Krotkowzrocznosc 'Kulturalnych'

Hanna Swida-Ziemba

Gazeta Wyborcza, 07 kwietnia 2001

Before presenting my thoughts on the Jedwabne crimes, I wish to make a few declarations relevant for the ongoing controversies. I recognize only individual responsibilities. At the same time, I hold us responsible for the social resonance and social consequences of our actions. Therefore the duty of a responsible person is to know and understand social mechanisms and the world in which (s)he makes his/her choices. (S)he has no right to rationalize or ignore an inconvenient reality.

It follows that a responsible person must know and understand the history of his/her nation. First, history unveils the universal social mechanisms, necessary to understand the present, and which may constitute an ominous warning. Second, there exists social inheritance of attitudes. History is a continuous process: the past is contained within the present. Hence we must recognize in the nation's history that which we wish to continue and that which must be condemned and overcome.

Therefore, people with strong awareness of Individual responsibility must not only acknowledge the Jedwabne crime, but also deeply ponder it and thus discover the basis for evaluating our present and the extent of our own responsibility.

For such analysis to be possible, it must be agreed that our current knowledge of the Jedwabne crime is already sufficient for a moral judgment on that event. Regardless of how many Germans were present and of how many victims were burned in the barn, irrespective of how many Poles participated, and, finally of whether the Germans were there as only permissive observers, or as active agitators, nothing can change the simple truth, so cruel for us today: the aim was to burn all Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne and the crime was perpetrated by the local population.


The Jedwabne crime cannot be dissociated from the pre-war anti-Semitism. Until now, I failed to appreciate its criminal potential. After reading the book of Jan Tomasz Gross, I had to come to terms with the idea that a mass murder by a crowd of ordinary people was possible in Polish society. No longer can I consider the Kielce pogrom as an isolated event. In two distant places, at different times and in varying circumstances, basically similar crimes occurred. With added information about Radzilow - a sequence of events emerges which indicates that the criminal impulses of Polish society toward Jews have not been incidental, but that they grew out of widely held attitudes.

The historians critical of Gross's book are drawing attention to the experiences under the Soviet occupation. Similarly, many analysts of the Kielce crime have been pointing at the Jewish complicity with the apparatus of violence. But it must be remembered that, while the partisan group active in the vicinity of Jedwabne has indeed been wiped out because of betrayal, the informers were not Jews. The suspicion fell upon Jews, because it was consistent with earlier attitudes. Because of them the Jedwabne population pointed to the Jews who greeted the occupying army, but would not notice Poles who behaved similarly. Neither would they notice those Jews who had not taken part in the joyous manifestations, many of whom themselves became victims of Soviet repressions. It was because of such attitudes that the perception of pro-occupier behavior of some Jews became generalized to their entire population at Jedwabne.

My first thought, then, is of historical-moral nature. Because we already know that the pre-war anti-Semitic attitudes in Poland bore criminal fruit during and after the war, it is imperative to examine those attitudes closely. But today little is said about that anti-Semitism. According to a belief dominant till now, it belongs in a distant past purged by the war and the horrors of Holocaust. Jacek Kurczewski wrote in Wprost that the pre-war anti-Semitism has faded in our memory: 'One is tempted to say that the killing was done by ignorant villagers. But the cities have not been free of anti-Semitism(...). The pestilence reached even the educated. Today this, too, is ignored. While we can read in the Historical Museum of Warsaw University about the corporation [fraternity] "Respublica", which did not accept students of Jewish origin 'independently of their religion' (...), we shall also see there a portrait of Czarnowski, who opposed anti-Semitism, but we shall find nothing about the racist decisions of the academic authorities, nor about the disgrace of stamping the letter Z [for Zyd = a Jew] in the indexes [academic documents] of Jews.'

More can be said, some of today's political parties invoke the tradition of National Democracy, while the anti-Semitic slogans promulgated by that group are mentioned only seldom and enigmatically. Our twenty years of independence are honored, without notice of anti-Semitic excesses organized by the youth of the ONR [Radical National Camp] and seldom are the then anti-Semitic teachings of the Catholic Church remembered.

When writing about the anti-Semitism in the pre-war Poland, I do not maintain that all Poles had been anti-Semites. As a child in Vilna (I was 15 when the war ended) I had contacts in various circles, but I hardly encountered anti-Semitic attitudes. Widely known are persons like Stefan Czarnowski, Tadeusz Kotarbinski and many more who had openly protested anti-Semitism. In other words - though it cannot be said that the Poles (meaning the entire society) had at that time been anti-Semitic, it is nevertheless true that in the pre-war Poland anti-Semitism had been widespread and had support of social authorities. Thanks to Gross's book those facts acquire new significance.


