You came to the United States from Poland in 1969. What brought you here?
I came essentially as a political émigré. There was a student movement throughout Poland in 1968, the so-called March Events, and I was involved in that. I was imprisoned and thrown out of the university. After 1968 people of Jewish origin were permitted to leave Poland and there was a large emigration. I left with my family at this time. We came to America, where we had relatives, and I continued my studies.
Neighbors (2001) has gotten far more attention than academic books normally do. What is the book about?
The book is about an episode that took place on a single day during World War II in a small town in Poland called Jedwabne. The town lies within the area of Poland that was ceded to the Soviets in 1939 when Hitler and Stalin concluded their nonaggression pact and divided Poland between themselves. Half of the population of Jedwabne were ethnic Poles, half were Jews, and they had lived together for centuries. In June 1941 the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and quickly occupied the Soviet-controlled areas of Poland. On July 10, 1941, the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne murdered their Jewish neighbors in a single day of horrendous violence. With very few exceptions, all of the Jews of Jedwabne died in a single day. It began with people being pulled out of their houses and assembled together in the town square. At first the Jews were killed in individual incidents; people were clubbed to death in the street, people were stabbed. But eventually the rest were all herded into a large barn, which was doused with gasoline and set on fire. All of the data I have seen indicate that about 1,600 people were killed. Everybody was killed -- women, children, old people. And the people who killed them were their neighbors and acquaintances. People they had gone to school with, people they bought milk from.
It is important to note that this occurred very soon after the Germans had occupied the area and had committed a lot of violence against Jews. They had made it clear that this is what the Germans do, and that this can be done. Nothing that happened in Jedwabne could have happened without the implicit approval of the German authorities. The murders were probably encouraged by German gendarmes at the scene. Nonetheless, the facts remain. There was no significant German presence in Jedwabne at the time. The Polish residents of Jedwabne murdered their Jewish neighbors on their own.
Neighbors caused a great deal of controversy when it came out. Were these events not known?
The story was well known locally. Around the time that the book was published, when its contents were already known, there were journalists who went to Jedwabne to check out the story, and one could easily establish by talking to the townspeople that, yes, indeed, the Jews had been killed and it was “our people” -- the Poles -- who had done it. And yet it never made its way into the history books. The standard account was that, notwithstanding some collusion by rogue elements in Polish society, it was the Germans who killed the Polish Jews. Until very recently there was a monument at the site that falsely attributed the massacre to the Germans. After Neighbors came out there was a huge investigation by the Institute of National Memory, a newly created Polish entity tasked with digging into atrocities that occurred under the Soviets and also under Hitler. Based on indictments filed after the war it appears that Poles murdered their Jewish neighbors in at least two dozen small towns in that part of Poland.
The book created quite a stir, I think because it directly undermined a stereotype of the war in which the Poles were seen simply as victims. And of course it is true: the Poles suffered terribly under the Soviets and then under the Nazis. The suppression of Polish society under the Germans was ferocious. But one aspect of this narrative was that ethnic Poles had not taken part in the persecution of the Jews in any significant way. Jedwabne is a pretty spectacular counterexample. The victims were also victimizers. The book opened an immense debate in Poland. It was a very interesting debate, and I think a very good thing. Many things that had been denied were spoken about openly for the first time.
How did the story come to your attention?
By coincidence. After the war a group called the Jewish Historical Commission was formed in Poland, among other things to collect testimony from people who had survived the Holocaust. The organizers of this effort understood that the Holocaust was a unique phenomenon and it had to be documented quickly. They collected seven or eight thousand depositions, which are now archived at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Several years ago I found among these depositions the testimony of a man named Szmul Wasersztejn, a Jew who had witnessed the events in Jedwabne and managed to survive. It is a very compelling, dramatic document. I read the deposition and I was struck by it, but at the time I didn’t believe it. I was prepared to accept that the Jews had been forced by their Polish neighbors to assemble, that they had been forced to perform all kinds of humiliating acts, that several of them had been killed. But I simply did not believe that at the end of the day everyone had been rounded up, brought to a barn, and burned to death. It was totally out of scale. Obviously there were horrible things going on, but one could not take this testimony literally.
Some years later I happened to see some raw footage shot by the documentary filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold. It turns out she had seen the same deposition I had, only she was clever enough actually to go to Jedwabne and look around. She went to the place where the barn had supposedly been and she knocked on the door of the house standing next door, and within five minutes she’s talking to the daughter of the man who had given his barn so that the Jews could be burned. In the film clip I saw, this woman was recollecting how people from the town came to her father and asked for the keys to his barn, which he gave them. When I realized that the story was true I began doing research. It turns out that after the war 22 individuals were tried for the Jedwabne massacre. The trials were a botched job from a legal point of view, but the transcripts gave me enough evidence to begin reconstructing the events.
Listening to the story one keeps wanting to ask, Why did this happen?
I don’t have an answer to that question in a general sense. To some extent we might say this is part of human nature. People have always killed people. If you ask specifically about Jedwabne, I would say that the massacre was a copycat crime. In the week before the Jedwabne massacre there were very similar murders in two neighboring towns -- murders in which all of the Jews in the town were killed by their Polish neighbors. The people who committed the murders in Jedwabne had seen that it could be done; in fact, they may have been joined in the killing by people who had participated in the earlier murders. The incentive was partly material. In all of these killings of Jews there was simultaneous plundering. There certainly was anti-Semitism in the area of Jedwabne, but no more than anywhere else in Poland. Anti-Semitism and ethnic tensions were on the rise generally in Europe and Eastern Europe in the interwar period. These were neighbors who lived together in an uneasy relationship. But there had never before been a pogrom in Jedwabne.
This would not have happened, I have no doubt, without the Nazi occupation. The Nazis moved into the area and two weeks later Poles are killing Jews all around. The connection is evident. It was clear to the Poles that this was possible, even encouraged. The Soviet occupation, which lasted one and a half years, had also exacerbated tensions between the Poles and the Jews. There was a perception that the Jews had got a better deal from the Soviets. Animosity toward Jews was often framed as revenge for the time of Soviet occupation.
For me the most paralyzing aspect is that the Jews of Jedwabne were known intimately to the people who murdered them. The victims were killed by their neighbors. In his testimony Szmul Wasersztejn, the man who survived, identified the most active killers using the diminutives of their first names -- the equivalent of Billy or Johnny. The killers were his acquaintances. Perhaps they had played together when they were young.
Does the massacre in Jedwabne hold a lesson?
For me the lesson is that one must tell the truth. One has to know history and to know the past. It is not such an easy thing to know one’s own past. The reception of the book in Poland illustrates this. It also matters to me to bury these people properly, so to speak. I think it is offensive to humanity that this mass grave should be covered over with oblivion and forgetfulness and lies. Every society respects and ritualizes the process of burial. We must make sure that events like this massacre are reported and described. To pile lies on top of murder is really too much, it seems to me.