in 2011) but has just now been translated into English by Alissa Valles. In her work as a reporter for the Gazeta Wyborcza, the liberal Polish newspaper, Bikont has done obsessive, heroic work, interviewing witnesses, perpetrators, and survivors of the Jedwabne massacre and similar mass killings of Jews in the nearby towns of Radzilow and Wasosz. She has discovered a bizarre psychological phenomenon: The townspeople of Jedwabne still insist that they are the victims of Jewish slander. The massacre, they say, was perpetrated either by a few thugs, probably people from out of town, or by the Germans.
Bikont uses the townspeople’s own words to demolish their claim to innocence. She shows that virtually all of Jedwabne knows who the leading murderers were, who stayed home that day in July 1941 and who joined the bloodthirsty mob. These truths were passed down for decades in hints and whispers at kitchen tables and over rounds of vodka. What happened in 1941 was, as Polish President Krasniewski bravely called it, not a pogrom but a genocide, Jedwabne’s wholehearted effort to shatter every trace of Jewish life. Minutes after the killings the town went on a massive looting spree, robbing Jewish homes of silverware, furs, and furniture. These were their neighbors, people they had known for years.
How could an atrocity like Jedwabne happen? Looking for an answer, Bikont confronts the troubled depths of the unequal relationship between Poles and Jews. The trouble stems from Poland’s sense of itself as a perpetual victim nation, crushed over and over by greater powers like Russia and Germany. Until the news about Jedwabne spread, 60 years after the killings happened, it was hard for Poles to think of themselves as the doers, rather than the sufferers, of historical evil.This is understandable to some degree, given Poland’s history of being conquered. Jews have resided in Poland since the 10th century, and for the first 500 or so years of their residency in Poland it was among the most tolerant nations in Europe, a nation where Judaism and Jewish thought flourished. Poland was the undisputed centre of Jewish religious life. symbolized by the golden age of Jagiellonian Poland. But this did not last. The many partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, notably when it fell under the control of Russia, changed the nation in ways it then could not foresee. As did the hardships of the Polish-Ukrainian War, the Polish-Soviet War and the First World War during the early decades of the 20th century.
It must also be remembered that Poland was the first nation that Germany invaded (on September 1, 1939), setting off the Second World War; and that Poland was also invaded by the Soviet Union 16 days later (on September 17, 1939). Eastern Poland was occupied by the Soviets; western Poland by the Nazis. This was the case until the summer of 1941, when the invading German army conquered the eastern half of Poland, as well, part of its Operation Barbarossa (that began on June 22, 1941). Such is the background to the massacre.
Yet, how Poland confronts its past, including discussions on its declining and deteriorating relationships with its Jewish history, most notably and recently after the First World War, and admits its responsibility in what took place in Jedwabne, a small village 85 miles northeast of Warsaw will reveal how Poland will be able to honesty progress beyond it. Dialogue with its Jewish community is necessary and good.
This story was suppressed, ignored and swept under the carpet of history for 60 years. until, as The Forward says, “Jan Gross exposed the atrocity in his seminal book, “Neighbors,” published in 2000.” Now that the painful truth has seen the light of day, it does not mean that it is easily accepted. For example, there is the Catholic Church in Poland, which not only is in denial about its culpability in the massacre at Jedwabne, but remains anti-Semitic, the article notes.
The Church is the black hole,” said Bikont when I talked to her on the phone a few weeks ago. She told me that the Polish Church is “still anti-Semitic, and those who disagree with its anti-Semitism are ostracized.” In her book Bikont highlights the courageous exceptions. She quotes Catholic priests and bishops who speak honestly about Jedwabne and similar massacres and who pray for the Jews murdered in the land of their ancestors by Poles. Father Stanislaw Musial says about the Jedwabne killings, “It’s hard to find a more despicable or cruel crime in human history,” and he marvels at the fact that the Polish Church busies itself trying to find extenuating circumstances for the massacre. But men and women like Musial go against the Church’s message. It’s the Jewish Communists who are guilty, the Church insists; and the leaders of Chicago’s Polish community repeat the same anti-Jewish charges, according to Bikont. Such are the distortions that extreme nationalism requires, all the more disturbing when they don the cloak of religion.Assuredly so. There are some positive signs, however, emanating from the Catholic Church in Poland, reports an article in The Jerusalem Post:
The Polish Episcopate has declared Anti-Semitism is a sin just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the issuance of a Papal proclamation that revolutionized Catholic- Jewish relations.
According to Radio Poland, the local branch of the Church issued a pastoral letter asserting that “anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are sins against the love of thy neighbor” and that “Christian-Jewish dialogue must never be treated as ‘the religious hobby,’” but rather “should increasingly become part of the mainstream of pastoral work.”I find it heartening and noteworthy that the letter says that both “anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are sins against the love of thy neighbor.“ I could not agree more.
For more, go to [Tablet]
For another personal perspective, see Prof. George Jochnowitz’s essay, “My Trip To Poland.”