Jul 2001 Journal

previous article:Art Notes
next article:Death of a culture

Murder in their midst

NEIGHBOURS, Jan Tomasz Gross, Princeton University Press, 2001.

This is the sorry tale of a small town called Jedwabne situated northeast of Warsaw, where the local Christian population turned on the Jews in their midst – the very people who had, till then, “…sold them food, bought their milk and chatted to them in the street.” The pogrom occurred at the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact which divided the territories of Poland between Germany and Russia. Jedwabne was occupied at first by Russian, and then by German, troops. Under this latter occupation in July 1941, 1,600 Jews were done to death by the most brutal and primitive methods. Not for the local mobs the sophistication of gas, but knives, cudgels and stones, drowning - and finally, a mass burning of men, women and children in a barn hired for the occasion – a horror story reminiscent of the mediaeval York massacre. The Germans had ‘given permission’ for this outrage to be co-ordinated by the local Polish mayor, Marion Karolak, but played no active part in it other than to take photographs (sic!).

Prof Gross found his evidence in the records of the 1949 trial of some of the perpetrators. The trial seems to have been perfunctory and the defendants were let off lightly. The testimony of the witness Szmuel Wassersztain, one of the few Jews who survived, makes stomach-churning reading.

In his introduction, Gross points to the Hitler regime’s “institutionalism of resentment” used to exploit any grievance, however trivial, in order to set people against each other. In Jedwabne, the Germans lit the touch paper for the conflagration, but it was the Poles who joyfully threw their neighbours into the flames. The evidence shows that Jews making desperate attempts to escape were rounded up by local people and sent to their death. One family bucked the trend by sheltering Jews; they were regarded as traitors and forced to emigrate.

As with all atrocities, one searches for explanations for such irrationality. In Jedwabne greed played a part: the perpetrators gleefully took over the homes and property of their victims. So did ancient religious hostility: the local priest, when appealed to, refused to protect Jewish villagers on the ground that they were “all Communists.”

Should one agree, then, that “all Poles suck in antisemitism with their mother’s milk”? The truth is more complex and defies stereotypes since a minority of Poles saved Jewish lives at great risk to their own. Nevertheless, it will prove difficult to eradicate the poison of antisemitism till all the clergy acknowledge the part played by the Gospels in demonising Jews. That day may come – and pigs might fly!
Martha Blend

previous article:Art Notes
next article:Death of a culture