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The Warsaw Voice



March 4, 2001 No. 9 (645)

Voice - Viewpoint


by Sławomir Majman

Poles have found out that their compatriots murdered Jews more than half a century ago.

For over half a century, they did not acknowledge the simple but very bitter truth. During the last war, the Poles suffered incredible casualties, but there were moments when they too murdered innocent people, only because they were Jews.

There has been an ongoing discussion for several months in Poland surrounding the book by Polish-American historian Prof. Jan Tomasz Gross, Neighbors. The book describes the murder of the Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne, a town in northeastern Poland, just after the Nazi army occupied it. More than 1,000 Jews-children, women and men-were herded into a barn and burned alive. Not by the Germans, but by their neighbors-Poles.

The scale of this murder arouses shock and defensive reactions, often panicky and loud. What do you mean? The Poles, who were also destined for annihilation? The Poles who died in the thousands every day at the time? Those same Poles are meant to be jointly responsible in some way for genocide? This is an unbearable thought, because even thinking about it leaves a deep dent in the historical cliche widely accepted in Poland: The Poles were always noble, tolerant and fought against the prevailing enemy forces.

The border of defensive reactions should be decency, though. Mass-scale murders of Jews by Poles in Jedwabne and other Polish towns do not change the fact that the people behind the Holocaust were not the Poles, but the Germans. The fact that these murders took place is something absolutely new for the absolute majority of Poles. But even the force of the shock, resulting from the discovery after many years that the Poles had their share in murdering the Jews during the Nazi occupation, does not justify the thesis repeated on the Polish side that the Jews had only themselves to blame.

Gross's book leaves many questions unanswered. It's not sure exactly how many victims there were, and the role of the Germans still needs explaining-whether the murder was at their inspiration, mere assent, or, as witnesses quoted by the author say, that the Germans held the zealous Poles back.

Gross does offer one thesis that is hard to overthrow. Jedwabne was a single incident in the bloody chaos of the time, while anti-Semitism in Poland at the threshold of the occupation was widespread. The generalization that can be drawn from the story of Jedwabne concerns not the massive scale of the murders, but the mass-scale hostility of Poles toward Jews.

The borderline of decency in the polemics surrounding the Jedwabne affair has been overstepped by Prof. Tomasz Strzembosz of the Catholic University of Lublin, who seems typical of the Polish rightists.

What did Strzembosz write? That nothing can justify the murder of people only because they are a different nationality and religion, but when the Soviets occupied eastern Poland in 1939, the Jews welcomed the Red Army enthusiastically, took part en masse in enforcing the new order and took the Poles' places in local offices. Jews, also in Jedwabne, were members of the Soviet militia and helped deport Poles to Siberia. "This was collaboration with arms in hand, taking the side of the enemy, treason in days of defeat," writes Strzembosz. And it is that treason which the Jews in Jedwabne paid for, burned alive in Śleżyński's barn, when the Red Army was no longer there in 1941. There were Poles in Jedwabne who had been freed from Soviet prisons by the German offensive, who had their accounts to settle with the Jews. There were the families of those who had been exiled to the east. In other words, the murder in Jedwabne was revenge for the Jews' earlier anti-Polish actions.

Strzembosz's claim sounds in unison with many letters published by Rzeczpospolita daily. It is rather terrifying that there are people who took the discussion about Jedwabne as an opportunity to reveal the stereotypes sleeping within them, about the allegedly murderous role of the Jews under Soviet occupation. In revenge for accusing Poles of anti-Semitism, accusations appeared that the Jews were the executors of the extermination of Poles in eastern Poland-accusations treated by their authors as proof of Polish courage in the face of today's omnipresent pressure of political correctness.

Even worse, a high-ranking state official, head of the National Remembrance Institute Board, Dr. Sławomir Radoń, also voices some strange doubts: "I don't know to what degree the motive for the murders was revenge for the Jewish population's collaboration with the Soviet authorities."

The defensive reaction thus focuses on seeking the causes of the murder in the behavior of the Jews during the Soviet occupation of Poland's eastern lands.

The very generalization-the Jews' behavior-conceals a swindle. Some Jews, mainly the poor and the communists, built triumphal gates welcoming the units of Marshal Timoshenko, while others greeted the introduction of the Soviet order with fear and hostility-what good could a Jewish merchant or lawyer expect of the Soviets? Some Jews serving the Soviets collaborated in deportations to Siberia, while others were deported themselves-one-third of the Polish citizens deported and placed in Stalinist camps were Polish Jews.

Defending the argument that Jews are communists and that explains why they were murdered, is disquietingly close to anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Strzembosz reveals the somber corners of his mind on this occasion. Because, when some Jews enthusiastically welcomed the Red Army in the hope that it would free them of the specter of anti-Semitism-that was bad. On the other hand, when some Poles, including those from Jedwabne, enthusiastically welcomed the next occupying force-the Nazi army-that was good, because the Germans saved thousands of Poles from being exiled to the steppes of Kazakhstan and the Siberian taiga.

I am far from thinking that the choices of Poles and Jews, squeezed as they were between two totalitarianisms, were simple. It's hard to find more complex knots than those into which history tied the fates of the nations of Eastern Europe during World War II.

