September 14, 2005: Features
By Alex Barnett
In the spring of 2000, Jan Tomasz Gross published a slim book called “Neighbors” that described a murder. On a hot July morning in 1941, the Jewish residents of a small Polish town called Jedwabne were driven from their homes and forced to gather in the town square. They were made to perform gymnastics exercises and other humiliating acts. Many were killed in isolated incidents. At some point in the day the remaining Jews were led a short distance to a large wooden barn and forced inside. The barn was locked, doused with kerosene, and set on fire. Witnesses recall that the screams of the dying could be heard everywhere in the town. In this way the Jewish community of Jedwabne (yed-VAHB-nay) – according to witnesses, 1,600 adults and children – was wiped off the face of the earth in a single day.
Horrible as it is, the story is not at first glance surprising; Jews were killed in comparable numbers in towns throughout Nazi-occupied Poland as the Holocaust accelerated in the second half of 1941. But Gross, who was born in Poland and has been a Princeton history professor since 2003, wrote Neighbors to prove a charge that most Poles and many scholars found almost impossible to accept: that it was the Poles of Jedwabne — not the German occupiers — who had committed this massacre. And the evidence that they had done so had been available for decades.
Neighbors met with acclaim in Europe and the United States, where it was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award. In Poland a vast controversy unfolded. In hundreds of articles, essays, and broadcasts the murder was mourned, debated, and denied. Gross was called a hero, a liar, a traitor. Finally, on July 10, 2001, in a ceremony carried live on national television, Aleksander Kwa´sniewski, the president of Poland, stood in a field about 90 miles northeast of Warsaw and apologized to the world for what had taken place there 60 years before. The effects of Gross’ book have continued to ripple through Polish society.
“Neighbors caused a sea change in Polish thinking about the Holocaust,” says Professor Anson Rabinbach, Gross’ colleague in the history department and an expert on 20th-century Europe. “The book convinced the Polish government and large segments of society that there had in fact been Polish complicity in the Holocaust. I can think of no other case in which a historian played such a decisive role in a national controversy about the Holocaust.”
If you were born in Poland at the end of World War II and raised in a typical home, there is a great deal that you might not have learned about your country’s history. Certainly you would know that Germany had invaded western Poland in September 1939. You would know that Poland suffered devastating losses in the war, that the Nazi occupation was exceptionally cruel, and that Poles had resisted the occupiers heroically. But whole swaths of wartime history — the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939, the mass murder of Polish POWs by Soviet secret police in 1940 — were falsified, suppressed, or simply not mentioned. You probably would not know that in 1939 Poland had been home to 3.5 million Jews, the largest Jewish population in Europe, and that by war’s end more than 90 percent of them had been killed. You might not even know that Jews had lived in Poland.
“One often heard that 6 million Poles died in the war,” explains Gross, who teaches about 20th-century Europe, totalitarianism, and the social consequences of war. “One did not learn that 3 million of these people were Jews, who had been singled out for special treatment.”
In part this was because so few Polish Jews remained to speak about their experiences: By 1950, after a wave of postwar emigration, only about 60,000 Jews lived in Poland. But the topic was also disadvantageous for the postwar communist government. “It was in no one’s interest to dwell on the fate of the Jews,” Gross says. “First, the newly established regime did not wish to associate itself with Jewish causes in the minds of Poles. Second, the Poles saw themselves as the unequivocal victims of World War II, and the regime played on that sense of victimhood, so there was no incentive to present a victim of Nazi aggression who had suffered even more than the Poles. Finally, as we now know, if you look closely at the Holocaust you will always find local complicity.”
Gross was born in Warsaw in 1947 to a mother from a Catholic family and a Jewish father. His parents met during the war when his mother, who was active in the underground resistance movement, came by the Warsaw apartment where Gross’ father was hiding to distribute clandestine newspapers. In 1944, following the failed Warsaw Uprising, Gross’ parents both fell into the hands of the Germans. His mother arranged for his father to be smuggled out of a camp where they were being held, probably saving his life.
