LECTURE: The Jedwabne Massacre of July 10, 1941 and its Legacy
Delivered at Queens College
Jewish Film Lecture Series
December 3, 2006
In May 2000, a bomb went off in Poland. Fortunately, no one died, although countless thousands, perhaps millions of Poles were hurt. That is because, happily, they were not wounded physically and certainly not irreparably. But the Poles were hurt in ways that paradoxically had even more devastating effect. For the bomb that went off was an explosive charge in the form of a book and it cut far more deeply into the Polish soul, that is, into the self-conception of the Poles as a nation, than any actual bomb explosion could ever do. For the book had an extraordinary power to penetrate thick layers of Polish consciousness formed by decades, perhaps centuries of repression, as well as their national vanity that had so diligently invested in the denial of the bitter truths that the book’s author revealed.
The book in question was called ‘Sasiedzi’ in Polish and it became a surprising best seller when it was published in 2001 in the United States under the title “Neighbors.” Its author was the Polish ex-patriot historian Jan Gross, then a Professor at New York University and now a Professor of History at Princeton University. Gross had been researching the accounts of Polish Jews who returned to their homes after World War II from their precarious hiding places in the countryside and cities of Poland, from the concentration camps and from the Soviet Union only to be subjected to rejection, mayhem, terror and murder by their former Polish neighbors. The motives for the Poles reception of the Jews were complex. Traditional Catholic anti-Judaism, always particularly virulent in Poland, played a hateful, foundational role. Such attitudes were often fostered by a clergy very different from the example of the priest who eventually became John Paul II. An accusation that the Jews had been disloyal to the Polish state and to Christian Poles because they had served the Communists when the Soviet Union had occupied the eastern half of Poland between September 1939 and June of 1941 also played a key role, especially since the Poles associated the Jews with their new Soviet masters who had imposed what they regarded as a (Zydokomuna -a Jewish commune) on them, thereby once again suppressing their national aspirations. Finally, the Poles who threatened or actually killed their Jewish fellow citizens clearly often had more venal motives: as soon as the Jews had been taken away on the transports to Treblinka or Auschwitz or a dozen other sites, the Poles took over Jewish property - their homes, furnishings, clothing and so on, and now, after the war, they simply did not want to relinquish any of it to the Jewish survivors who straggled back to their home towns in search of their shattered past.
In any case, Gross came across the testimony of someone named Shmuel Wassersztajn, a Jew from the small town of Jedwabne in the Lomza district near Bialystok in northeastern Poland. Up to World War II, it was a sleepy rural backwater, hardly different from many other areas in eastern Poland, in which Jews formed about half the populations of such small towns or shtetelach. The pattern was invariable: the Jews occupied the town centers and conducted their commerce there, while the ethnic Poles along with some ethnic Germans lived in the countryside tending their farms. The relationship, though perhaps never fully cordial and often marred by violence was, for the most part, stable and functional.
Wassersztajn’s testimony had a huge impact on Gross because of the electrifying charge he made. Wassersztajn stated that on July 10, 1941, about two weeks after the German Army had re-conquered eastern Poland as they pressed their lightning attack on their former ally, the Soviet Union, a massacre had taken place in Jedwabne. He claimed that some 1600 Jews, the entire population of the town, had been killed. Some had been brutally slaughtered with hatchets and clubs in the streets of the town or drowned in ponds nearby. The vast majority, however, had been forced to enter a barn at the edge of the little village and the barn was then doused with gasoline and all inside were incinerated or died of asphyxiation.
Now, in the bloody annals of World War II and the Holocaust, such a gruesome story is hardly unusual. We know all too well that there were no limits to German fury and sadism toward the Jewish people. What was new and explosive about Wassersztajn’s testimony was that he stated, clearly and unequivocally, that the authors of these murders were not Germans, but rather their fellow Poles, indeed, the Polish neighbors of Gross’s book’s title.
It was this charge that sent a sharp spasm through Polish national consciousness in May of 2000. Polish reactions were immediate, extraordinarily varied and continue to this day. They encompassed both the best and the worst in contemporary Poles, and it is this situation that the film we are about to see today Slawomir Grünberg’s The Legacy of Jedwabne discusses both sensitively and in some depth. I’ll come back to the film in a minute, but I want to develop my analysis of the situation in Poland a bit more and to consider how it determined the massive and complex reaction to Gross’s book.
