A ROUND-TABLE DISCUSSION
Jedwabne - Crime and Memory
Rzeczpospolita, March 3, 2001
English Translation in 'Thou shalt not Kill', Wiez , special edition, April 2001
Rzeczpospolita: The subject of our discussion is the events in Jedwabne in 1941, with all the surrounding circumstances and consequences. As a newspaper, we consider this matter very important, and we have been taking part in the public debate in Poland on this subject ever since the first publications by Professor Gross appeared. We would like to start with a straightforward question that has probably still not received a definitive answer. What really happened in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941?
Jan Tomasz Gross: I have described this matter and I think most of the historians who have spoken out on this topic do not question my basic findings. What happened in Jedwabne was genocide. It cannot be called a pogrom because it involved more than just a small group of riffraff. In fact, an enormous part of the local population took part. All day long, the Jewish population was cruelly murdered and tormented in the most refined ways, and at the end of the day all those who had not been murdered were burned alive. We cannot say exactly how many people died. The number given on the monument and in many reports is 1,600, but that is just an approximate number of victims of this terrible killing. This crime was the work of the local Polish population.
Tomasz Strzembosz: I am in a weaker position than Professor Gross because my only sources are his article, his information on the reports on which he based his book, and a group of reports I gathered from people who were in Jedwabne at the time. I am not acquainted with the records of the 1949 and 1953 court cases, and I am not acquainted with the materials of Prosecutor Monkiewicz.
As we know, eyewitness accounts are often varied and may be questioned. I do not have many of them - five - but as someone who has been collecting them for forty odd years, they seem genuine to me. Each of those people saw Germans in Jedwabne. One German took a young girl of 12, living near the town square, for a Jew and dragged her to the square. She was saved by her mother and an acquaintance. Germans were also seen on other streets. People say that they surrounded the Jews who were working on the square. They were seen clearing out ¦leszyński?s barn of its contents. They were also seen later, during the burning. One account even says that they acted as the perpetrators.
An atrocity by Poles or Germans?
- Let us therefore ask: Was the massacre of the Jewish population an independent action by Poles in which the Germans only played a passive role, or was it stage-managed by the Germans themselves, who used the Poles for the actual dirty work?
Andrzej Żbikowski: Professor Strzembosz is dealing with reports obtained today, 50 years after the event. I am using mostly Jewish reports that were submitted immediately after the war in 1945 and 1946. It is worth giving some thought to their reliability. This is fundamental because, for instance, if Wasersztajn had not submitted his report, the Jedwabne atrocity might never have come to light. I took the trouble to count the number of Jewish accounts we have. The archives of the Jewish Historical Institute* have 36 reports from the area of Radziłów, Jedwabne and Łomża, concerning 19 places and written during the first two years after the war. Mass murders and the burning of Jews in barns occurred in only two places - Radziłów and Jedwabne. True, we do not know much about the authors of these accounts, but there is no evidence that these people were dishonest or politically involved in any way. They were ordinary, average people. All the reports were collected and written down in Yiddish. As far as Radziłów and Jedwabne are concerned, neither of the two main witnesses - neither Wasersztajn nor Finkelsztajn - was in the barn itself or anywhere near it, and could not have been there. The person nearest the barn in Radziłów was Finkelsztajn?s wife, Chana, some 100 meters away. From that distance, she saw exactly what was happening. A dozen or so Jews survived the pogroms of Jedwabne and Radziłów. They lived together for two years afterwards. The reports of Wasersztajn and Finkelsztajn are a generalized record of these peoples? recollections, the result of their collective memory. This is, in any case, shown by the language of these accounts. Wherever they recall individual murders that they witnessed, the style of writing is sharper and more detailed. In those parts where they describe what happened in the barn, they present more generalized views. One can see that this is no eyewitness account. The same applies to the reports by Hersz Piekarz and Rywka Fogel in the Yedwabne: History and Memorial Book. These are important accounts, despite the fact that neither of the authors were eyewitnesses and did not see the burning barn.
- Do the Germans appear in these reports?
Andrzej Żbikowski: No, these accounts mention no Germans. As for Radziłów, Finkelsztajn implies that the Germans herded the Jews onto the town square and then left. It seems to me that the situation was as follows: In the Białystok area, in Tykocin, Wizna and other places, the Jews were murdered mainly by Germans. There is a lot of evidence for this. Only in Jedwabne and Radziłów was the situation different. There is no doubt that the Germans were there earlier, but they left before the massacre itself.
