HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS
Polityka, February 10, 2001
English translation from 'Thou Shalt not Kill',
Wiez, special edition, April 2001
1. The book Neighbors by Jan T. Gross has inspired heated debates and disputes. Its publisher, Fundacja Pogranicze, planned its circulation poorly: the book sold out just when sales peaked. No wonder. It speaks of an event that is quite incredible: about how, on one summer day in 1941, supervised by German occupation troops, the Polish residents of a certain little town outside of Łomża murdered over a thousand of their Jewish neighbors, showing unusual cruelty and not sparing a soul. It also speaks of how reports of the event were silenced for over sixty years.
It would be rather strange if the book aroused no emotions. This, however, is not the first time we have seen such excitement. One need only recall the agitation spurred by the publication in Tygodnik Powszechny in 1987 of the article " Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto" by Jan Błoński, the publication in Gazeta Wyborcza several years later of an article by Michal Cichy on the killings of Jews during the Warsaw Uprising, or the film Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. Every time someone presents the public with texts or images casting a shadow on the Polish treatment of Jews under the German occupation, a wide range of emotions springs back to life. Some experience pangs of conscience and shame, while others claim fabrication or even libel, and still others cite mitigating circumstances that reduce the guilt or portray the incidents as only marginally significant. Despite the time that has elapsed, there is perhaps no other historical issue in Poland that plays so powerfully on hidden sensitivities and resentments. Magazine editors know what huge volumes of emotionally charged mail they receive after publishing such articles.
Why is this so? The responses certainly go beyond disputes over facts. It is noteworthy that some information, including the history of pogroms in the Łomża Province, has remained hidden in archives for a long time-this in itself is something to think about-yet there is little that can surprise the professional historians of the period. The volume of scholarly writing on the German occupation in Poland has been growing exponentially. The only differences in opinion among historians concern minor details. The real barrier is being erected between the body of well-evidenced historical knowledge and popular beliefs formed by the passing of available information through a thick filter of preconceived notions, prejudices and personal recollections. Some items of information never make it through the filter, while many of those that do are rejected as contradicting generally accepted opinions.
Bookstores have offered many titles that should shatter public opinion or at least inspire serious reflection. The first one of them is Stosunki polsko-żydowskie w czasie drugiej wojny światowej [Polish-Jewish Relations During World War II] by Emanuel Ringelblum, a leading Jewish historian and founder of the Warsaw Ghetto Archive, who managed to complete the book in 1944 in a Grójecka Street shelter before he died with all its inhabitants as the result of being informed on. Marked with an admirable care for fairness, the book took many years to pass through the barbed wire entanglements of censorship. Professor Artur Eisenbach finally published it in 1988, but it did not make much of a splash. A 1992 collection of articles by Krystyna Kersten entitled Polacy - Żydzi - komunizm: anatomia półprawd 1939-68 [The Poles - the Jews - Communism: An Anatomy of Half-Truths. 1939-1968] attracted more attention. The collection did not touch directly on the Holocaust but rather confronted documented knowledge with stereotypes deeply rooted on both sides. Then came a series of publications analyzing images of the Holocaust and accompanying events retained in the memories of survivors and external witnesses, as well as how such memories turned into the collective "recollections" of entire communities, or coagulating into those communities' versions of history. Zagłada i pamięć [The Holocaust and Memory] by Barbara Engelking (1994) and Pamięć żydowska - pamięć polska [Jewish Memory - Polish Memory] the proceedings of a colloquium, published by the French Institute of Cracow (1996), are two examples of publications that went practically unnoticed by the press and the public.
We are still waiting for the release of the serious and unbiased book Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust by Michael Steinlauf. Meanwhile, the collection of articles by Feliks Tych, Długi cień Zagłady [The Long Shadow of the Holocaust] published in 1999 by the Jewish Historical Institute and exploring the same regions of Polish memory, historical consciousness and educational stereotypes, has also failed to stir interest so far. The thin volume Upiorna dekada: trzy eseje o stereotypach na temat Żydów, Polaków, Niemców i komunistów 1939-1948 [The Ghastly Decade: Three Essays on Stereotypes Concerning the Jews, the Poles and the Communists. 1939-1948] by Jan Tomasz Gross, which preceded Neighbors by two years, fared better. It was noticed by Gazeta Wyborcza, while Więź, invaluable in its sensitivity to such issues, discussed it at some length. Nevertheless, the reception of this book gave no indication of the way that Neighbors would be talked about.
I refer to these books because the portion of source and interpretative materials contained in these and other titles already suffice to make us ask whether the time has come for a reassessment of the received views on the wartime deeds of certain Polish circles. No such reassessment, however, has yet been performed. It took a blow as powerful as the news of what happened in Jedwabne to break through our defensive walls and stir the garrison of the Polish stronghold. It is still too early to predict how successful this breach of the wall will be (for it was not the first such breach to be opened). Not to be ruled out is a scenario in which, after an exchange of arguments, each side sticks to its own version of the truth, the well-entrenched convictions in which it has invested too much faith and emotion to now call them into doubt.
