The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland
On a summer day in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Poland, half of the town of Jedwabne brutally murdered the other half: 1,600 men, women, and children-all but seven of the town's Jews. In this shocking and compelling study, historian Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts as well as physical evidence into a comprehensive reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but hidden to history. Revealing wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism, Gross's investigation sheds light on how Jedwabne's Jews came to be murdered-not by faceless Nazis, but by people who knew them well.
On January 8, 1949, in the small town of Jedwabne, some nineteen kilometers from Lomz in Poland's historical province of Mazowsze, security police detained fifteen men. We find their names in a memorandum ominously called Raport likwidacyjny (A liquidation report) among the so-called control-investigative files (akta kontrolno-sledcze) kept by the security police to monitor their own progress in each investigation.1 Among the arrested, mostly small farmers and seasonal workers, there were two shoemakers, a mason, a carpenter, two locksmiths, a letter carrier, and a former town-hall receptionist. Some were family men (one a father of six children, another of four), some still unattached. The youngest was twenty-seven years old, the oldest sixty-four. They were, to put it simply, a bunch of ordinary men.2
Jedwabne's inhabitants, at the time totaling about two thousand, must have been shocked by the simultaneous arrests of so many local residents.3 The wider public got a glimpse of the whole affair four months later, when, on May 16 and 17 in the District Court of Lomz, Boleslaw Ramotowski and twenty-one codefendants were put on trial. The opening sentence of the indictment reads, "Jewish Historical Institute in Poland sent materials to the Ministry of Justice describing criminal activities of the inhabitants of Jedwabne who engaged in the murder of Jewish people, as stated in the testimony of Szmul Wasersztajn who witnessed the pogrom of the Jews."4
There are no records at the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI) telling us how or when Wasersztajn's deposition was communicated to the prosecutor's office. On the basis of the court files, likewise, it is impossible to know, for example, when the prosecution was informed about what had happened in Jedwabne, and why the indictment was so long delayed. The control-investigative files from the Lomz Security Office shed some light on the matter, but they are also inconclusive.5 In any case, Wasersztajn gave his testimony before the Jewish Historical Commission in Bialystok on April 5, 1945. And this is what he said:
Before the war broke out, 1,600 Jews lived in Jedwabne, and only seven survived, saved by a Polish woman, Wyrzykowska, who lived in the vicinity.
While it is clear to a reader of Wasersztajn's deposition that Jews were annihilated in Jedwabne with particular cruelty, it is difficult at first to fully absorb the meaning of his testimony. And, in a way, I am not at all surprised that four years had elapsed between the time when he made his statement and the beginning of the Lomz trial. This is, more or less, the amount of time that elapsed between my discovery of Wasersztajn's testimony in JHI's archives and my grasp of its factuality. When in the autumn of 1998 I was asked to contribute an article to a Festschrift prepared for Professor Tomasz Strzembosz--a well-known historian who specialized in wartime history of the Bialystok region--I decided to use the example of Jedwabne to describe how Polish neighbors mistreated their Jewish cocitizens. But I did not fully register then that after the series of killings and cruelties described by Wasersztajn, at the end of the day all the remaining Jews were actually burned alive in a barn (I must have read this as a hyperbolic trope, concluding that only some had been killed that way). A few months after I submitted my essay, I watched raw footage for the documentary film Where Is My Older Brother Cain? made by Agnieszka Arnold, who, among other interlocutors, spoke with the daughter of Bronislaw Sleszynski, and I realized that Wasersztajn has to be taken literally.
As the book had not yet been published, I wondered whether I should withdraw my chapter. However, I decided to leave the chapter unchanged, because one important aspect of the Jedwabne story concerns the slow dawning of Polish awareness of this horrendous crime. How did this event figure (or, rather, fail to figure) in the consciousness of historians of the war period--myself included? How did the population of Jedwabne live for three generations with the knowledge of these murders? How will the Polish citizenry process the revelation when it becomes public knowledge?7
In any case, once we realize that what seems inconceivable is precisely what happened, a historian soon discovers that the whole story is very well documented, that witnesses are still alive, and that the memory of this crime has been preserved in Jedwabne through the generations.
—Reprinted from Neighbors by Jan T. Gross by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Jan T. Gross. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission
"An important contribution to the literature of human bestiality unleashed by war." —The New York Times Book Review
"Like an oral tale transcribed by a folklorist, it has the ring of the eternal to it.... Hatred like this runs deep in human nature and is ever ready to erupt again. Be warned." —Los Angeles Times
"Extraordinary." —New Republic
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