Paweł Machcewicz: I would like to return to the general question of what we know about the events in Jedwabne and what facts we can all agree on. I also want to stress, like Prof. Strzembosz, that I, too, have never done any research on the matter. Such an investigation has now been taken up by the Institute of National Remembrance.* Perhaps they will confirm Prof. Gross?s claims and permit a few corrections to be made, perhaps they will reveal new facts. In my analysis, I can base what I say on Prof. Gross?s book and on articles about this book by historians.
It seems obvious that a massacre was carried out on the Jewish population in Jedwabne and that Jews died at the hands of Poles. However, what needs to be clarified is the role of the Germans. Did the Germans merely approve the deed, did they inspire it, or did they indeed participate? We know that these were not spontaneous events because there was a film crew in Jedwabne, or perhaps just a few Germans with cameras. There are a lot of different currents to which it is worth paying attention, even in the materials cited by Prof. Gross. Wasersztajn himself says at one point that the things that happened were on orders from the Germans.
Various reports contain conflicting information about the presence of Germans in Jedwabne. One of those interrogated says that there were 60 Germans there. Others also mention that the Germans helped or even drove the Poles onto the town square to make them carry out the atrocity. I think this issue must be clarified - a search of German archives should be made. And that is what the Institute of National Remembrance plans to do. It has submitted queries to these archives, asking if there is any material on the Jedwabne atrocity. We have also commenced talks with German historians, who have provided us with valuable advice, so that we might be able to say more about this topic in a few months? time.
Another issue not fully clarified is who actually did the murdering. Even if we agree that it was the Poles, the question remains: Was it a group of ruffians, social outcasts consisting of, perhaps, several dozen murderers, or was it the entire Polish community, or society, as Prof. Gross claims? The 1949 trial raises a lot of doubts. We know that evidence in that trial was forced out of the witnesses, which Gross admits. My question is: To what extent can we rely on these materials and believe that the trial singled out the people who were actually responsible and that these people actually carried out the murders? Prof. Gross writes that the municipal authorities planned and coordinated the murder with the Germans. I think the terms "municipal authorities" and "town councilors" are misleading to an extent. The truth is that when the Soviets pulled out, a certain group of people came together on their own and took over authority in Jedwabne, but I do not think they had any right to act as municipal authorities.
And one more thing. There are accusations that delving into details is an attempt to conceal the truth and shift the blame from the Poles. I disagree with this most strongly. As a historian, it is my duty to investigate the truth, and the truth consists of a lot of details that are essential in order to present a full picture of events. Such details do not relativize Polish responsibility at all. As researchers, it is our duty to discover what part the Germans played in these events. But our delving into details is not intended in any way to diminish the responsibility of the Poles for this massacre.
Radosław Ignatiew: I have been listening carefully to what you are saying. Without wishing to infringe upon the confidentiality of the investigation, I only wish to say this: I realize what a painful issue this is for Polish-Jewish relations. However, I view the matter solely as an investigator, and as an investigator I remove the matter from its historical context because for me this is a question of victims and criminals. The nationality of the victims or the perpetrators is not the most important thing in my work. I question everything. So if there are reports by victims, I doubt their credibility because victims were naturally shaken up by what happened. If I listen to the testimony of witnesses, I doubt the authenticity of what they are saying because witnesses reconstruct observations after a period of time has passed. So it is possible that some details are made up while others are forgotten. The witnesses may also be telling lies. Everything has to be checked.
I interviewed one eyewitness three times. His final account diverged from his first. I think I discovered why he changed his testimony. As for the report of Jan Neumark, I came across a witness who says that Neumark was not in Jedwabne at the time. In June 1941, a German tried to shoot him, so he fled and hid with his sister. All these accounts have to be checked.
As for the 1949 trial, I would say this: I do not have enough data to prove conclusively that the law was broken and that unacceptable methods of obtaining testimony were applied. What I can say is that the trial was conducted in a slipshod manner. My task is to establish what material from the trial can be used to arrive at the truth. I have already contacted people who took part in the trial, both as defendants and as witnesses.
I interview witnesses very carefully, asking them about all sorts of details, and I do not limit myself to July 1941 because there is a hypothesis that the outburst might have been the result of collaboration between one of the injured parties and the Soviet authorities. I also ask about the entire period of Soviet occupation. I also try to get hold of documents from that period, in order to verify this issue. And I can tell you this: the work is such that, having clarified one matter, I immediately come across two or three others that also need clarification.