2. As it is, we have several thousand "Righteous among the Nations," and probably several times as many who deserved that tile, if only they had lived long enough or if someone had remembered them. Considering that the punishment for hiding a Jew in Poland was death, the merits of those who took the risk are all the larger and more praiseworthy. It is fortunate that their valor has been commemorated in collections of reports compiled by Władysław Bartoszewski and Zofia Lewinówna (theirs were the first to be published), Szymon Datner, and more recently Elżbieta Isakiewicz in Ustna harmonijka: relacje Żydów, których uratowali od Zagłady Polacy [The Harmonica: Reports of Jews Saved from the Holocaust by Poles], not to mention the great many diaries that convey testimony of gratitude.
The question is: Who is entitled to take pride in the rescuers' acts after all these years? After all, diaries and reports show, as is remembered well by those who lived in the General Government , that it was not only the Jews in hiding but also their benefactors who trembled under the prying eyes of neighbors, the inquisitive gaze of janitors, store-keepers, and passers-by... If there had only been the Gestapo, how much easier it would have been to survive in hiding and count on a network of human solidarity, how much less need there would have been for the constant changing of hideouts.
What then counts in the general, nationwide balance sheet? Heroism or baseness? Compassion or a lack of mercy? Both count; there is no way one can subtract one from the other or offset one with the other. There will always be two separate ledgers. However, while being happy to preserve the former in our memories, we would rather forget the latter, or consider it marginal in terms of numbers and social significance. But the problem was not marginal and, even if it were, it would still cast a dark shadow over all of Polish life under the occupation. It is also difficult to forget 1968, when a new generation of szmalcownicy and police agents staged a national anti-Semitic campaign that filled us and the rest of the world with the worst associations. They had the nerve to protest against the "anti-Polish" response that they provoked and to appeal to the merits of the Righteous-which also happens today.
Inconveniently for us, the things we would rather ignore or forget are known and remembered by others. We cannot have the one ledger without the other - psychological comfort is no more available to us than it is to other nations that were conquered at the time. If we are the heirs of previous generations, then there is no way around it: upon us fall both their greatness and their baseness, their honor and their disgrace.
Nevertheless, the two ledgers, that of the rescuers and that of the denouncers to the Nazis of hidden Jews, represent two small sections of society: the opposite extremes. Which one you ended up in depended more on your character than your social background. The people who put their lives and their families' on the line to save friends and strangers because they strongly believed that it was the right thing to do came from all walks of life. So did people for whom the Nazi invasion and the sea of human suffering provided an excellent opportunity to do business. Both groups lived in a social environment which, as has been said repeatedly with a mix of sorrow and reproach, was indifferent to the fate of their Jewish neighbors. Yet this is exactly the place where a question mark needs to be placed.
3. Poles were indifferent to the Jews-in a benign way, or with contemptuous indifference-as long as it was clear that the social status of the Jews ranked below that of the gentry, the Christian bourgeoisie, and the intelligentsia. The indifference disappeared when the Jews, at different times in the different partitions, began to claim equal legal, and sometimes civil, rights, and then the equal treatment of their language and culture, as well. The more collective dignity they gained, the more of a nation they became (as opposed to being just followers of the Old Law), and the tenser their relations grew with Polish circles that turned out to be reluctant and, in their view, unable to support such aspirations. Added to these developments was the influence of a wave of racist anti-Semitism from the West, which sought to block all possibilities of assimilation in the sense of integration with the surrounding people in terms of customs or, in some cases, of consciousness, to the point where any distinguishing features, often including religious denomination, vanished. The zealous champion of anti-Semitism in Poland, as is known, was the National Democracy. However, yet dislike and even animosity toward the Jews spread to other political groups, except for those on the left, and to the Catholic Church. Shortly before the First World War, the struggle against the Jews became an obsession, garnering more coverage in the Warsaw press and stirring up more emotions than any other issue.
So it has been ever since, with fluctuating pulsations of intensity. This is not the place to describe the history of this frothing torrent or its most dramatic episodes, including the assassination of a president, the exclusion of Jews from Polish professional institutions, "ghetto benches" at the universities, and finally bloody pogroms. Nor is there any reason to idealize the Jews of Poland or anywhere else: they were as diverse as any nation, representing all possible classes and political views, they were deeply religious or completely secularized, nationalistic or totally polonized, immensely wealthy or starving to death, brilliant and primitive, full of virtues and vices. However, regardless of who they were, what they did, or why they deserved credit or condemnation, all were targets of demeaning accusations and insults from all sides, just because they had been born Jewish. The recent book W jednym stali domu... Koncepcje rozwiązania kwestii żydowskiej w publicystyce polskiej lat 1933-1939 [Of the Same House... Concepts for Solving the Jewish Issue in Polish Publications from 1933 to 1939] by Anna Landau-Czajka provides extensive documentation of a phenomenon that today, in hindsight, seems to have been a madness that spread to a large section of the intelligentsia, the Church and public opinion.