Gross was an only child in a household he describes as entirely assimilated. “I grew up with a very pronounced Polish identity,” he says. “I didn’t see myself as Jewish.” His parents belonged to the Warsaw intelligentsia — he was a lawyer and academic, she a translator — and they lived in a liberal, cosmopolitan milieu where one rarely encountered anti-Semitism. It was the communist regime, not the war, that most engaged Gross’ interest in his teenage years. In high school, he and his friends formed a club to discuss politics, obtain forbidden books, and engage in various activities he describes as “contestatory.” They called themselves the “Seekers of Contradiction.” When in 1965 Gross enrolled at Warsaw University — first to study physics, and then sociology — he and his friends continued their political activities. One favorite tactic was to stand up at lectures and ambush speakers with politically unorthodox questions. By then the group was merging into a larger movement for free speech that included writers, dissidents, and intellectuals.
In 1968 Gross and his friends staged a demonstration in the center of Warsaw against the banning of a supposedly anti-Soviet play; they were arrested and jailed, prompting the main union of Polish writers to join in protesting the ban. After a large demonstration at Warsaw University, the Polish government suddenly announced a nationwide campaign against “Zionists,” who it was claimed were behind the unrest in Warsaw. Over the next few weeks the media were saturated with anti-Semitic propaganda and hundreds of public rallies were organized to denounce the Zionists. In fact, the government-initiated campaign was a political exercise intended to force out certain high-ranking officials of Jewish origin and to put down the free-speech movement (which was then bringing about unprecedented political liberalization in neighboring Czechoslovakia). But the campaign struck a chord in Polish society, and soon “Zionists” were being discovered everywhere and dismissed from their jobs. Poland’s tiny Jewish minority watched the purge with dismay and alarm, and beginning in 1968, thousands emigrated.
Gross was released from prison after several months. He had been expelled from the university and was facing conscription into the army; a number of his peers had been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. He was ready to leave, as were his parents. In 1969 they relinquished their citizenship. His parents settled in New York City, where his father had relatives. Gross won a fellowship to Yale to study sociology, although he spoke little English and could offer no transcripts. “It was the Cold War,” he explains. “They were open to students with unorthodox backgrounds.”
As a graduate student at Yale, Gross pursued a topic that was in no small part autobiographical: how totalitarian regimes function and how societies resist them. His first book examined the German occupation of western Poland and the vast underground networks that developed to oppose it. In writing the book Gross left out the experience of Poland’s Jews during the occupation; it was a subject for another study, he wrote in the preface, because the Jews had been physically isolated in ghettos and treated very differently. He took a similar approach in his second book, Revolution from Abroad (1988), an influential study of the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland from 1939 to 1941.
Gross would later call this exclusion of Poland’s Jews from his work a mistake, but it was a mistake deeply ingrained in the historiography. According to the standard narrative, the Nazis had separated Jews from the rest of the Polish population at gunpoint, and the great majority of Poles were helpless bystanders — horrified at what they saw of the Holocaust, but forbidden from interfering under penalty of death. It was known that a small number of Poles had taken enormous risks to save Jews, and also that a few Polish criminals had blackmailed Jews hiding outside the ghettos or denounced them for money (the so-called szmalcownicy, or “scum”), but such people were viewed as exceptional. The important point was this: As a nation the Poles had done all they could to help the Jews.
By the mid-1980s, Gross’ work had led him to doubt this picture. He knew that enormous numbers of Poles in the resistance had risked their lives conspiring against the Germans, so by itself the threat of death did not explain why so few had assisted Jews. He had read thousands of wartime newspapers and periodicals printed illegally in Poland and had been surprised to discover that these writers were almost unanimous in their view that the Jewish population in Poland was a “problem” that needed solving, perhaps through emigration. And he noticed a gap in the historical literature published in Poland.
“Basic historical research had not been done
on interactions between Poles and Jews during the war,” Gross says. “In general, there was a strange silence about the fate of the Polish Jews.”
So Gross began writing articles about Polish-Jewish relations, and to fill in the blanks he turned increasingly to Jewish sources. Why, he asked, was the act of hiding Jews so dangerous, considering that German functionaries were few and far between? Why did Poles who helped Jews during the war seek to conceal this fact later? Why were many Jewish survivors scandalized by the conduct of their countrymen? He saw only one answer in the historical record. “It is sad to say, but Poles by and large did not sympathize with the Jews during the war. The szmalcownicy who blackmailed Jews were a much larger group than people let on. The few Poles who did shelter Jews in their homes didn’t worry so much about Gestapo agents as they worried about their neighbors denouncing them.”