- Does your work so far make any essential changes to the way events are portrayed in Prof. Gross?s book and in Rzeczpospolita articles?
Radosław Ignatiew: Of course I can present some thesis, but as a prosecutor I will not defend such a thesis. I can formulate a thesis and defend it against all attacks if beforehand I establish the evidence precisely, backed up by more evidence, and state why that evidence is credible and cannot be refuted. For example, there is an account that someone saw a column of German vehicles in Jedwabne. That is a piece of information which must be verified because I cannot immediately tell if the witness who saw the German vehicles is telling the truth, is not mistaken, or whether he is in a position that forces him to defend the Poles. In any case, here too I am following in your footsteps, gentlemen. I have made a very careful analysis of Prof. Gross?s book, and it will be helpful in the investigation, together with all other publications, including those that the gentlemen present here have written.
Prof. Gross, what kind of role do you assume the Germans played in the Jedwabne massacre? Do you think the reports mentioned by Prof. Strzembosz alter the picture?
Jan Tomasz Gross: To be honest, I am surprised that Prof. Strzembosz considers modern reports as a serious counterweight to the evidence gathered in 1945, 1949 and 1953. Accounts provided 50 years after the event are not worth much. You come from a family of lawyers, Tomasz, so ask your brother [former president of the Supreme Court - ed.] if this sort of formulation after 50 years has any weight, and whether it can stand up to 50 accounts. My book was not based on the reports of victims and would-be victims. It was based on the reports of those who committed the atrocity and of witnesses, Poles, who gave evidence in 1949. Of course I realize that that was the Stalinist period, so since we are dealing with a trial that took place then, we have to look at these materials with a critical eye. And my book says a lot on this subject.
The first thing I considered was whether this was a political trial. As the Prosecutor said a minute ago, the trial was held in a hopelessly shoddy manner. But there is no doubt that it was not a political trial. Back then, no one cared about whether the Jews were murdered by the Poles or by anyone else. That was 1949, when Stalin was already fiercely anti-Semitic. What did the Auschwitz museum look like in those days? Anyone who did not know what happened in Auschwitz would never have guessed during a visit that Jews had died there. That is how the Stalinists portrayed the history of the German occupation. So this was not a political trial.
- I repeat my question to Mr. Gross. What role do you ascribe to the Germans?
Jan Tomasz Gross: The role of the Germans has been described by several dozen witnesses. Apart from a gendarmerie outpost where ten or twelve men were stationed, there were no Germans in Jedwabne that day. We know this from Poles who worked at the gendarmerie post. Witnesses say the Poles did it and that there were no Germans around, apart from a dozen or so gendarmes. What is more, if we examine the manner in which the Germans murdered Jews during that period, Jedwabne is qualitatively different. Up to the middle of August 1941, the Germans did not kill women, children and old people en masse, they only killed men. That is what happened in Wizna, among other places, where they shot several dozen men. The victims there were also rounded up by the local Poles because Jews in that area were physically indistinguishable and could not be identified because they were not a Hasidic community.
If the murder in Jedwabne had really been carried out by the Germans, we would have had evidence of this in the reports on the operations of the Einsatzkommandos. These reports are very detailed. No German Einsatzkommando commander would have missed the opportunity to boast that he had murdered 1,600 Jews in a single day.
Andrzej Żbikowski: I agree with Prof. Gross. In my work as a historian, I try not to use modern accounts. If one does, one is dealing not with history, but sociology, a completely different subject. The 1945 instructions of the Jewish Historical Committee on the method of gathering memoirs contain the following point: "All phenomena in this sphere must be noted; both positive ones, for example about help given to Jews, and negative ones, for example about the participation of certain sectors of society in anti-Jewish actions." In 1945, the Commission was led by people who left Poland soon afterwards, except for Szymon Datner. These were not anonymous figures. They are well known, with great moral stature.
As far as the Germans are concerned, I am not saying that they played no part in this all. The following record of events in Radziłów exists: After some sort of meeting between the Poles and Germans, numerous groups moved off to the town, each consisting of one German and one member of the town council or some other trusted person. The Germans were present in both places for a while, but certainly not during the actual murder. Finkelsztajn clearly writes that in Radziłów, the Gestapo handed out weapons to their supporters among the local population, left a man in Polish uniform, got into their cars and said, and I quote: "You have three days to take care of the Jews." Afterwards, there were only Poles present. The Jews were lined up and driven into the barn, and murdered. That is the story, which no one has refuted yet because there is no evidence against it. Of course the Germans murdered Jews, but not in that way. They tried to do everything in an organized manner?just as in subsequent years?in other words, round up the people, preferably on the town square, and then transport them outside town, shoot them and bury them. That is how they did it in Tykocin, for example. >From the middle of August, the Germans also started to murder women and children. They gathered all Jews, took them away and murdered them.