Needless to say, none of the above was unique to Poland. One might say that, to a varying degree, nearly all of Europe fell victim of the psychological and mental pathology that, even before the war, was used in Germany (and in Austria after its annexation) to justify the totalitarian order. This, however, is little consolation. Poland was unquestionably one of the countries most affected by the obsession. Its ideological leaders never ceased developing ideas to deprive millions of Polish citizens of their rights and property and banish them from the country. The only groups to actively oppose such ideas were the socialists and communists and the liberal fraction of the intelligentsia, which explains the inclinations of assimilating Jews to seek refuge and support in these circles that did not treat them with aggression and contempt.
This, in a nutshell, is an overview of Polish-Jewish relations at the time of the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invasion. It would be extremely idealistic to imagine that Polish attitudes toward the Jews changed overnight just because both ended up under the oppression of the same invader. In the Soviet zone, some Jews, especially those who had suffered severely and sympathized with the left wing, had their hopes for safety and decent treatment revived. It soon turned out that the expropriations, the shutting down of places of worship, and the deportations to the East proceeded regardless of nationality. Under German rule, no one would feel safe in the face of the terror of the occupation regime from the very beginning, but it soon turned out that there were many circles in this hell, and the denizens of the better circle saw no reason at all to renounce their long-established biases against the even more severely persecuted Untermenschen.
In his recently published book U progu zagłady [On the Threshold of Destruction] which was recently discussed in Polityka, Tomasz Szarota presents a vast and meticulously documented panorama of "anti-Semitic incidents and pogroms in occupied Europe" in the years 1940 and 1941, from Paris to Antwerp, from the Hague and Amsterdam to Warsaw and Kaunas. The book is no less moving than Gross's. It offers copious evidence of the fact that wherever the German occupation forces attempted to instigate unrest against the Jews and demonstrate that the invaded populations were ready to volunteer for a settling of scores, they found people eager, or even overly eager, to comply. Warsaw was no exception. Such attitudes could be found both among proponents of political ideas who (mistakenly) saw their advancement by the Germans as encouragement to collaborate, and among Polish civilian "squads" for whom an opportunity to humiliate, beat and rob Jews with total impunity was a pleasure in itself.
The situation deteriorated drastically from the day when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Szarota presents serious evidence for the view that the decision to exterminate the Jews must have been made in Hitler's leadership clique on the eve of the invasion. At any rate, the first act of the "final solution" played itself out in the East. The entire operation was assigned to special task forces named Einsatzgruppen. At least in the first days of the invasion, these units were to encourage local volunteers to stage "self-cleansing" operations. Wherever they succeeded (e.g. in Kaunas), the pogroms of the summer of 1941 were extremely bloody and cruel. By all indications, Jedwabne became a part of that plan.
Regardless of how many of them were present at the scene of the crime, there is no doubt that the Germans played the role of instigators of the massacre. Historians are still arguing about how many Germans were there. The occupying forces encouraged such acts, guaranteed impunity and, most likely, provided rewards. Evidently, they found a group of eager accomplices in Łomża district who, having tasted blood once, proved impossible to restrain from an orgy of mass murder. Nor do any known reports speak of anyone in the town endeavoring to stop them.
4. The extermination of the Jews led to a fragmentation of Polish opinion in a way that did not always correspond with previous divisions. For many people, the plan carried out by the Nazi occupation regime was monstrous in its inhumanity. The response of moral protest and compassion for the victims inspired attempts to provide shelter and do all that could be done to help. In addition to thousands of individual acts, such sentiments also took the form of pleas for help voiced by some underground publications, and in particular by Biuletyn Informacyjny. They also led to the establishment in 1942 of the Council for Aid to the Jews, known by its code-name Żegota. However, a large portion of society did not share such sentiments. While the occupation forces were, of course, held to be the enemies of Poland, what they did to the Jews did not necessarily meet with objections. If only it had been mere indifference. Unfortunately, when the Warsaw ghetto was burning, sneers at the dying or laughter and relief at the sight of this uncommon spectacle were heard in the streets of Warsaw, on trams, in stores and schools, rather than compassion or horror. I am not talking about solidarity, for solidarity could not be expressed out loud. I am talking about responses expressed among acquaintances and legitimized by a large part of the underground press, in those many clandestine newsletters where the main concern of the editors was how to cleanse Poland of Jewish survivors of the extermination, once the war was over. As we know, such ideas would be realized, some shortly after the war, some not until 1968.