Gross was not alone in his thinking in the 1980s. Shoah, the landmark 1985 documentary about the Holocaust, included unflattering images of indifferent Polish bystanders. In 1987 a Polish literary critic named Jan Blo´nski suggested in an article that Polish anti-Semitism had produced an environment in which the Holocaust was carried out more easily. But though the story of Jedwabne was well known locally, Gross says, it had “never made its way into the history books.” No journalist or scholar was then suggesting that Poles had participated directly in the extermination of the Jews.
As the war came to an end, confronted with the utter destruction of their communities, Polish Jews formed a self-help network called the Central Committee of Jews in Poland. The committee organized various forms of assistance for survivors, such as homeless shelters and loans, as well as Yiddish-language newspapers and other cultural initiatives. In late 1944, at the instruction of the Central Committee, a group of activists began interviewing Jewish survivors about their experiences. When the project ended in 1948, roughly 7,200 testimonies had been recorded. By then this group had evolved into the Jewish Historical Institute, which continued to collect and publish information about the Holocaust, although its voice was faint. Today the 7,200 testimonies are housed in the institute’s archives, in an elegant stone building in downtown Warsaw. It was here that Neighbors began.
In 1996 Gross found among these testimonies the deposition of a man named Szmul Wasersztajn. Wasersztajn had grown up in a small town called Jedwabne that lay within the half of Poland occupied by the Soviets; the town came under German occupation in June 1941. According to Wasersztajn’s statement, virtually the entire Jewish population of Jedwabne had been murdered with astonishing cruelty by their Polish neighbors in one day, soon after the German forces arrived. Only a handful of Jews survived, Wasersztajn among them, thanks to a Polish woman who hid them on her farm.
The first time Gross read the deposition, he didn’t believe it. “I was struck by the document,” he recalls. “I was prepared to accept that some number of Jews had been killed by their Polish neighbors. But I simply didn’t believe that at the end of the day everyone had been burned to death. I thought Wasersztajn was using hyperbole.”
About three years later, while visiting friends in Warsaw, Gross happened to see some raw footage shot by a Polish documentary filmmaker who also had read Wasersztajn’s allegations and had gone to Jedwabne to look into them. In the film clip, an elderly Polish woman was recalling how in 1941, men from Jedwabne had come to her father asking for the keys to his barn so that the Jews could be burned. “What else could he do?” she asked.
“I was flabbergasted,” Gross says. The next day he began to research Jedwabne.
Gross quickly found evidence confirming Wasersztajn’s story. In 1949, on the basis of the same deposition, 22 men from Jedwabne were arrested and tried by the communist authorities, and their testimony at trial substantially corroborated his account. (Twelve men received sentences; Gross notes in Neighbors that the trial — conducted during the peak of Stalin’s anti-Jewish phobia — was handled quickly, with “very little effort” put into the investigation.) In 1980 a number of other Jewish survivors from Jedwabne had published their recollections of the massacre in a memorial book. And indeed, a small stone monument in Jedwabne essentially confirmed the allegation, although it differed about the perpetrators. Translated, the inscription read: site of the suffering of the jewish population. the gestapo and nazi gendarmerie burned 1,600 people alive.
Gross wrote up his findings over the winter of 1999–2000. Weaving together the testimony of survivors, perpetrators, and witnesses, he reconstructed the events that had taken place in Jedwabne. He concluded that about a dozen Gestapo agents and military policemen had been present in the town that day, and while they may have proposed the massacre, they did not actively take part in it. Instead, a large crowd of Polish men led by the wartime mayor of Jedwabne had murdered their neighbors and acquaintances with knives, wooden clubs, and fire.
“It was a disturbing book to write,” Gross recalls. “I think Jedwabne was especially painful for assimilated Polish Jews like myself. As Poles we feel sadness and shame, and as Jews we know we would have been victims.”
The furious, prolonged debate Neighbors set off in Poland was unlike anything seen before; some observers called it the most important event in Polish public life since the fall of communism. “Jedwabne was a terrible shock for Poland,” says Polish journalist Anna Bikont, who wrote extensively about the controversy in Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily newspaper, and published a book about the massacre last year. “Before Neighbors, the idea that Poles had killed Jews during the war was unthinkable.” The Institute of National Memory, a state entity created in 1998 to prosecute crimes committed under the communist regime, among other things, quickly opened an investigation. In March 2001 the monument in Jedwabne blaming the massacre on the Germans was removed, and later that spring investigators exhumed two mass graves on the site where the barn had stood. Out of deference to Jewish burial laws only the surface layer of the graves was removed; dozens of corpses were revealed, including those of children and infants.