Historians have written a lot about two orders issued by Heydrich to the Einsatzgruppen on June 29 and July 1, 1941, in which he said that if a pogrom can be arranged, so much the better. I found no confirmation in Jewish reports from that time that the Germans managed to arrange such pogroms frequently. Of course they did, but rarely.
The credibility of the sources
Andrzej Kaczyński: I am rather surprised by the dispute about which accounts are more important, the older or the more recent ones. Every source deserves criticism. Of course, reports gathered recently have to be subjected to particularly severe criticism. During the months when I visited Jedwabne, Radziłów and Łomża and gathered various accounts, I noticed that later ones already bore the hallmark of newspaper articles.
Accounts from 1945 should also be corroborated. For instance, Finkelsztajn talks about a delegation of Jews from Radziłów who went to the bishop of Łomża to ask him for protection, taking valuables and silver with them. Well, they couldn?t have reached the bishop because he wasn?t in Łomża at the time, he was in hiding. In any case, it is unlikely that the bishop would have been able in that situation to accept the proposition that he ensure the security of the Jews.
Paweł Machcewicz: I would like to return to the question of the credibility of the accounts and investigative materials from the trial of 1949. Prof. Gross writes in his book that, during the trial, each defendant claimed he had been beaten during interrogation and, in this way, forced to give evidence. A few pages further on, the author nevertheless concludes that the investigative materials can be used to reconstruct the truth. This surprises me. The materials on which Prof. Gross bases his findings contain various threads, and some reports contradict each other. This is not unequivocal material. There are many threads that require investigation, for example the statement that the Germans - the Gestapo or gendarmerie took part in driving the Jews onto the town square.
One more remark. Of course, Prof. Gross is the only historian to have used this material, and that is your advantage, Professor, but I wish to remind everyone that for the past few years, historians have not been able to use these materials because first of all, the Main Commission for Investigating Crimes against the Polish Nation* being liquidated following the passage of the law to set up the Institute of National Remembrance,* and you were the only one who had access to them. Later, the materials were also used by Prosecutor Ignatiew. I have only now received permission to release the materials to historians. Our task at the Institute of National Remembrance is to publish these materials. Then we will hold a debate about the material stemming from these investigations.
As far as the presence of Germans is concerned, I think that for the time being we are simply not fully acquainted with the documentation, and the statements of Prof. Gross seem too categorical.
Why was there silence?
Jan Tomasz Gross: I have one question, which can serve as a reply to Mr. Machcewicz?s remarks. How is it that for 50 years, not a single historian dealing with the German occupation and Polish-Jewish relations has uttered so much as one word on the dramatic fate of the Jews in Jedwabne? This is question is addressed to you in particular, Tomasz, because as a historian you cover not just that period, but that very region. Why have you never written about it? Didn't you know anything about it? In 1966, Mr. Datner published a long article on the murder of Jews in the Białystok area in the Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute.* That article says in no uncertain terms that in W±sosz, Radziłów and Jedwabne, the murders were carried out by Poles. Mr. Machcewicz says that no one has had access to records for the past 18 months because everything is under wraps. Fine, but for 50 years everything was accessible, yet no one tackled the subject. That is a great question which Polish historiography will have to struggle with.
Tomasz Strzembosz: There are two things I would like to discuss. A report from 1945 need not necessarily be accurate, and a report from 50 years later need not necessarily be inaccurate. I am capable of describing my wedding day 44 years ago in perfect detail, because that was an important day for me. And for many people, the murder in Jedwabne was also a very important event. The fact that today, after 60 years, the prosecutor is investigating these matters and talking to people confirms the view that later reports possess importance. I am not saying they are of decisive importance; merely that they possess some importance. It is not true that the Germans did not burn Jews. If one reads Jewish reports contained in the Eastern Archive, describing the situation of Jews in the Lublin region and in eastern parts of Warsaw province, one comes across descriptions of the mass burnings of synagogues, and on many occasions of people dying in these synagogues. There is also the case of the burning of 50 Jews beneath the bridge at Pułtusk, repeated in many reports. And that was in 1939. Not only men were murdered. Jewish accounts speak of children being shot, mass murders, people being shot with machine guns while trying to cross the San River, though the Soviet Union did not want to admit them on the other side. The same thing happened in the Augustów area. So it is not true that up to a certain point, the Germans only killed adults, and children later.
