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Poland: Local Villagers Blamable For Wartime Jedwabne Pogrom

  • Don Hill

On a bright July day in 1941, somewhere between 500 and 1,600 Jewish men, women, and children were herded into a barn in the village of Jedwabne in northeastern Poland. For almost sixty years a plaque and local accounts have said the region's Nazi occupiers then set the barn ablaze, burning the occupants alive. RFE/RL Don Hill correspondent speaks with a U.S. political scientist of Polish origin who says he has proven that the fire actually was set by the Jedwabne Jews' long-time neighbors -- the Poles of Jedwabne.

Prague, 4 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- New York University Professor Jan Gross calls his latest book "Neighbors." But the title is an ironic twist on the usual meaning of that friendly word. A recent issue (12 March) of the U.S. weekly "New Yorker" -- which carried an except from the just-published U.S. edition of the book -- described it this way: "One day in 1941, half the population of a small town in Poland murdered the other half."

Since it was published last year in Polish, the book has created heat of its own in Jedwabne, about 135 km northeast of Warsaw, and elsewhere in Poland. Polish authorities have removed a plaque, erected by the communist regime, attributing the atrocity solely to the Nazis.

Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski has scheduled memorial ceremonies for 10 July -- the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom. At that time, a new plaque is to be erected reflecting the latest research into the tragedy.

Some Polish historians and other scholars, long silent on Jedwabne, are now challenging Gross's findings.

One Polish historian contends that a key Gross informant, Szmul Waserstejn, could not have witnessed the events he described because he was in hiding too far away. Another contends that only 562 Jews lived in Jedwabne in 1941, in contrast to Gross's estimate of 1,600. Gross says a 1931 census showed about 1,300 Jewish residents in the village.

Gross, himself Polish born, tells RFE/RL that he began the studies that led to his book almost casually. He had written in the past about the Soviet invasion of areas of Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. In his archival wanderings, he had come across an affidavit sworn by Waserstejn, son of a Jedwabne butcher. Among Waserstejn's sworn statements was this: "Even though the Germans gave the order [to destroy the town's 1,600 Jews], it was Polish hooligans who took it up and carried it out, using the most horrible methods. [They] burned all the Jews in a barn."

Gross says:

"You know, it was a striking deposition. I didn't quite understand what he said, couldn't believe the full story, and it was sort of haunting me. And about two years ago, I saw a brief documentary film in which a woman who was the daughter of the fellow who owned the barn in which the Jews had been burned, was interviewed. And once I saw her speaking and saying, well, here it is. This is where the barn stood. I understood that the whole story that Waserstejn tells has to be taken literally."

Gross then researched the Jedwabne tragedy in earnest. He found court transcripts, a Jewish memorial book published in 1980, and eyewitnesses among former residents of the town -- both Jews and Gentiles. He says he got little information from Jedwabne's current residents.

"You know, as I started working, I just put together all this evidence and it became quite clear. And also there were several eyewitnesses both on the Polish and Jewish sides who were there at the time. You know, this is a story that is very well known in the town itself. The whole town has lived with it for 60 years."

The German press agency dpa reported last month that Polish officials in Warsaw had disclosed new archival evidence that they say suggests Nazi complicity in the killing of the village's Jews. The report cites transcripts of nine eyewitnesses who said that Nazi death squads alone committed the atrocity. Their accounts were given to communist authorities.

For his part, Gross has never suggested that the Nazis who occupied western Poland at the time were not complicit.

"I am sure to begin with, you know, the fact that the local population which is put under the occupation, first of the Soviets, then of the Nazis. So, you know, everybody in a sense is a victim and, among the victims themselves -- unfortunately this is one of the techniques of totalitarianism, to encourage victims to become victimizers at the same time, to create some kind of differences in the population that is being subjugated and to set people against each other."

Gross said that in Jedwabne, the German interest must have been wholly evident.

"They (the Nazis) also sort of encouraged the local population to resort to violent measures vis-a-vis the Jews. Of course, nothing could take place in the territory under German occupation without German knowledge, without German acceptance of what's going on, without German encouragement of it."

But Gross says he is absolutely sure that it was Poles who attacked the Jews of Jedwabne on 10 July 1942, and for several days before. It was, he says, Poles who drove the remaining Jews of the village into one man's barn, and Poles who then saturated the building with fuel and struck the matches that turned it into a mass pyre.

"The actual involvement of Germans on that day in the process of killing was truly marginal. They were mostly observers and, as many people have reported, they took photographs."

In the same vein, Gross does not contend that Polish responsibility for the Jedwabne atrocity is unique. In other areas of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, similar events took place. Gross says, however, that Jedwabne was somewhat unusual in that only two ethnic groups were involved.

"There are several episodes [in Eastern Europe] that are very well known, you know, in kind of ethnically mixed territories in which there were several ethnic groups -- not just two like in this case -- Poles and Jews -- but in which there were Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians, for example, or Lithuanians, Jews, and others."

Our correspondent asked Jan Gross how he feels on those occasions when he chances to revisit Jedwabne. His answer was direct.

"I don't go to Jedwabne right now. I wouldn't be welcome there."

The author of "Neighbors" said he expects his next appearance in Jedwabne to be this summer at the time of the anniversary memorial ceremony. He noted: "There will be a few other people there then."