The Human Stain

Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review

"Even today one can easily get people (who for the most part were born well after the war) talking about these events in a Jedwabne bar," Jan Gross writes in the concluding pages of "Neighbors." "It seems to me that in a village where people keep telling each other who murdered how many Jews, and in what manner, hardly any room is left for conversation on any other subject. Citizens of Jedwabne would thus have been cursed with a 'Midas touch' condemning them to a perpetual preoccupation with Jews (whom they had wanted to get rid of once and for all), and with murder."

It will not go away. It doesn't matter what regime is controlling the archive or silencing the truth tellers. It doesn't matter how widely the amnesia at first takes hold, how persuasive the collective myth seems to be or how lazy (or rigged) the court trials are. It doesn't matter how many buildings are burnt, how much property is appropriated, how many gravestones are smashed up and turned into the soil. It doesn't matter that the commemorative markers boldly lie (at Jedwabne, until this year, a stone monument declared: "Place of martyrdom of the Jewish people. Hitler's Gestapo and gendarmerie burned 1,600 people alive, July 10, 1941"). It doesn't matter that confounded--or colluding--or conforming--historians turn their focus, and their consciences, elsewhere. When so much life is taken, when so much blood is venomously shed, shed with astonishing but graspable, knowable, traceable, ultimately recountable barbarism, there is always some deep lingering residue, some generational memory, some stray surviving account to free the dammed-up facts. Enough time will pass, the circumstances will fall into place and the story will be told.

This is the case with Jedwabne, whose horrors have been recounted, finally, by Gross in a compact, sharp and withering book called "Neighbors." It is a book that raises--or, more precisely, refocuses--troubling questions about the relationship between Poles and Polish Jews, particularly during World War II. It is a book that has caused anxious debate on the subject of Polish anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic (much of it in the pages of the [London] Times Literary Supplement, where angry letters continue in what is sure to be a long volley, and in a recent exchange between Adam Michnik and Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic). It is a book to be read, a book to be reckoned with.

Who were these neighbors, and what exactly did they do? They were Polish neighbors of Polish Jews who, on July 10, 1941, just weeks after the Germans took control of the region, poured out of their homes in Jedwabne, a small town in the east of Poland. They came from town and the surrounding countryside, and they came by cart from nearby villages as well, and--with Nazi direction and support but apparently no hands-on participation--they wielded knives, axes, clubs studded with nails, rubber truncheons and (when more power was needed) fire, and they massacred 1,600 Jewish men, women and babies, half the town's population, the neighbors of Gross' title.

These were Jews whose families had dwelled in the region for 500 years, Jews whose names and faces the Poles knew, Jews they bought goods from, Jews they passed in the street, Jews they lived among. Jews they forced, that morning, to pick up a heavy statue of Lenin and carry it to the Jewish cemetery, sing as they carried it and dig a hole there for the toppled leader; after they tossed Lenin in, they were murdered and tossed in after him. These were Jews who were forced to undress; Jews who were required to perform gymnastics exercises before they were killed; Jews whose throats were cut and beards burned; Jews whose rabbi was made to walk with his hat on a stick; Jews who were told to sing, "The war is because of us, the war is for us" before they died. They were Jews too numerous to kill individually: Those who survived the attacks of the day were, by evening, driven into a barn, which (like the whole town) was surrounded by armed guards, so that no one could escape. The door was locked, the barn was doused with kerosene and a match was struck. The perpetrators played music to drown out the screaming, the black smoke was seen for miles. "It is impossible to represent all the brutalities of the hooligans," Szmul Wasersztajn, one of the few survivors of the massacre, testified before the Jewish Historical Commission in Bialystok four years later, in April 1945, "and it is difficult to find in our history of suffering something similar."

(A note about the figure of 1,600 victims: In calculating this sum, Gross draws on eyewitness testimony from both survivors and perpetrators that was presented during the court trial of 1949 together with interviews conducted much later on. One consequence of the publication of "Neighbors" has been the partial exhumation, earlier this month, of two graves near the barn where the Jews were burned. It was overseen by the Institute of National Remembrance, a Polish state body that investigates war crimes. Witold Kulesza, the institute's top investigator, estimated that the remains of 200 victims were found but conceded that "we did not conduct a full exhumation since we did not pull out the bones from the graves." He said that there were no immediate plans to search for more graves in the area. Clearly the investigation is far from definitive and raises the inevitable question: What defines a massacre? Two murders? 20? 200? 1,600? Every life taken in such circumstances is a stain upon the human record.)

Once again, it would seem, Jews are in the hands of the willing executioner. More than willing, this time. And early on, before the Nazis had fully oiled up their own killing machine. How did this massacre happen and why, and why has its story remained unknown, or untold, for so many years?

Obviously, no such event is without a context, immediate and rooted. First the immediate: The Germans passed through Jedwabne briefly in 1939, long enough to burn its synagogue. After the German-Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression, which was signed on Aug. 23, 1939, the Soviets occupied Poland for 20 difficult months. Poles were subject to a process of Sovietization: Local elites were arrested or deported; private property was seized; religious institutions were secularized. The consequence, according to Gross: "In the summer of 1941 the invading German army was welcomed by the local population of the area (with the exception of Jews, who feared the Nazis more than the Bolsheviks)."

