Post Truth, Holocaust Edition

The Jewish Journalist Who Refuses to Let Poland Whitewash a Dark Past

Along with historian Prof. Jan T. Gross, Anna Bikont has been pivotal in addressing a wartime past that many Poles would prefer to ignore. As her book about the Jedwabne massacre appears in Hebrew, she vows to never remain silent.

Polish performance artist Rafal Betlejewski burning down a barn in the village of Zawady, Poland, in 2010, to commemorate the Jedwabne massacre in July 1941.
Filip Klimaszewski/Reuters

In December 2000, an unusual letter arrived at the editorial offices of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza. Kazimierz Laudanski, a beekeeper from a small town in northeastern Poland, was asking the newspaper to clear his family’s name.

Almost 60 years earlier, on July 10, 1941, Laudanski’s two brothers, Zygmunt and Jerzy, were among the leading participants in a massacre committed by the citizens of Jedwabne against hundreds of their Jewish neighbors. After the war, the two brothers spent six and eight years in jail, respectively, but after that they returned to their normal lives.

But then, in 2000, the ghosts of Jedwabne returned to haunt the brothers. This happened following the publication that year of a book called “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne,” written by Jewish-Polish historian Prof. Jan T. Gross. After an extensive search in Polish archives, Gross was able to describe how, on a summer’s day in 1941, Polish residents of the town executed their Jewish neighbors. Among the murderers were Laudanski’s brothers, who joined others in beating Jews and then dragging them to one of the barns, in which more than 300 Jews were burned alive.

Gross’ book was seen as a scathing indictment of the Polish nation, causing a huge furor there. The background for this was Gross’ declaration that it was Poles – not Germans, as previously believed – who were behind the murder of Jedwabne’s Jews. Polish people, who until then had considered themselves the ultimate victims of the Nazi regime, were now forced to acknowledge the fact that as well as being victims, they had also produced some very vicious murderers themselves.

Jedwabne was instantly transformed from a remote town into a touchstone for examining Jewish-Polish relations.

The elderly Laudanski was extremely concerned about his brothers’ reputation and decided to appeal to the editor of the country’s most popular daily, to protest what he saw as the persecution of his “patriotic” family. The letter was passed on to Anna Bikont, a senior journalist at the newspaper whose Jewish mother had survived the war by posing as a Christian. Bikont was given a complex task: to present readers with the voices of the Laudanski brothers, murderers of Jedwabne’s Jews.

So began Bikont’s journey, charting one of the harshest incidents in the history of Poland’s Jews – an event that even now, 75 years on, still divides and splits Polish society. Her journey, which began with a meeting with the murderers, took her through the back-alleys of Poland to uneducated and underdeveloped parts of the country, where Jews are still perceived as enemies.

Bikont’s journey also took her beyond Poland’s borders, leading her to the United States, Costa Rica and Israel, in search of murderers, survivors and witnesses – all conducted shortly before the last person who saw or heard about the Jedwabne pogrom died.

Polish journalist Anna Bikont in Tel Aviv, December 2016.
David Bachar

Her journey lasted four years. Four long years in which she worked, she says, “from sunrise to sunset, every day, obsessively.” She now describes that time as years of “unremitting tension, of contacts with the persecuted and their persecutors, with murderers, with anti-Semites, with deniers, with survivors and their traumas.”

She captured her journey in a weighty tome, published in Poland in 2004 under the name “My z Jedwabnego” (“We From Jedwabne”). Whereas Gross’ “Neighbors” was the book that had shaken the dust off the archives in which this incident was hiding, Bikont’s was the one that described how it continued to haunt its residents, even in the early 21st century.

The book was later translated into several languages. Last year, it appeared in English (“The Crime and the Silence – Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne”), and was included in the New York Review of Books’ list of 100 noteworthy releases. Now, belatedly, it has finally also been published in Hebrew.

Bikont visited Israel this month, where she told Haaretz about the moving investigation she first embarked on 16 years ago.

She describes her meeting with the Laudanski brothers – who were still living 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Jedwabne – as the hardest experience in her long and varied career. “It was quite scary. I came face to face with evil incarnate there,” she says. “I met people who are considered heroes by their community, not people who committed terrible acts. Until then, I didn’t know it was possible to kill a Jew and be considered a hero.”

The meeting shocked her so much that she checked out of the room she had taken at a nearby hotel, where she had intended to spend the night, and returned immediately to her home in Warsaw, despite inclement weather. “It was dangerous, with icy roads, but I couldn’t stay near those people for even a minute longer,” she says.

It’s hard to remain unmoved while reading her interview with these murderers from Jedwabne. “We have nothing against Jews, but stop this delving into old wounds. There is no need,” they told her. “It’s unseemly to turn our people into criminals. It’s despicable to accuse Poles of such things. It’s not the time to preach to Poles.” One of them even called the massacre “a small thing just a little quarrel between Jews and Poles.”