Jan Tomasz Gross: Why didn?t you write anything about this for 50 years?
Tomasz Strzembosz: Because I was out on a limb. Between 1982 and 1990, I wrote no letters and made no phone calls. I was engaged in matters which the [Communist - ed.] system considered to be treason against the Polish state. In other words, I was examining the Polish resistance to and armed struggle against the Soviet occupation regime between 1939 and 1941, before the Jedwabne massacre. If I had gone any further, I might have been found dead in the mud. That was made clear to me. And aside from that, I am not a historian of Polish-Jewish relations.
- The question about the silence of Polish historical writing does not concern only, or even chiefly, Prof. Strzembosz. It is more appropriate to Dr. Żbikowski.
Andrzej Żbikowski: In 1990 I got to know Prof. Gross and he talked me into specializing in the eastern marches* and in Polish-Jewish relations during the Soviet occupation. In 1990 and 1991, I wrote my first and, for a long time my only, sentence in which I said that apart from the pogroms in the Ukraine, in June and July 1941, pogroms also occurred in Podlasie, Wizna, W±sosz and Jedwabne. I provided references to the reports at the Jewish Historical Institute,* but to be honest, I did not really believe that such things could have happened on such a scale. I was completely unprepared for it.
I think we will be discussing for a long time yet whether Jedwabne is the most important episode in Polish-Jewish relations during the occupation. I do not think it is, though of course the case has to be examined very closely. The wave of murders in June and July 1941 occurred during a transitional period, when the Russians had left and the Germans were only just arriving. And that is when the murders occurred, along the entire belt of land previously held by the Soviets.
These crimes have a certain context. On the one hand there were, let us say, economic reasons, envy of possessions and a desire to get hold of them. I think that was the strongest motive. But on the other hand, there was an ideological motive, a tendency to blame the Jewish people for the Soviet occupation. The Jews became a scapegoat.
Paweł Machcewicz: Up to 1989, there was no freedom to engage in research, and the communist authorities wanted to hush up sensitive issues. But I agree with Prof. Gross that, first, historians committed gross negligence by failing to write about this topic after 1989 and, second, that even if they did write about it, like Andrzej Żbikowski, they were unable to get through to public opinion. The Jedwabne memorial book was published in the United States in 1980. Before that, there was a memorial book for Grajewo, published in the early 1950s. But knowledge of the murders did not penetrate to Jewish historians, either.
In an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza, Prof. Gutman said that when he learned about Jedwabne, he felt as if he had been hit over the head with a hammer. It seems that none of us were prepared for such facts, which have altered our picture of Polish-Jewish relations during the occupation. If society is incapable of accepting certain controversial ideas, there will be no discussion about them. To come to a reckoning with one?s own past, and not just in Poland, one has to follow a very tortuous route. In Germany, the great debate on the subject of Nazi atrocities did not start until the 1960s, and in France the debate on the Vichy regime started even later - in the 1980s. Therefore, in their attitudes towards their own past, the Poles are no exception.
Radosław Ignatiew: I would like to refer to two matters-the accounts from 1945, and those gathered sixty years later. I treat both with the same degree of seriousness, regardless of how sensational they sound, because, as Prof. Strzembosz has said, one can remember certain traumatic events 60 years later even if they did not affect one directly. However, after a short time one also remembers such events.
Szmul Wasersztajn's report is a typical example of how collective memory works. This man and six others were themselves saved by hiding beneath a barn for 26 months. Janek Neumark writes that the Poles drowned two unfortunate women with their children. But Rywka Fogel claims that the women had attempted to commit suicide, and that the Poles dragged them out. This shows how a view of events can be distorted by the subjective point of view of the observer.
As for traces of Germans, which I am also investigating, we can forget about Einsatzkommandos* from Group B. At that time, they were already in the east, somewhere near Minsk. In Białystok, there were only rearguard units. In his 1966 article, Szymon Datner also suggests that Wolfgang Birkner and his Kommando Bialystok was engaged in the extermination of Jews between June and August 10, 1941. Datner even says that that Kommando was responsible for the Jedwabne massacre. All this has to be checked.