At its height, the controversy surrounding Gross’ book was impossible to escape. According to Bikont, more than 300 newspaper and periodical articles were published about it in the spring of 2001; “it was all anyone talked about,” she recalls. Gross, who happened to be in Poland at the time, was stunned. Concerned that the public was getting misinformation about the book from the media, he prepared a digest version of Neighbors that was published as an insert in another leading newspaper. By August 2001, 92 percent of respondents in a nationwide survey could identify a tiny farming town called Jedwabne. It was, suggests Bikont, like a successful course of therapy: “At first the allegations provoked great anger and fear. But over time those feelings passed, and many Poles began to realize that Gross’ book was true.”
The Institute of National Memory investigation basically confirmed Gross’ account and found that, although the Jedwabne massacre was an extreme example, killings of Jews by fellow Poles were not uncommon in that region of Poland at that time. Still, a new monument unveiled in July 2001 does not identify the perpetrators or estimate the number of victims. It reads, in Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish: in memory of the jews of jedwabne and surrounding areas, men, women, and children, fellow-dwellers of this land, murdered and burned alive at this site on 10 july 1941.
Today, the Jews in Poland number about 20,000 in a nation of 39 million. “Looking back, I think the Jedwabne controversy was a watershed event in relations between the Polish government and the Jewish community,” says American-born Michael Schudrich, who has served as Poland’s chief rabbi since 2004. “Many Poles appeared to understand that this was a horrible event and a blemish on the nation that required some form of penance.”
Schudrich praises the response of the Polish government, including the president’s apology and the swift action taken to secure the site of the barn as a cemetery, and he sees progress in recent cooperative projects between the government and the Jewish community. He points to the creation of the Belzec Memorial and Museum, which opened at the site of the Belzec death camp in June 2004. Overall, he says, the debate in Poland over Jedwabne is cause for optimism. “We have discovered that we can talk honestly about the past. Not only that, we talked honestly about the past and something good happened.”
Each year since 2001, Schudrich has led members of the Jewish community of Warsaw to Jedwabne on July 10 to pray at the gravesite. “It is a normal Jewish obligation to go to the cemetery on the anniversary of the death of a relative or a loved one,” he explains. “So we go to Jedwabne.”
The debate over Jedwabne has stimulated new research on Polish collaboration with the Nazis and on Polish-Jewish relations, and has broadened the audience for such work already under way. “By revealing this terrible event in Jedwabne, Gross has made it easier for Polish historians to present the full complexity of the war period, instead of telling the story always from the Polish point of view and focusing on the heroic aspects of national history,” says Andrzej Zbikowski, a senior historian at the Institute of National Memory. He points to two books published recently in Poland: a 2004 study of the szmalcownicy, the first scholarly attempt to reconstruct the phenomenon of blackmailing Jews; and a 2003 book about the practice of denunciation based on hundreds of letters of denunciation written by Poles to the German authorities during the war. Later this year the Institute of National Memory will publish a major study of wartime Jewish-Polish relations. A half dozen history textbooks published since 2001 for use in Polish schools at least briefly discuss the killing of Jews by Poles in Jedwabne. In the United States, Princeton University Press, publisher of Gross’ major English-language books, last year put out The Neighbors Respond, a 500-page anthology collecting in translation many of the Polish voices in the debate over Jedwabne. “It is no longer possible to speak simply about ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victims,’” says Professor Rabinbach. “Here is a community set alight by the Holocaust almost without the presence of Nazis.” Gross’ new book, about anti-Semitism in Poland between 1944 and 1948, is scheduled for publication next summer.
Ultimately, Gross says, the debate was unavoidable: “The destruction of the Polish Jews is a pivotal event in Polish history. The story must be told honestly, and to the end, before a normal narrative of Polish history can be written.”
But when you ask him why he wrote the book, Gross does not talk first about this narrative. “One of the most frightening things about the Holocaust is the anonymity,” he says. “People have been thrown into pits and buried and forgotten. My feeling was, as long as these people were buried in anonymity — covered over with lies — every day they were being murdered again. I wanted to bury them properly.”
Alex Barnett is a freelance writer and a staff member at the Princeton University Art Museum.