The Crime and Silence of Jedwabne
The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne by Anna Bikont. Translated by Alissa Valles. (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 544 pp. $30)
Jan Gross’s book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Penguin), describes the brutal murders of 1,600 Jews by their Polish neighbors in June 1941. The Polish government and a number of Polish academics have criticized Gross’s book as “historically untrue, harmful and insulting to Poland.”
Given Poland’s denial of the mass murder, Polish journalist Anna Bikont’s new work, winner of a National Jewish Book Award, is important because it investigates what transpired in Jedwabne and in other Polish towns.
Bikont’s investigation not only supports Gross’s account of what occurred in Jedwabne but is jarring in its description of the anti-Semitism that led the Polish residents of the town to brutally massacre their Jews. Following Claude Lanzmann’s interviewing style in his film Shoah, Bikont conducted interviews of Jedwabne residents, including some who participated in the mass murder; after her interviews, she often received death threats.
Bikont’s research into sensitive Polish archives led to uncovering a community steeped in fear, guilt and lies about what happened when, she writes, the Nazis “liberated” Jedwabne from Soviet rule. She concluded that, without Nazi urging, the townsmen herded the local Jews into a barn and set it on fire. In her research, Bikont found that the number of Jewish dead varied from 300 to Gross’s figure of 1,600. Whatever the exact number, few Jews survived annihilation.
Jedwabne was not the only town where Poles murdered Jews. Three days before the massacre, the entire Jewish population of Radzilow, located some 18 miles from Jedwabne, was killed by their Polish neighbors.
Bikont found conflicting testimony in her interiews with Jedwabne Poles. A number claimed that the Germans brutally herded the Jews to the barn that was set afire. Others claimed Germans were not present. Still others said that only the Jews who collaborated with the Soviet occupation government were killed in revenge. Finally, some admitted the Jews were murdered by Poles but the perpetrators came from the lowest elements of Jedwabne society.
Lest we think that violent excesses by Poles in these two towns were exceptions, Bikont lists anti-Semitic actions against Jews in Wasosz, Szczuczyn, Grajewo, Tykocin, Kolno, Suchowola, Wizna and Zareby Koscielne, among other towns. She makes clear that anti-Semitism permeated much of Polish life throughout World War II. The Catholic Church encouraged the belief that Jews were “Christ-killers.”
It is unlikely that Anna Bikont is surprised by the latest turn of events in Poland. In 2015, Poland’s new right-wing government took over the country’s leadership. As nationalists celebrated their victory, The New York Times reported that at a rally of right-wing youth in Wroclaw, they burned in effigy the figure of an Orthodox Jew, some 75 years after Jedwabne.