Academic journal article Shofar

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan T. Gross

Academic journal article Shofar

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan T. Gross

Article excerpt

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 261 pp. $14.00.

Every few years a Holocaust text appears that captivates scholars and the general public. Lucy Dawidowicz's War against the Jews (1975), Deborah Lipstadt's Beyond Belief (1982), and Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (1995) come to mind. Although each of these works was imperfect, they defined debates in their respective fields. Such praise and ballyhoo were accorded recently to Jan Gross of New York University and his book Neighbors.

As Gross declares: "The centerpiece of the story I am about to present in this little volume falls to my mind, utterly out of scale: one day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half -- some 1,600 men, women and children" (p. 7). What happened in this tiny Polish village 40 miles west of Bialystok is an horrific story which Gross offers in graphic detail. When Germany invaded Russia in the summer of 1941, Jedwabne's Gentile population ran amok against their Jewish neighbors, some of whom could trace their roots in town back several generations. On July 10, pogromchiks armed with clubs, pitchforks, and whips tore the beards of Orthodox Jews and forced a number to parade through the streets carrying a statue of Lenin while chanting, "The war is because of us. The war is because of us." Some Jewish men and women were stabbed or stoned to death, their children drowned in the Narew and Biebrza rivers. A few girls were raped, and one, Gitel Nadolnik, the daughter of the town schoolteacher, was beheaded.

Because the killing was proceeding too slowly, the villagers drove the rest of Jedwabne's Jews into Bronislaw Szelesynski's barn to be burned alive. Standing at the door, armed with an axe, was Stanislaw Sielawa, whose family had been kept alive by Jewish charity. Seven Jews escaped the roundup. 1600 perished in the fire that consumed the building in ten minutes. When it was over, some Poles went among the charred bodies, ripping away gold teeth and wedding bands. The Germans, revulsed by the sight of dogs gnawing at the corpses and fearing an outbreak of disease, ordered the Poles to bury the dead.

Professor Gross does not equivocate in assigning ultimate responsibility for the massacre. The Germans decided matters of life and death in Jedwabne. As he states, "It is clear that had Jedwabne not been occupied by the Germans, the Jews would not have been murdered by their neighbors. …

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