The Germans occupied Jedwabne on June 23, the date on which a smaller pogrom erupted in the town but was suspended upon the intervention of a local priest. This impeded pogrom, like the unimpeded one that soon followed, did not take place in isolation. On July 7, a pogrom erupted in the nearby town of Radzilow, where the Poles built a triumphal arch to greet the German army and decorated it with a swastika and a portrait of Hitler. According to Menachem Finkelsztajn, an eyewitness, the first question out of their mouths was: "Is it permitted to kill the Jews?" In this case, the German army set the example: It forced the Jews to set fire to Torah scrolls; it harnessed Jews to carts and ordered them to drive Poles and Germans through the village, beating them like animals; it ordered the old and the ailing to undress and immerse themselves in noxious swamps. And on and on. According to Finkelsztajn, Poles were the main tormentors: "Our situation was much worse on account of the Polish population taking a hostile attitude toward the Jews." When the German army moved on, the massacre intensified, and in the end as many as 800 Jews were murdered in a manner so brutal that, as Finkelsztajn observed, even "the Germans stated that the Poles had gone overboard." (And the pogrom at Radzilow itself was not isolated; similar pogroms, as Steven Erlanger reported in The New York Times on April 19, took place in Wasosz and Stawiski, other villages in the same region.)

As for the more rooted context, in his introduction to "Neighbors" Gross warns: "I could not say to myself when I got to the last page, 'Well, I understand now,' and I doubt that my readers will be able to either." And it is true. By the last page, the reader does not understand, not completely anyway; but he is in the hands of an able historian, and a number of reasons--potential explanations--naturally accrue.

Gross has rather less patience with some of them, which are regularly offered in discussions of Polish anti-Semitism, than with others. Jews, for example, were believed to have enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Soviet occupiers, allegedly greeting them with "spontaneous outbursts of joy and celebrations." Gross refers to this as a cliche and a stereotype, arguing instead that enthusiastic Jewish response to entering Red Army units was not a widespread phenomenon at all. Poles, conversely--and as Finkelsztajn's eyewitness account amply demonstrates--"enthusiastically greeted entering Wehrmacht units in 1941 and broadly engaged in collaboration with the Germans, up to and including participation in the exterminatory war against the Jews."

Also on Gross' list: money (or property) and the Catholic Church. "Given our growing awareness of the importance of material expropriation as a motivating factor in the persecution of the Jews all over Europe," Gross argues in a chapter called "Plunder," "I would think it very probable that the desire and unexpected opportunity to rob the Jews once and for all ... was the real motivating force that drove Karolak [the mayor of Jedwabne] and his cohort to organize the killing." As for the church: "We must remember that in the background of anti-Jewish violence there always lurked a suspicion of ritual murder, a conviction that Jews use for the preparation of Passover matzo the fresh blood of innocent Christian children." The blood-spiked matzo, the crucifixion of Christ, the anti-Semitic sermons thundered from pulpits: The catalog surprises not by its uniqueness but by its familiarity, its wearying similarity to diatribes delivered by the Catholic Church throughout Europe and across the centuries.

In reading "Neighbors" and much of the press it has generated, an outsider--that is to say, a non-Pole--is often struck by the quality of astonishment, the sense of shaking heads and hands held against hearts, as though in mortified surprise, that seem to accompany these revelations. Polish anti-Semitism was such a well-kept secret? Scarcely. People leaped at the opportunity to act on--and act out--centuries of church-stoked prejudice against and enmity toward the Jews? Shocking.

There is an unmistakable throb of guilt that accompanies Gross' discussion of how he came to find, and tell, the story of Jedwabne, a path he obviously considers to be representative of the Poles' attitude toward their relationship with the Jews generally, even (perhaps especially) among intellectual Poles. In an interview on The New Yorker's Web site that accompanied the magazine's publication of an excerpt of "Neighbors," Gross explained that he published several volumes of documents on the period but while doing so almost never mentioned the Jews; he did this, he said, not out of malice but out of conformism. He was conforming, that is, to "the dominant historiographical paradigm in Polish studies of the war period [which] had been to leave Jews out of it." Yet, "[h]ow can the sudden disappearance of a tenth of Poland's population be anything," he went on to ask, "but a central issue in Poland's modern history?" How indeed.