The knowledge of Jedwabne necessitates not just a revision of Polish history, but most of all a revision of a more general misconception, which until now I, too, have held as true. Namely, it is rather universally believed that a chasm exists between anti-Semitism, even as drastic as that in pre-war Poland, and crime. After having read Gross's book, I know that it is not so.

That is why the information of Jedwabne and Radzilow (especially in view of Kielce) came as such a shock to me. It made me aware that the thin layer of ice between prejudice and crime may break at any moment. There is an explosive charge of crime inherent In a hateful prejudice. It may never explode in fortunate circumstances. But these are determined by additional factors, which can vary from case to case. That is why I think that detailed historical analysis of the doubts raised by Gross's book should be conducted within the calm of researchers' walls. Perhaps they will be able to discover what the circumstances in this particular instance were that precipitated the crime. But it will not change the basic fact that this horrible crime did occur and was made possible by anti-Semitic attitudes.

Characteristic of our public life is the frequently expressed hope that such historical determinations might tone down the truth and render it less painful. This may be well illustrated by the subtitle to the information in Zycie (of Jan 26.01) that the Institute of National Memory is examining new witnesses: "Did Poles murder the Jews in Jedwabne or was it a German provocation?" As if a provocation could relieve murderers of their responsibility . Provocation constitutes only one among the circumstances which release the readiness to murder. A psychological ground must preexist to which the provocator appeals. Provocation will not cleanse the crime nor the ground from which it sprung.

It is, therefore, necessary to reexamine our evaluation of pre-war anti-Semitism, even though its manifestations were not always brutal. Frequently they consisted in comments made during elegant social occasions about "the Jewish bad character" and about "the Jewish menace".

It would seem that there is an unbridgeable chasm between such innocent chat and the terrible crime of Jedwabne, especially when participants in such conversations often became Jewish rescuers during the war. Polish pre-war anti-Semites had often been too civilized to engage in crime. Still, I think that even such people can look at Jedwabne as if into a frightful mirror. Even though they might have done no immediate evil themselves, they were creating an atmosphere, a way of communicating, which spread all over the country. A message about a "Jewish bad character" or about the "Jewish menace" may be differently received depending on personalities and on circumstances. Circumstances cannot be predicted, personalities vary and the message passed from mouth to mouth becomes detached from its authors. In this I agree with Krystyna Skarzynska (Gazeta Wyborcza, Nov 26.2000): the Jedwabne murders did not act in a social vacuum. While murdering, they felt in tune with the "civilized society", with persons who were not present, but whose voice was so to speak "audible" to them. The attitudes of the murderers had been legitimized by the teaching in churches, and by the statements of various political and social authorities. They were not "killing people", but simply "eradicating pestilence with live fire", in accordance with the received message .

Therefore responsibility for the Jedwabne crimes weighs on all who exhibited anti-Semitic attitudes in Poland and - indirectly - all those who, while indifferent, failed to oppose such attitudes. They may be persons for whom all crime is odious and who would have never anticipated the possibility of such a crime. But, because of a particular combination of historical circumstances they, too. share the guilt.

The third domain for reflection - closely bound to the first two - is the most important, because it concerns the present time. If there is a criminal potential in all hateful ethnic prejudices, then Gross's book provokes examination of anti-Semitism in the Poland of today. There is a widely held belief that although anti-Semitic attitudes do exist in Poland, they are found only on society's narrow margins. Sociological observations contradict this belief. Such attitudes are widely held today, although mostly without much drastic expression. Considering how insignificant the number of Jews in Poland is today, we must conclude that those attitudes must have been inherited from the past. Clearly, after the war the older generations have been conveying their opinions about the "Jewish bad character" and the "Jewish menace" to the younger ones. The Shoah has not changed the attitudes of many (most?) Poles; it failed to transform the depth of Polish consciousness .The attitudes toward Jews survive, unchangeable.