“The Jews in Jedwabne, whether they were burned that day or not, their fate was sealed,” Kazimierz Laudanski is quoted as saying, adding, “The Germans would have killed them sooner or later. Such a small thing and they slap it on the Poles – on my brothers of all people. We forgave the Gestapo, we forgave the Russian secret police, and here we have a little quarrel between Jews and Poles and no one can forgive?”

A group photograph of Jewish students and teachers in Jedwabne, Poland, in 1938.
Yad Vashem Archive

Laudanski continued: “It’s not about defending my brothers. They were tried, rightly or wrongly, and you can’t convict them again for the same thing. I’m meeting you so you can tell Mr. Michnik [Gazeta Wyborcza’s editor] that we shouldn’t be reopening old wounds. It’s not right to make our people out to be criminals. It’s wicked to accuse Poles of such things. And it’s not the time to launch a campaign to teach the Poles what’s right, when Jewish finance is attacking Poland.”

Shock and relief

Bikont was born in Warsaw in 1954, and grew up without knowing that her mother was Jewish. Only in the 1980s, at 33, did she discover her family’s history. It happened by chance, when she met a cousin and asked him for some details about their grandfather (her mother’s father), who had died before the war. Then, for the first time, she heard his name: Hirsch Horowitz. She realized immediately that she was Jewish.

She later learned that her grandmother, Miriam Bayer, was also Jewish and had died in the Holocaust – probably in the Warsaw Ghetto. Miriam’s daughter, Lea (Bikont’s mother), survived in the Aryan side of the city due to her marriage to a Pole, who was a member of an anti-German underground group. He gave her mother “good documents,” says Bikont, which enabled her to pose as a non-Jewish Pole. After the war, her mother remained in Poland under communist rule. “My mother was in love with Poland, with its scenery and literature,” explains Bikont, who was born during her mother’s second marriage to a non-Jewish man. “I was in shock when I discovered I was Jewish, but it was also a relief to find out,” she says.

Bikont initially wanted to be a psychologist, studying for a graduate degree at Warsaw University. At that time, the 1970s, she was captivated by the anti-communist underground that operated in Poland. She was arrested and detained briefly on two occasions.

Later, in the ’80s, she edited an underground weekly called Tygodnik Mazowsze. It was a dramatic time in Polish history, with demonstrations and anti-communist strikes led by Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. In 1989, the struggle bore fruit and partly free elections were held for the first time since World War II.

“Walesa wanted us to put out a newspaper that would help him recruit voters,” relates Bikont. The task fell to the editorial staff of the underground paper she was editing. The name chosen for the new daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, means “a newspaper for elections” in Polish. Bikont was lucky enough to be one of the paper’s founders, along with Adam Michnik, also a Jewish Pole, who was appointed editor-in-chief. “The first issue was prepared in my kitchen, next to my daughter Ola’s multiuse diapers that were hanging up to dry,”Bikont says with a smile.

“At first, the communist government only allowed the paper to be published during the election campaign – limited to two months,” she continues. But with the fall of the communist regime in the 1989 election, paving the way for Walesa to become president the following year, the paper continued to appear, becoming one of the widest-read dailies in central Europe. Michnik has continued to edit it for 27 consecutive years.

Bikont also remained on its staff as a senior correspondent. In addition, she has published five books since the ’90s, including a biography of Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska, published in 1997.

Revisiting Jedwabne

In 2000, when the Jedwabne massacre again made headlines after the publication of Gross’ book, Bikont asked Michnik if she could go to Jedwabne in order to interview people and publish a series of stories on the subject. To her surprise, he objected: “He was worried that it would set off a conflict that would hurt Poland,” she says.

However, following the letter written by the brother of the Laudanski murderers, Michnik became convinced there was a story that needed to be examined in more detail. He sent Bikont to investigate and, a few months later, expressed his own feelings on the matter. In an article he published in the newspaper under the title “The shock of Jedwabne,” he wrote: “Writing these words, I feel schizophrenic: I am a Pole, and my shame about the Jedwabne massacre is a Polish shame. At the same time, I know that if I had been there in Jedwabne at the time, I would have been killed as a Jew.

Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich praying during a memorial event in July 2016 to mark the 75th anniversary of the massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland.
Michal Kosc/AP

“I do not feel guilty for the murdered, but I do feel responsible ... that after they died, they were murdered again, denied a decent burial, denied tears, denied truth about this hideous crime, and that for decades a lie was repeated,” Michnik wrote. “Why then did I not look for the truth about the murdered Jews of Jedwabne? Perhaps because I subconsciously feared the cruel truth about the fate of the Jews during that time.

“For those people who lost their lives saving Jews, I feel responsible, too. I feel guilty when I read so often in Polish and foreign newspapers about the murderers who killed Jews, and note the deep silence about those who rescued Jews,” Michnik added.

By then, Bikont was deep into her investigation. After interviewing the murderers, she then started tracking down the survivors. She found the last one still alive, Avigdor Kochav (formerly Awigdor Nielawicki), in Israel. He was living in Yehud when she interviewed him, and he was ridden with cancer. Kochav told her how, at 14, he was caught by Poles in a field outside Jedwabne and taken to the other Jews in the town, who were rounded up in the central marketplace before being led to their deaths by the Poles. As they were walking down a path in a field, he managed to slip away and remain nearby, lying on the ground while watching from a distance as events unfolded. He suddenly smelled and saw a fire from the direction in which the Jews were being led. Only later did he realize he was witness to the burning of the town’s Jews, who were locked inside a barn. Kochav managed to escape. He lived in hiding for the rest of the war, posing as a non-Jewish Pole.