The reaction of Michnik, a Polish dissident and historian who now edits Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest daily, seems representative of the uneasy relationship Poles have to the subject of what happened to their country's Jews during the war. In his own curiously hedging mea culpa (published in The New York Times on March 17), Michnik both embraced and tried to nuance--by putting into a kind of defensive perspective--Gross' "Neighbors." It was a tricky dance. Michnik, who is himself Jewish, pointed out that Poland was the first country to oppose Hitler's demands; that Poland never had a quisling; that no Polish regiments fought on behalf of the Third Reich; that under Hitler and Stalin, 3 million Poles (along with 3 million Jews) were killed; and that after the war heroes of the Polish resistance who opposed Stalin ended up in Soviet gulags and Polish Communist prisons. All these truths, he said, "contribute to Poland's image of itself as an innocent and noble victim of foreign violence and intrigue." As for Polish anti-Semitism: Yes, it was "the ideological glue of great political nationalistic formations," but it was used by Russian occupiers "in accordance with the principle 'divide et impera"'; but Stalinist terror stymied public discussion in Poland about the war; but, after all, there exists a forest of Polish trees in the Avenue of the Righteous in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust center in Jerusalem, and "Do the murderers deserve more recognition than the righteous?"

Unequivocally, alas, they do.

Michnik's emphasis throughout is on the Poles who felt "the guilt of being helpless witnesses to atrocity [and] were marked by deep trauma, which surfaces with each new debate about Polish anti-Semitism, Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust." It is difficult to feel great empathy for the trauma this debate brings the Poles, most especially when it leads someone like Michnik to liken the reaction to "Neighbors" in Poland to the reaction of the Jewish community to Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem." While his fundamental point is that the receptions of both books have been heated and thorny, even the most tangential comparison between the behavior of the Jewish Councils of Elders, who were compelled by the Nazis to facilitate certain bureaucratic aspects of the Shoah, and the behavior of the peasants of Jedwabne, who rose up en gleeful masse to murder their Jewish neighbors, is beyond problematic. It is downright misguided.

As Abraham Brumberg pointed out in his review of "Neighbors" in the (London) Times Literary Supplement, it's not as though Polish anti-Semitism had been neglected before Gross came along. Czeslaw Milosz, for one, has written about the Poles' hatred of the Jews, especially its virulence during the period between the wars; but, as Milosz himself put it, all his reviewers "simply ignored the subject ... letting the discomfiting skeleton rest quietly in the closet." In 1980, a Memorial Book of Jedwabne's Jews was published, and several copies were duly sent to Yad Vashem, where nonetheless it did not seem to register fully or sufficiently on the Holocaust consciousness. It took Gross himself four years to grasp the factuality of Wasersztajn's testimony, the same amount of time, coincidentally, that elapsed between the massacre and Wasersztajn's deposition. "I did not fully register ... 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," he explains. He read this as a "hyperbolic trope" and attributes his recognition that the account was factual in part to watching "Where Is My Older Brother Cain?," a documentary by Agnieszka Arnold in which she interviewed eyewitnesses, including the daughter of the man in whose barn the Jews were burned.

Gross offers the mythic nature of Polish nationalism as an explanation for some of this national amnesia or taboo. "The basic framework of Polish national identity is rooted in the spiritual legacy of Romanticism," he explained in his Web page interview, "and it contains two powerful ideas: a belief in the universality of freedom and a conviction about righteousness and the destiny of the oppressed." The traditional slogan of Polish patriots, "For your freedom and ours," was derived from a belief in the brotherhood of victims, and messianic Poland has long seen itself as the "Christ of Nations"; yet "suddenly through this rich, mythic material ... there runs a fault line, an unspeakable heart of darkness: the saga of so-called Polish-Jewish relations."

As a book, "Neighbors" is spare and (this seems strange to observe, given the subject matter) almost aesthetic. It is a small object, easily cupped in the hand, like a prayer book, or a reliquary. Indeed, there is an aura of devoutness about its presentation--devout atonement, rather? The language is simple, the chapters brief, the cri clear. Like an oral tale transcribed by a folklorist, it has the ring of the eternal to it. My tale is simple and horrible, it seems to say; listen to it and remember it and pass it along. Hatred like this runs deep in human nature and is ever ready to erupt again. Be warned.

Is it too spare? Jaroslaw Anders, in The New Republic, adds to the possible reasons for Jedwabne's having been buried in the "silent zone" of the Polish mind the fact that the word "pogrom" is almost unutterable in Poland: "Pogroms belong to the threatening, cruel domain of the East, to Russia and Ukraine and Belarus." A discussion of the resemblance between Jedwabne and other anti-Semitic pogroms would have been useful. Also missing is a sense of daily life between Jews and Poles in Jedwabne and the surrounding villages prior to the massacre. There is a blankness, a notable absence of texture and particularity with regard to these relationships, and the reader speculates about them, especially in the book's final pages, where Gross offers, instead of specific stories, photographs: a gallery of friends, families and organizations, the erased Jews of Jedwabne. There is much information locked away in these photographs, the reader feels, just as there is in the lost stories behind them, in all these lost and almost entirely forgotten lives.

"Anti-Semitism polluted whole patches of twentieth-century Polish history and turned them into forbidden subjects, calling forth stylized interpretations whose role was to cover, like a fig leaf, what had really happened," Gross writes late in "Neighbors." "Like several other nations, in order to reclaim its own past, Poland will have to tell its past to itself anew." This much seems incontrovertible: Gross has taken a first, belated, brave step. A good deal of telling is sure to follow.

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