The effects were so immediate, I think, because the charge that Poles had slaughtered Jews was something almost unthinkable for a nation that regarded itself as a long-suffering nation, indeed, as the Christ among the nations. In truth, for centuries Poland had had its national aspirations squashed by three powerful neighbors--the Austrians to the south, the Germans to the West and the Russians to the East. All had conspired since 1795 to dissolve the Polish state and they had even attempted to eliminate Polish language and culture. Reborn only in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, the Polish state had been crushed again in September 1939, and the Polish populations had suffered terribly under the Soviet and Nazi yokes. Make no mistake about it: the Poles suffered grievously. Nearly three million of them were killed in the war and in forced labor camps. Millions more had been forced into servitude by the Nazis. The entire population was faced with extraordinary deprivation and loss of freedom throughout the war, and at its end their suffering did not stop. Rather, 1945 opened a period of more than forty years of subservience to the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, a period in which they lost control over many of their ancestral lands to the East, were forced to rebuild a country devastated by the war, and survived under a subservient state notable for its censorship and intermittent repressions; the average Pole had no real say in the political governance of their own country.
So, from the Poles’ point of view, they had a legitimate claim to see themselves and to be recognized by others as a suffering Christ-like figure among nations, and this had become a powerful source of their national identity. Gross’s documented charge that Poles had murdered Jews directly contradicted this tragic, but ultimately flattering self-conception of the Poles. And they did not like it. Certainly, right wing political groups did not, and they proceeded to launch scurrilous attacks on Gross, claiming, for example, that he--a half Jew, by the way--was part of a Jewish conspiracy to smear the still young, democratic Polish state just as it was seeking full integration into the European Union and NATO. These were precisely the sorts of controversial news items that were picked up in the United States media. Happily, I can tell you that these were not the only reactions, both official and unofficial. Indeed, there were many groups and individuals, including Aleksander Kwasniewski, then the President of Poland, who understood the implications of such a historical truth for his people, and stood up admirably to those of his fellow citizens who preferred to live in denial. The individuals I mentioned also included many historians, including those working for the National Institute of Historical Memory, which started investigations into the events of 1941 that, while modifying Gross’s account in some of its particulars primarily having to do with the number of Jewish victims ended up by confirming the basic facts AND also highlighted the fact that this was NOT an isolated incident. In fact, similar events took place in many other towns in the immediate vicinity as well as in other parts of Poland. The full force of this indictment is one that Poles have had a hard time working through and accepting for all too understandable reasons.
Now, this entire controversy was played out NOT exclusively in small academic journals but rather on the front pages of the leading Polish national newspapers and Catholic intellectual journals such as the prestigious Tygodnik Powszechny and Wiez. It was, therefore, a very public affair that massively foregrounded the question of Polish responsibility for such barbaric acts, even as it also immeasurably aided the diffusion of the issue throughout all levels of Polish society. Certainly, not all Poles participated in the debate or in the more intimate mulling over of such questions. Some, as I have already indicated, behaved badly, confirming the insensitive behavior of Poles toward Jewish wartime suffering that had prevailed for decades. You may recall the terrible controversy in the 1980s and 1990s surrounding the erection of a Catholic monastery and crosses in and around the camp at Auschwitz which is the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. But I want to insist that there were also noble Polish voices raised in defense of historical and moral truths, people like Krzysztof Godlewski, the former mayor of the town of Jedwabne who supported the creation of a new monument that accurately reflected the sad historical truth of the massacre even against the wishes of the town council. And the countless articles and essays also revealed the incredible moral courage and fortitude of several Polish individuals and families who, at the risk of their own lives, saved the Jews from both the wrath of the Germans AND their fellow Poles. Thus in Grünberg’s film, you will meet two individuals, Leon Dziedzic and Antonia Wyrzykowski who hid Jews, including Shmuel Wassersztajn, during the Occupation. They are heros and indeed, Antonia Wyrzykowski has even been designated as a Righteous Gentile by the authorities at Yad Vashem. But as you will see, this story, despite its positive aspects, does not have an entirely happy ending.
A few more words and we will start. Slawomir Grünberg’s film was not the first to be made about the Jedwabne affair. At least two earlier films, both made by an excellent, enterprising Polish television journalist named Agnieszka Arnold, preceded it. In fact, Jan Gross credits Arnold’s 1999 film, Gdzie jest mój brat, Kain? (Where is my brother, Cain?), as having been an important inspiration for him as he was working on his book –Neighbors--that started the whole chain reaction I described earlier Each of these films presents very accomplished versions of the story and capture irreplaceable testimonies from all sides, both that of the Jews and their Polish supporters, and that of those Poles who continue to deny the facts out of their weakness to face uncomfortable truths. All are gripping and dramatic and the characters are in some respects at least, larger than life, and importantly consequential for our sense of being in the world.
The Legacy of Jedwabne itself is not long: it only lasts about 70 minutes. That means we will have ample time to discuss some of the issues I and the film have raised after the screening. I look forward to listening to your comments and responding to your questions at that time.
Thank you for your attention.
Stuart Liebman is Professor of Media Studies, former chair of the Department of Media Studies at Queens College, and coordinator of the Film Certificate Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. Specializing in early European and postwar German cinema, his publications