The Holocaust therefore failed to bring about any dramatic transformation of Polish attitudes, although it did exacerbate existing divisions. What for some was the most dreadful event of the twentieth century remained for others an episode devoid of any greater significance. Still, even in the souls of people whose racial and religious biases are so deeply engrafted in their brain tissue that no experience will ever root them out, the Holocaust has left a certain dissonance: namely that admitting to anti-Semitism has become highly indecent anywhere in the world. All the more so, even the slightest suspicion of having supported the Nazi plan for eradicating the European Jews had to be shunned as a calumny. There thus arose a language of camouflage in which feelings and beliefs were no longer communicated directly, but in a roundabout way.
On the other hand, some people began to worry, justifiably, that Poles would be remembered in the world not for the noble courage of the Righteous but rather for the snickers of the on-lookers at Krasińskich Square [near the Warsaw ghetto - ed.] and for the howling of the Kielce mob on July 4, 1946. It is also thought that it takes time to get over feelings and attitudes, and that such work cannot be completed when society is in the pillory. Furthermore, who has the right to make accusations? And whom can they accuse? In a word, it is better not to stir things up, but rather to wait until a new generation, with no bad memories, takes over.
Such fears are not groundless; they are familiar to any nation bearing the stigma of having participated even in part in acts which, years later, turn out to be shameful-even if they did not look that way to their perpetrators. All those defense mechanisms, those half-conscious concealments and lapses of memory are comprehensible in psychological terms, even if they defer the moment of facing up to the dark episodes in one's history. Such episodes always come to light in the end, and often catch us off guard. Could such things happen? Were Poles really capable of throwing infants into the flames? While others watched? Germans, certainly. Lithuanians, of course. Ukrainians-who would expect anything different from them? But Poles? It is far from easy to find out half a century later that no one earned a certificate of collective innocence. This is precisely the basis of infection with hatred and contempt.
We do not have to do penance for murderers and collaborators who, sixty years ago, incited by invaders, volunteered to perform a task that would horrify any normal human being. What must be noted, however, is that, along with its many noble elements, the baggage of historical tradition handed down to us also includes a moral culture that made such crimes possible and helped justify them or pass them over in silence. We will bear responsibility for what we make of our past, for how we reconcile its glory and its shame, for the way we relate it to ourselves, and for the conclusions we draw.
We are not the first in Europe and certainly not the last to go through a process of reexamining our own legends. The process is difficult for any nation, just as it is difficult and painful to review one's life story when, in the light of new experiences and values, it becomes necessary to change the way one looks at deeds from the past. It is always difficult to admit that we have failed honorably to pass some tests in our lives, and that some of our most cherished convictions have turned out to be illusions or frauds. The same is true for national history. The case of Jedwabne gives us an opportunity to undertake such work in a significant way in at least one aspect. We may, of course, continue to sidestep the issue. We may say it is too early, that reports are unclear, that there is no exact count of the murderers or the victims, that one set of archives or another still needs to be investigated. Investigation is always worthwhile; it should have been done many years ago, but it will not change a thing. The truth will not become any more pleasant than it is now, and sooner or later we are going to have to deal with it.
However, I hear yet other doubts. I hear fears that the whole controversy stirred up by Gross's book will only elicit an anti-Semitic response and that in general dragging such bad memories into the light of day will not do anyone any good, especially if imprudent generalizations are made. I do not wish to underestimate such fears. They were expressed recently by Jacek Żakowski, a journalist who can hardly be accused of bias. As it turns out, however, sleep therapy is also ineffective. The virus of anti-Semitism has crept in to infect the young generation who have no knowledge or experience of the topic but whose members respond to the appropriate signals and slogans. Let them at least know what they are talking about and what they think they believe in. It is time to start calling a spade a spade.
Then there are also, as they say, assaults from abroad meant to defame Poland's good name and its history, and Jews are playing no small role in this. So it is. Statements that do not steer clear of fabrication and slander can be read in American newspapers or heard in the Israeli Knesset. We no longer experience any consternation at the lawyerly practices that exploit the Holocaust in the totally worldly interests of heirs. Everyone knows that those who are accused, whether individually or collectively, think first of a defense rather than of their moral responsibility to the past.
It should be noted, however, that it is not without reason that bitter disenchantment has accumulated on the Jewish side over the years. Our own settling of accounts with our history and with our streetcar mentality are not what fuel Jewish complaints and stereotypes. On the contrary, if anything fuels them, it is the obstinate denial of Polish guilt, the refusal to admit the unpleasant parts of the Polish legacy. And finally, this is not about foreign countries, it is about being able at long last to speak openly among ourselves. This is the only way to break free of fears and complexes.