On 10 July 1941, the most shameful chapter of my native Poland’s history was written. In a small town of Jedwabne, occupied by the Nazis, its sizeable Jewish community was brutally murdered by the Poles. For years, the perpetrators shifted the blame away from themselves. It took sixty years for the Polish president to say these memorable words at the site of the massacre in 2001: “This was a particularly cruel crime. It was justified by nothing. The victims were helpless and defenseless. For this crime, we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. This is why today, as a citizen and as president of the Republic of Poland, I apologize.” In the same year, a book was published by Jan T. Gross under the title Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community of Jedwabne, Poland. It caused a storm. To this day, many Poles refuse to accept its undeniable truth: that in 1941 some 600-900 Jews were herded in a barn and burned alive by the Poles. Those who had hidden or escaped were tracked down and mercilessly murdered. Undeniably, on that day the Polish victims of the Nazis turned into most cruel perpetrators; and not without a large dose of relish, mockery, even joy:
“The Jews were wrenched from their houses and beaten, driven to the marketplace and ordered to weed it with spoons, forced to break up a statue of Lenin and run around the marketplace carrying its pieces while singing ‘the war’s our fault.’”
The quote comes from a review of a Polish book most recently translated into English: The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne by Anna Bikont.
Before the war, the Jews were treated as aliens all over Europe. In Poland:
“As elsewhere, the Jews were placed in all sorts of inescapable double binds. If they were forcibly kept apart from society, it meant that they were by nature separate and alien; if they assimilated, it was because they wanted to undermine Poland from within. They were forbidden from buying land in pre-war Poland, then told that—despite centuries of presence—they were ‘guests’ with ‘no tie to the land.’”
It is not wrong to look for such rational explanations in the face of atrocity, but the hardest questions will always remain unanswerable; especially if we persist in looking for answers outside – in the social order, in others, in the circumstances, but always away from the dark roots of our own hatred and fear.