The Polish Town That Refuses to Face Its anti-Semitic Past

Polish journalist Anna Bikont has authored a powerful first-person exploration of the killings in Jedwabne and the current residents' response to the discovery of Jewish skeletons in their closets.

Polish performance artist Rafal Betlejemski burning down a barn to commemorate the Jedwabne pogrom.
Reuters

“The Crime and the Silence,” by Anna Bikont, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 532 pages, $30

“One summer day in 1941, half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half.” With those jarring words, the Polish historian Jan T. Gross began his unforgettable account of a Holocaust massacre carried out not by Nazi invaders but by ordinary Polish civilians against the Jews next door. Gross’s book “Neighbors” (2000) set off an agonizing debate in Poland that has still not fully subsided about Polish culpability in anti-Jewish atrocities. 

Now Polish journalist Anna Bikont, in “The Crime and the Silence,” has authored a sequel of sorts – a powerful first-person exploration of the killings in Jedwabne and the response of the town’s current residents to the discovery of all those Jewish skeletons in their closets.

“The Crime and the Silence” is written in the form of a diary, mostly covering 2001-2002, as Bikont speaks with survivors, perpetrators, bystanders and the next generation. The format makes for an effective narrative as Bikont weaves back and forth between the 1940s and our own time, trying to understand how so many citizens of Jedwabne could take part in herding more than 1,000 of their Jewish neighbors into a barn and burning them alive – and how so many could continue denying it to this day.

For some contemporary Poles, the fact that Poland was conquered and victimized by the Germans establishes a black-and-white perspective, according to which the Holocaust is something that the Nazis did to the Jews and in which Poles had no hand. The reality, however, was very different.

“The Crime and the Silence” reminds us, first of all, that the slaughter in Jedwabne did not come out of the blue but was preceded by many decades of deeply rooted, and largely church-driven, anti-Semitism. The anti-Jewish rhetoric that Bikont finds in the local literature, especially church publications, in the 1920s and 1930s is pervasive, profoundly ugly and often provides a rationalization – even an inspiration – for violence. 

A regional newspaper called The Catholic Cause happily reported, in 1937, “the mood of excitement” sweeping the region as “farmers refuse to sell to Jews” and signs proclaiming “No Jews” spring up all over. In a follow-up story, the newspaper fairly chortled with glee as it announced that in one town, “Jewish stalls [in the marketplace] are watched so carefully that no peasant can go near them, and 250 Jewish families are doomed to hunger.”

Radoslaw J. Ignatiew, a prosecutor who headed a Polish government commission that investigated the Jedwabne massacre, at one point told Bikont he had encountered so much anti-Semitism in the course of his work that he wondered “if Poles hadn’t imbibed it all with their mother’s milk.” Then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir ruffled feathers in 1989 for using that same undiplomatic expression. But what some elderly Jedwabne residents told Bikont was not that different: when they were growing up, a child who resisted bedtime would be warned by his parents, “The Jews will turn you into matzo.” Parents who wanted to deter a nagging child from tagging along to the market would warn him that he would have to “kiss the Jewish lady’s beard” at the entrance.

The prevalence of grass-roots anti-Semitism in rural Poland not only helps explain the foundation of hatred that facilitated the Jedwabne slaughter; it also sheds light on the roots of similar pogroms that took place nearby during the previous week in July 1941. In Wasosz and Radzilow, too, Polish mobs raped, robbed, tortured and murdered. In each town many hundreds of Jews – exact numbers are elusive – were herded into a barn, which was then set afire. In Jedwabne, the destruction was almost complete: Only seven of the town’s 1,600 Jewish residents survived. 

Germans played little or no direct role in these massacres, yet the Poles perpetrated many of the same kinds of outrages commonly associated with the Nazis. Jews were tied to the backs of wagons or horses and dragged through the streets. Infants were torn from their mothers’ arms and butchered before their eyes. In the Jedwabne synagogue, Jews were “forced to sing and destroy their holy books,” Bikont notes. 

In Radzilow, some of the bodies were dumped into a pit used for curdling dairy products. One eyewitness told Bikont “the earth was moving” from the breath of victims who were only half-dead. I have had students who wondered about the veracity of a report in an American Jewish magazine, in early 1942, of German massacres in which the victims were machine-gunned into pits in a field, “and by the living breath of those interred, the field was heaving like the sea.” Bikont’s book should put those doubts to rest.

In all three of the towns that Bikont studied, those who were not involved in the violence played a supplementary role as looters. She presents accounts of peasant women in Radzilow tearing the dresses off Jewish women as they were being herded off at gunpoint. One Polish housewife admitted stealing and ripping apart Torah scrolls because of a popular belief that “there were dollars hidden in them.”

Yet at every turn, Bikont found herself confronted by the almost unanimous refusal of Jedwabne residents to face up to their town’s past. Younger residents resented what they saw as the besmirching of its good name. Old-timers conjured up tall tales to explain what had happened. Some insisted, despite mountains of evidence, that it was the Germans who did it. Some even claimed that a secretly Jewish Nazi officer who was trying to hide his identity led the massacre. Others accused their Jewish neighbors of having collaborated with the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, during the brief Russian occupation of the town. There were “60 Jewish units” of the NKVD, one older resident absurdly insisted. Sometimes Bikont directly refutes such allegations; sometimes she lets their inanity speak for itself.

Then-Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski, to his credit, acknowledged the truth about Jedwabne, but the townspeople boycotted his speech at a 2001 memorial ceremony and denounced him as a puppet of international Jewry. A sign blaming the Germans for the pogrom was removed from a local monument by the federal government, but the town council refused to authorize mention of the Polish perpetrators in the replacement sign. Even a local teacher who had attended a two-week program at the United States Holocaust Museum insisted that the Polish mobs in 1941 were just “carrying out orders” from the Germans and that contemporary critics are all just “making money” from the Jedwabne controversy.

Again and again, Bikont encounters ears of Jewish financial claims against Jedwabne. 

“‘The Jews are about to come and take what belongs to them’ is a phrase I hear all the time,” she writes. If it belongs to them, one might ask, why can’t they take it? To this day, Poland is the only major European country that has no Holocaust restitution law, and numerous Jewish homes in Jedwabne remain in the hands of families who illegally occupied them in 1941. The silence to which Bikont’s title refers masks a continuing injustice.

The writer is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coauthor of “The Historical Dictionary of Zionism,” among other books.