JULY 10, 1941, in Jedwabne: Why Did Half of a Polish Town Murder the Other Half? the Answer May Be Terribly Simple

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, July 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

JULY 10, 1941, in Jedwabne: Why Did Half of a Polish Town Murder the Other Half? the Answer May Be Terribly Simple


Will, George F., Newsweek


Sixty years ago, on July 10, 1941, half the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half. Of 1,600 Jews, about a dozen survived. Why did the murderers do it? Prof. Jan Gross of New York University may not fully realize that he has found the answer.

It is in his astonishing little book (173 pages of text) just published by Princeton University Press. The title, "Neighbors," is an ice dagger to the heart, but only after the book has been read. The word "neighbor" connotes moral sympathy ("neighborly") as well as physical proximity. But not on July 10, 1941, in Jedwabne.

Gross says, "This is a rather typical book about the Holocaust" because it does not offer "closure"--"I could not say to myself when I got to the last page, 'Well, I understand now'." Perhaps he is flinching from the awful answer his book supplies.

On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, which was occupying the part of Poland containing Jedwabne. On June 23 a small detachment of Germans entered the town. There were almost immediately some isolated atrocities by Poles against Jews--one man stoned to death with bricks, another knifed and his eyes and tongue cut out. German policy encouraged pogroms by local populations, and there were some ghastly ones near Jedwabne. One of the first questions asked of the Germans occupying the town was, Is it permitted to kill the Jews?

After the carnival of killing, the Germans reportedly thought the Poles "had gone overboard" and said to them, "Was eight hours not enough for you to do with the Jews as you please?" But the murderers were not socially marginal people. At a town meeting--democracy, really--Jedwabne's leaders met with the Germans. Gross quotes a witness: "When the Germans proposed to leave one Jewish family from each profession, local carpenter Bronislaw Szlezinski, who was present, answered: We have enough of our own craftsmen, we have to destroy all the Jews, none should stay alive. Mayor Karolak and everybody else agreed with his words."

The mayor coordinated the killing, but otherwise, Gross says, "people were free to improvise." Peasants from nearby villages got word of the planned pogrom and came to town as to a fair. A Pole recalls that "the Jewish population became a toy in the hands of the Poles." The Holocaust has been called a manifestation of modernity because of its industrialization of murder. But in Jedwabne hooks and wooden clubs were used. A head was hacked off and kicked around. To escape the killers, women fled to a pond and drowned their babies, then themselves. But most were burned alive in a barn while the town was searched for the surviving sick and children. A witness: "As for the little children, they roped a few together by their legs and carried them on their backs, then put them on pitchforks and threw them onto smoldering coals."

Gross estimates that half the town's men participated, and because the killings were concentrated in a space no larger than a sports stadium, everyone "in possession of a sense of sight, smell, or hearing either participated in or witnessed the tormented deaths.

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