Kochav died shortly after the interview with Bikont. In retrospect, she isn’t sure the interview was the right thing to do. “At the start of my investigation, as a psychologist by training, I believed that it was good to let people talk. I later understood that maybe in this case it wasn’t. The interview caused him much suffering. I returned home, but he was left there with all the memories I had raised,” she says.

During her work, she discovered that investigative reporting which includes going out and knocking on the doors of witnesses can be more important than historical research conducted in an air-conditioned archive. Thus, she says, she was amazed to discover that the truth about Jedwabne had managed to slip under the radar of the most senior researchers in the field.

One of them, Prof. Israel Gutman – who was the chief historian at Yad Vashem between 1996 and 2000 – admitted to her before his death that he wasn’t aware of the true story behind the murder of Jedwabne’s Jews. “We tend to treat the testimonies of survivors with certain reservations,” he told her, as quoted in the book. “Usually, they could only have seen part of the events they describe; the rest they add from hearsay. We made a mistake, and I feel guilty. I didn’t believe the people of a small town could be capable of a crime like that,” he added.

‘Historical journalism’

Bikont manages to combine archival material she assembled in museums, research institutes and archives in Poland and other countries, with personal testimonies she gathered on her travels. “You have to know how to fuse the two. It’s quite different talking to people after reading archival material, and vice versa,” she says. It’s not for nothing that Prof. Gross labeled her book an excellent example of “historical journalism.”

The stories she heard were hair-raising, even after 60-odd years. Several Polish interviewees who described atrocities they had witnessed refused to have their full names published, based on concerns that relatives of the murderers would seek revenge on them. In order to speak with other witnesses, she had to go as far as the United States, where people had moved after being harassed by their Polish neighbors.

She met Mieczyslaw K. in his house in the Polish city of Pisz (where the Laudanski brothers also lived). He had lived in Jedwabne as a child and was 12 at the time of the massacre. “When Poles were going from house to house, chasing Jews onto the marketplace, you heard screams and weeping everywhere because they were taking the children and elders, too. They used clubs to force the Jews into rows, and they didn’t put up any resistance. I was near the barn. When they set the barn on fire, the screaming went on until the roof collapsed,” he told Bikont, adding, “They threw children into the burning barn. I saw it with my own eyes.” He also named a Pole who “led the mob and beat them the worst, and he even went by the houses to stab people hiding in attics with a bayonet.”

Another Polish woman who was 10 at the time of the massacre only agreed to be interviewed if she retained full anonymity, with not even her initials indicated. “They poured gasoline from a can on the barn’s four corners. It caught fire immediately,” she told Bikont. “I can’t sleep at night. I see it as if it were yesterday. There were many more participants in the crime than were later convicted. It was an inferno of hatred. Those horrifying screams still echo in my head. This morning, I woke up at 4 A.M. again because it came back to me. Why I went there, a little girl, I don’t know. Maybe so that I could be a witness to the truth now,” she added.

Reading Bikont’s book leaves one with a sense of deep distress. Many of Jedwabne’s residents still deny any involvement in the massacre, preferring instead to heap accusations on the Jews who were murdered there or on those who survived and left the town.

“For me, the present, more than the past, is the painful part of this episode,” says Bikont. “The lack of empathy of Poles toward the fate of the Jews is very painful to me. Many cannot accept the fact that Poles were criminals as well as being victims.”

Nevertheless, the book offers some glimmers of hope. One of them is Krzysztof Godlewski, a former mayor of Jedwabne who strived to erect a new monument to commemorate the victims of the massacre. It was inaugurated in 2001, on the pogrom’s 60th anniversary. And due to his efforts, an earlier monument’s false attribution of the massacre to the Nazis was removed.

Godlewski paid a heavy price for his actions, though. He was deposed by the municipal council, being derisively dubbed “the Jew Godlewski” by his rivals. But Godlewski, who is not Jewish, feels he has accomplished his life’s mission. “I believe that any decent person would have done what I did. I regret that my former close friends suspect me of other motives. I’ll lick my wounds in isolation,” he says in Bikont’s book.

The deposed mayor left not only Jedwabne, but Poland as well. Bikont found him in a suburb of Chicago, where he works in the quality control department of a company that produces parts for aircraft. “We live from day to day,” he explained. “I don’t know what’s happening in Jedwabne. For me it’s in the past, I’ve cut myself off. One day I said to myself that this is my new homeland. I don’t regret the choice I made.”

His mayoral successor denies the involvement of Jedwabne’s residents in the massacre. Thus, the town’s website has no mention of the event or the involvement of its residents in the murder of their Jewish neighbors. In the few sentences devoted to World War II, it mentions only that the local population was characterized by its particularly strong patriotism.