On the other hand, after the Shoah, there emerged a certain form of political correctness, according to which drastic attacks on Jews are bad and even authentic anti-Semites consider "anti-Semite" an insult. This is why Poles are outraged when Poland is described as an anti-Semitic country and why every anti-Semitic statement is preceded by the disclaimer "I am not an anti-Semite, but..." Therefore the anti-Semitism in Poland is not always noticeable. It became more visible in1989. Only then did I suddenly realize that it was not a marginal phenomenon, that the anti-Semitic attitudes were deeply rooted in many people. Since then, while observing Polish society, I have noted manifestations of anti-Semitism (negative stereotyping of Jews) in everyday life; in casual remarks and conversations: at the hairdresser, while walking dogs, at bus stops, in trains, during parties. In my opinion such remarks are more revealing of the social mood than are answers to a questionnaire. To validate my unpopular thesis I shall try to present some of the expressions of today's anti-Semitism. They are most painful to the Poles with Jewish roots. The distance to those roots may vary. Frequently It suffices to have one Jewish great-grandfather to be ("racially") classified as Jew. Sometimes I hear at a social gathering: "You know, I just learned that X is a Jew". While such a "discovery" may be not accompanied by a withdrawal of respect or sympathy for X, still a shadow is cast on him. It is a painful signal for the Pole with Jewish ancestry. He feels marked as an alien untrustworthy person who had better be watched. It must be underlined that such significance is given to only a Jewish "drop of blood". Byelorussian, Lithuanian, German or Russian ancestry do not arouse such feelings. A Jewish "drop of blood" alone is so significant that all personal qualities, even other family ties become negligible. Such are the most pervasive features of Polish anti-Semitism. It is not surprising that some Poles hide their Jewish ancestors. In other Western countries such phenomena are nonexistent since the end of war. In ours, they are considered natural. The anti-Semitism is so deeply ingrained that it escapes self control.


This, however, is not yet all that can be said about anti-Semitism in Poland. At social gatherings as well as in incidental conversations unambiguously anti-Semitic attitudes may also be encountered. People express them less openly than before the war, still, they do speak of "Jewish menace". It happens not as frequently as does tracking of Jewish ancestors, but is frequent enough in Poland to constitute a social problem. There is a view, for example, that offices occupied by Poles of Jewish extraction or by Jews are held by "aliens"; that their presence gives witness to the endangerment of Poland by an "alien tumor". As a rule, this is not directly suggested. Rather, some nightmarish stories about concrete persons are related, with an accompanying remark that the person in the story is Jewish; e.g. "That Paul - by the way a Jew -....etc" Various fantastic theories are spun about perfidious designs and actions of Jews living in Poland or abroad. I ran into a characteristic example when the monuments at the Teatralny Square, near which I live, were being rebuilt. When information was lacking as to what will be housed in the reconstructed buildings, I often heard when walking the dog, that a hotel for Jews will be opened there and a "handy for them" synagogue next door. The synagogue would stand where a catholic church had stood before the war. My dog-walking neighbors also informed me that the apartment building where I live had been secretly sold to Jews. And so I had better expect soon to be evicted.

The information about the "Jewish menace" is usually conveyed in the code: "That which you know and I understand". The speakers assume as natural that partners share their outlook. When confronted with resistance or polemics, they immediately fall silent. The code is reserved for "the kindred". A very telling example was a peasant, my co-passenger on a train. When I reacted negatively to his anti-Semitic complaints , he gave me a frightened, suspicious look and said: : 'I shouldn't have been sincere; perhaps you are one of 'them' or have been 'bought off' by them ". He then fell silent and said nothing till the end of our journey.

Another manifestation of Polish anti-Semitism is the suspecting of everyone whom one dislikes that they are of Jewish origin, or applying the name Jew to them; for instance, to members of government or parliament or to some priests. In Lodz, rival ball teams are called Jews. Those who maintain that anti-Semitism is a marginal phenomenon in Poland insist that such behavior is not anti-Semitic, because it is not directed at real Jews. But the point is that accusing a politician of Jewish descent is an effective method of discrediting him, and that the word "Jew" serves as an insult.

Finally, the touchy problem of the "commie-Jews" [Zydokomuna], deserves additional discussion. Here, I will only sketch it. First, only some Jews became communist. Doing so they had, to abandon their religious community and Judaism; thus they ceased being Jews in their own eyes and those of other Jews. At the same time entire masses of Jews were subjected to Soviet repressions; the majority refused to accept the Soviet system or ideology. The Jewish children I knew in Vilna were as anticommunist as Polish children. Let the reader ponder why Polish blackmailings or criminal behavior during the occupation are being attributed to the "scum of the nation" or to "some" Poles", while adherence to communism is attributed simply to Jews? Why a Jew cooperating with the Soviet authorities is perceived differently from "various Piaseckis", as Israel Gutman asked in Znak (June 2000) . [Piasecki, a known, formerly rightist politician, after the war collaborated with communists as head of a publishing empire]. Beside Jewish, there were also Polish communists. Also in our former eastern territories there were communist Byelorussians, Lithuanians, even Ukrainians. How did the myth of commie-Jew arise?