Those Poles in whom the Jedwabne case arouses a defensive instinct pretend that Polish-Jewish relations began after the Soviet occupying forces marched into Poland in September 1939.

But it is impossible to understand what happened between Poles and Jews during the Holocaust without going back to inter-war Poland. Strzembosz devotes little attention to what happened before: "True, Jews weren't too well off in Poland."

The Poland that arose in 1918 was a country with a high percentage of Jews in its population. Two different nations lived next to each other. The history of that cohabitation has its bright moments, but is also encumbered by wrongs and mistakes.

These wrongs and mistakes were described by Prof. Jan Błoński like this: "We let the Jews into our home, but told them to live in the cellar. When they wanted to come up to the rooms, we promised we would let them in if they stopped being orthodox Jews, if they became `civilized.' There were Jews who were prepared to listen to this advice. But then we started talking about a Jewish invasion, about the danger we were in once they permeated Polish society."

The presence of Jews gave birth to Polish anti-Semitic obsessions, which reached psychosis levels, and in the late 1930s even total madness, preventing any clear realization of the danger of war. Focusing on the so-called Jewish issue was typical of public life in the 1920s and 1930s. When you read what people wrote about Jews before the war in the nationalist and Catholic press, when you discover how much hatred there was in Polish society, you end up surprised that actions didn't follow the words. But they didn't, or did so rarely by the standards of the somber Eastern Europe of the 1930s.

Pedestrians beaten up in the street, windows smashed in synagogues, attacks with sticks and razors on Jewish students at universities, a bench ghetto sanctioned by university authorities, attempts at economic boycotts and limiting Jews' access to medical and legal professions-these were the most frequent forms of anti-Jewish action.

There were casualties and injuries in the anti-Jewish actions. In 1935-1937 alone, 14 Jews were killed, and about 2,000 were beaten up or injured.

There was a despicable anti-Jewish campaign in the rightist press, a war over Jewish shops, and poor Poles who believed it was the Jewish cobblers and lemonade vendors on their street who were the cause of their poverty. There were the tragedies of those who chose to be Poles, people obsessed with Polishness, whom the rightists brutally refused the right to belong to the Polish nation.

But there was also the Polish government which, despite pressure, did not allow anti-Semitism to become a part of the state's policy. There was a dense network of Jewish self-government, political, cultural and economic institutions, and there were Poles, such as one of the most outstanding politicians of the government camp of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, Tadeusz Hołówko, who wrote: "We will never reconcile ourselves to and will never stop protesting against contempt for Jews' human dignity. A Jew is a citizen of the Republic. It is not his fault that 600 years ago Kazimierz the Great allowed his ancestors to settle in Poland-he has the same rights as any other citizen, because he also has the same obligations."

While there are many examples of Polish-Jewish cooperation and friendship, it is true that the relations between Poles and Jews immediately before the war were filled with animosity. And this influenced-it had to influence-the behavior of both sides during the war.

Those few years that Jews call the "Time of Annihilation" overshadowed everything that had happened between Poles and Jews over the centuries.

Between the desperate collective suicide of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, the noble sacrifices of thousands of Poles who saved Jews, and the merry-go-round built for the Poles beneath the ghetto wall, there lies an area of dead frozen ground-the frozen ground of indifference.

I don't doubt that in Poland the Germans had fewer helpers in killing than anywhere else. But this isn't about bookkeeping, whether Warsaw had 20 percent fewer informers than Paris or Vilnius. The issue is Polish indifference, indifference at the moment of the Holocaust. This caused Jews to die alone.

How could the Polish Christian sensitivity swallow the experience of the Annihilation so indifferently? How could it be that even in 1944 the delegates of the government-in-exile in Warsaw warned their superiors in London not to go too far with their love for Jews, because the Jews were not liked in the homeland?

"We don't stop considering Jews to be political, economic and ideological enemies of Poland." Why did Catholic writer Zofia Kossak, who generously helped Jews at the time, fail to avoid the preceding reservation in her legendary Protest, which was meant to make Poles realize that what was happening to Jews on Polish soil was their Polish cause?

Pogroms and the killing of Jews by the people of the occupied countries was in no way unique to Poland.

The horrible murders perpetrated by Lithuanians in Kovno or Ukrainians in Lvov probably surpass what happened in Jedwabne in terms of cruelty.

We know about the role of collaborators in the annihilation of French Jews, we know about anti-Jewish excesses in Belgium and the Netherlands.

But until now, until the Jedwabne affair was made public, Poles' conscience only had to deal with the sin of indifference in the face of annihilation. Now the burden has become heavier yet.

Quite a few Jews survived the occupation thanks to the help of Poles. The percentage of Poles helping Jews is estimated at 2.5 percent of the whole nation. That's a lot, because under such terror, helping Jews required heroism. One shouldn't demand heroism of people, but decency. The concept of decency somehow encompasses neutrality, even indifference. But now it turns out that there were Poles who were murderers under the protective umbrella of the Nazis.

The origins of Jedwabne should be sought in prewar anti-Semitism, an anti-Semitism that hasn't been overcome to this day, which is why how Poles deal with the burden of Jedwabne will be a test of how they are dealing with the heritage of anti-Semitism.

But blaming the victims is no way of dealing with your own conscience.

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