The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland

Article excerpt

edited by Anthony Polonsky and Joanna B. Michlic. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004. 489 pp. $19.95.

On June 22, 1941, German forces captured the town of Jedwabne, in the Lomza region in northeastern Poland. Less than three weeks later, on July 10, 1941, the Jewish community of Jedwabne, whose roots go back more than 300 years, was destroyed by local townspeople. With the publication of Sasiedzi: Historia zaglady ydowskiego miasteczka (Sejny, 2000) and its English translation Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton, 2000), Jan Tomasz Gross (Polish émigré, now Professor of Politics and European Studies at New York University) challenged Poles to confront the Polish involvement in the Jedwabne massacre: "[H]ad Jedwabne not been seized by Germans, the Jedwabne Jews would not have been murdered by their neighbors."

Gross's thesis elicited a plethora of apologetics and polemics. Many seethed in overt antisemitism and revisionism, and others raised the issue of "Poles as heroes and victims." Remarks from the leadership of the Polish State and Church at the 60(th) anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom (July 10, 2001) reflected the intensity and kind of Polish self-criticism: "I apologize on my own behalf and on behalf of those Poles whose consciences have been stirred by that crime, who believe that one cannot be proud of Polish history's greatness without simultaneously feeling pain and shame at the evil committed by Poles against each other" (President Aleksander Kwasniewski); "Nevertheless, we cannot allow the case of Jedwabne to disseminate false ideas about Poland's co-responsibility for the Holocaust or innate antisemitism in Poland" (Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek); and the absence of Jósef Cardinal Glemp, the Primate of Poland, who "didn't want politicians to tell the Church how it should express its sorrow for crimes committed by some group of its believers." An attempt to understand contested views on the Jedwabne pogrom and its affect on Polish-Jewish relations is the purport of the book under review.

Editors A. Polonsky and J. Michlic's Introduction sets the stage for the chapters that follow. They summarize the murky history of Jewish-Polish relationship. Jews began living in Poland in approximately the tenth century. To be sure, individual Jewish communities coexisted tolerably with Poles in "this land of blessed refuge."(1) But with the coming of such traumas as the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-1649 and all the successive acts of discrimination, fanaticism, ghettoization, persecution, and finally extermination that followed, the deep alienation between Jews and Poles became the foremost means by which these respected groups defined each other. Needless to say, Gross's Neighbors raises the issue of Polish reaction towards mass murder of Jews on Polish soil during World War II in general and in Jedwabne in particular. The editors respond by evaluating Polish national character, identity, and memory thereof and suggest pointed directions to normalize the traumatic Jewish-Polish past.

Following the Introduction, the volume is divided into seven parts, with introductory matter provided by the editors, and contributions from Catholic clergy, historians, intellectuals, journalists, and jurists; all are of Polish birth or descent. …