Massacre of Jedwabne Jews Still Tears at Polish Society

Share via
Abraham Brumberg is the author of "Poland: Genesis of a Revolution" (Vintage, 1983)

Since the publication last year of Jan Thomasz Gross’ book on the murder in July 1941 of as many as 1,600 Jews by their neighbors in the Polish town of Jedwabne, many Poles have either denied the evidence or maintained that the killers were Germans, not Poles.

Others, however, have published vigorous statements demanding that Poland find the courage to face up to the fact that Jedwabne Jews were tortured and burned alive by people from the same village, abetted by peasants from surrounding areas. Among those who have spoken out are eminent Polish intellectuals, journalists and political leaders--including the country’s president, Aleksander Kwasniewski--as well as some clergymen. The latter are of particular significance since the Catholic Church has been a mainstay of anti-Semitism in Poland.

In the end, however, the Polish secular and ecclesiastic authorities, instead of healing wounds, have opened new ones.


Take, for example, a commemorative service held a short while ago in a large Warsaw church. To begin with, the church to this day serves as the distribution center for poisonous anti-Semitic tracts. Furthermore, the service was held on the first day of Shavuot, a holiday observant Jews celebrate in their homes as well as in synagogue. This made nonsense of the earlier claim that the service was to be an “inter-faith” event.

Also, the prayers pirouetted around the fact the perpetrators of the atrocity were Poles, or at least overwhelmingly Poles. They referred vaguely to “some Poles, several of them baptized” among the culprits.

There was more. On the eve of the service, Jozef Cardinal Glemp, Poland’s primate, proposed a “deal”: In return for the Poles asking the Jews to forgive them for Jedwabne, the Jews should “apologize to Poles for helping to impose communism on their country after World War II.”

It was a remarkable statement. Quite apart from its vulgar quid pro quo nature, it demonstrated that the leader of Polish Catholics unambiguously embraced the myth that equates Jews with Communists, known in Poland as “ zydo-komuna “ (Jew-Communist).

Though several Jews were among the leaders who imposed the Communist dictatorship on Poland after the war, overall fewer than 1% of Poland’s Jews were ever Communists, and nearly 30% of all people arrested and exiled by the Soviet forces from 1939 to 1941 were Jews. Nevertheless, both the Catholic Church and Poland’s neo-fascist, anti-Semitic party, the National Democrats, which dominated Polish political life from before and throughout the country’s brief period of independence in the 1920s and 1930s, propagated this noxious idea. Its tenacity is what in part led--as many historians acknowledge--to the mass butcheries like the one at Jedwabne. (For the slaughter in Jedwabne, as we now know, was not the only one.)

The “ zydo-komuna “ myth continues to flourish today, espoused in effect even by respectable scholars, such as the historian Thomas Strzembosz. Rather than admitting that the killers in Jedwabne were filled with hatred and greed--even before the smell of burning flesh had dissipated, town residents were ransacking the homes of their neighbors--Strzembosz depicts town residents as avenging the wrongs committed by “Communist Jews.”

At the service, the chairman of the Committee for Dialogue With Judaism played the same sordid game of moral equivalence. The Jews, he said, “have on their conscience crimes committed against us Poles.”


The service, then, did not represent justice or an honest recognition of truth. It was part of a massive whitewash, as have been some actions by the secular authorities.

The latest and perhaps most shocking development pertains to a new memorial stone to be erected in Jedwabne. The old one named “the Nazis” as the criminals. The new one, solemnly approved by, among others, Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, omits any mention of Poles or of Jedwabne’s residents and holds Nazism solely responsible for Polish anti-Semitism.

No wonder Jewish public figures have denounced this egregious piece of hypocrisy. All Jewish organizations in Poland have refused to participate in any commemoration of Jedwabne’s massacre, including the one scheduled for July 10, its 60th anniversary, unless the inscription is altered--first, by making it crystal clear that nearly the whole Jewish community was murdered and, second, by removing the reference to Nazism as the source of the massacre.

The inscription may yet be altered. But the fact that the Polish authorities could engage in so shameful a deception remains one more stain on the country’s record.

A final word: Just as the Jedwabne massacre stirred the conscience of many Poles, so has this latest duplicity. A well-known priest, Father Stanislaw Musial, condemned Glemp’s “deal” as a revolting “trading in moral values.” Further, he spoke sharply about the church’s failure to acknowledge the extent of its complicity in anti-Semitic propaganda before, during and after the war. He demanded an end to “anti-Jewish catechisms in our schools, and kiosks selling anti-Semitic literature on church premises.”

A few other members of the clergy, including an archbishop, have echoed Musial. And one journalist, Roman Garczyk, denounced the new inscription not as a “compromise,” as the foreign minister and others would have it, but as yet more proof of how the “disease of anti-Semitism” still infects large numbers of Poles and their leaders.


People like Musial and Garczyk, though a minority, are impressive. One can only hope that they may yet succeed in restoring Poland’s good name and sending into limbo the Glemps, Strzemboszes and all their votaries, baptized or not.