Second, when comparing the criminalities of the Soviet and Hitlerite systems, we usually ignore the ideological differences between them. But these are essential when judging their respective adherents. The foundation of communist ideology was humanitarian. It was the practice, first revolutionary and later bureaucratic, that became criminal. Therefore, acceptance of communist ideology does not discredit a person the way acceptance of the fascist ideology does. Aware of the fundamentals of communist ideology, we can understand why it was attractive to many, especially to those seeking social advancement, and to the young people of Jewish background. They knew that in many countries, as in pre-war Poland, they were treated as a foreign, superfluous body, that a pogrom or exile could await them at any time. After the war, the terrible experience of the Holocaust was added. For those people the (utopian and later proven false) vision of a world where nationality would not count, where the stigma would be forever erased, had to have a strong attraction.

Communism is now past. Except for the anti-Jewish prejudices, it could be understood why communism, so unpopular among Poles, was more popular among Polish Jews . Also, how much that popularity was due to the Polish pre-war behavior toward Jews. There are almost no such deliberations conducted. But the stereotypes of commie-Jewry persist.

Finally, anti-Semitism finds an indirect expression in the Polish Catholic Church's and government's reactions to the spectacular manifestations of social anti-Semitism. Although members of these institutions make gestures toward Polish-Jewish understanding, they behave as if anti-Semitism were immaterial compared with the facts to which they attach more importance. For example, one honors the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Sily Zbrojne) for continuing armed resistance to the communist government the longest. The undisputable murders of Jews (as Jews) by those groups are ignored or denied, against established facts. I see nothing in the daily press about conclusions of any penetrating historic inquiries into the issue. It took a long time before there was a reaction to the plantings of a field of crosses in Auschwitz and the so called "papal cross" is still standing, though its presence there disturbs many Jews in prayer.

The offensive, illegal graffiti on walls are not quickly removed by local authorities. In the cathedral of Sandomierz a picture hangs which accuses Jews of ritual murder of children, but, because of respect for a historic building, its removal is out of question. Rev. Jankowski, whose sermons contained anti-Semitic texts - thus conveying on them the status of "sacred truth" - has not been unconditionally condemned or permanently deprived of the possibility of addressing the faithful. Just the opposite, one continues to stress this distinguished person 's contributions to the cause of "Solidarity".


In summary, in spite of the annihilation of Jews carried out on our soil in front of our eyes, in spite of the participation in it of some Poles, in spite of post-war pogroms, no decisive signals of condemnation toward our anti-Semites are coming from the state authorities or from the Church. The absence of unambiguous signals from Poland's representative institutions (i.e. political authorities and the Polish Catholic Church) bears on the social climate and permits the free spread the free spread of anti-Semitic attitudes. Such attitudes may then appear to the public as ethically neutral, best left to individual innocent choice.

It is true that Polish anti-Semitism is mostly non-violent, not threatening. Jews, or persons with Jewish roots, occupy various positions, are not marginalized; they belong together with Poles to various social circles, and they intermarry. Still, I believe that today's Polish anti-Semites, as well as all who tolerate anti-Semitism or consider it a marginal phenomenon, should evaluate their attitudes in the light of Jedwabne. Because every ethnic prejudice bears a potential for crime.

This became manifest in the Yugoslav experience. Yugoslav students in Poland report that in the past a certain dislike between different nationals or believers may have existed, but without a glaring expression. Just the opposite, there were friendships, even marriages, between the different nationalities. But the Yugoslav war created conditions for these hidden antagonisms to erupt like a volcano. That our ethnic prejudices are benign" means little. We do not know the future and cannot predict if and when Polish dynamite of ethnic prejudice against Jews may explode.

To summarize - I believe that we have a moral duty not only to acknowledge the truth about Jedwabne, and to perform symbolic gestures in order to bring a closure to the past. This shock to consciousness should above all prompt reflection so that a new meaning may be found in that which until now has been minimized or neglected. So that today's benign anti-Semitism be perceived through the Jedwabne lens and be treated as a realistic potential for crime.

Jedwabne is a powerful warning for contemporary people. It should bring about new educational and social policies of the authorities and of the Church, inaugurated by a clear symbolic gesture. The shock of the Jedwabne revelations should open for us a new chapter of self-awareness.

Translation : courtesy of Danuta Hiz

*The author is a sociologist, professor at the Institute of Applied Social Science of Warsaw University. She published, among others, the following books: A Person Internally Enslaved , Existential Values of the Youth of 1990s, and together with Krzysztof Kicinski, Before August and after December, Image of the World and Being in it [Obraz Swiata I Bycia w Swiecie] in the series: Youth at Millenium's End. 2000, Instytut Stosowanych Nauk Spolecznych Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego. In 1991-1993 she was a judge at the State Tribunal. She is a former member of the Science Council of CBOS [Center for Study of Public Opinion]