One cannot say that July 1941 was a period of anarchy. I have materials which show that there was a German gendarmerie post in Jedwabne even before July 10. They arrested someone there and killed someone. There were already some Germans in Jedwabne during that period. The question is, just how many Germans were there and what was their role? Were they passive observers of the crime, or active co-perpetrators?
Let me get back to the 1949 trial. I have reliable knowledge on this because I have read the court materials many times. None of the 22 perpetrators was charged with the murder of Jews. They were merely charged with broadly-understood aiding and abetting. Aiding and abetting whom? The Germans, by escorting the Jews onto the square and guarding them there, and leading them to the barn. One cannot ignore the fact that the same court materials contained the names of persons who had committed acts of violence or homicide on persons of Jewish nationality. But the trial did not deal with this fact at all.
Andrzej Kaczyński: Let me tell you how I learned about Jedwabne. I first read about it in Prof. Gross's article contained in a book dedicated to Prof. Strzembosz to mark the forty-fifth anniversary of his scholarly debut. The article cited Wasersztajn?s entire, shocking report, which Gross furnished with a rather general commentary and reflections. The things I expected from a historian and sociologist, i.e. criticism and a verification of sources, were absent. I was disturbed by the fact that he had not compared this account with others. I thought to myself, well, if Gross has not done so, then I will. So I went to Jedwabne. In the space of several hours I succeeded in obtaining quite convincing accounts which confirm a major part of Wasersztajn?s facts. In the end, people said, with pain: It was not the Germans who did this, it was our people....
The Germans were already in Jedwabne before the massacre. There was a police outpost there. Some uniformed Germans arrived from outside. That happened over two weeks after the front line had passed through. But the residents said that the murder was perpetrated by Poles. Some people remembered individual uniformed and armed people, but rather as spectators, onlookers rather than perpetrators and leaders. This information usually came from the lips of people who were too young to have taken part in the atrocity or even to have been present on the square. No, they witnessed some fragments, for instance they watched from behind the curtains, or from behind the fence, as the Jews were herded to the site of the massacre near the Jewish cemetery, for as soon as the parents had learned what was going on that day, they shooed their children into their houses and locked the doors. Later I met people who had seen more. Besides direct testimony like this, the truth of the crime has been passed down in oral tradition. It is a paradox that, as long as the circumstances of the massacre of the Jews in Jedwabne were not generally known, it was a public secret, the townspeople kept the truth to themselves and repeated it among themselves, but as soon as the truth came out into the open, many people became determined to deny it.
As for the negligence of historians, the Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute* containing Szymon Datner?s essay on the massacre of Jews in the Białystok area is dated 1966, but that particular volume was not published until 1969. That may explain why the fragments that concern Jedwabne and Radziłów are ambiguous. He wrote that in both those places, and in several others, the Germans managed to induce a certain number of local Polish hooligans, riff-raff and criminals into carrying out the crimes. This is formulated in such a way that a reader not prepared to take in such information may understand that here, like everywhere else, the perpetrators were mostly armed Germans, assisted by a small number of Poles.
Andrzej Żbikowski: The situation with the Datner report is complicated. Most of the books were published in order to rescue the Jewish Historical Institute* and the entire community in 1968.* That was a difficult situation, and the point was to rescue Jewish institutions. It wasn?t so much a matter of committing falsification, as of reaching certain compromises.
Jan Tomasz Gross: There is one thing I cannot understand. In our assessment of the Jedwabne events, what difference does it make if the Germans were, let's say, twenty kilometers from Jedwabne, or had only just arrived, or had only just left? We know they were there. We know they wanted to terrorize the population and perhaps involve it in the massacre, and we also know that they themselves murdered the Jews en masse. That is a fact. But at the crucial moment, they were absent from Jedwabne. They never issued any order which, if disobeyed, might have put anyone in danger. It?s not true, there is no evidence of such an order.
Paweł Machcewicz: We are not discussing a moral assessment of the atrocity, we are wondering whether it was perpetrated by the Poles independently, or under German influence. If we want to investigate everything, it is important to know whether the Germans were thirty kilometers or five hundred meters from the events. I think we have to pay attention to details.
Collaboration with the Soviets: perpetrators and victims
- Let us consider the origins of this crime. Mr. Żbikowski said that the chief motive of the perpetrators was greed. Professor Strzembosz said that one of the motives could have been revenge for the fact that some Jews had collaborated with the Soviet authorities.
Tomasz Strzembosz: I never said that. I do not link the burning of the Jews in Jedwabne to what happened there before June 22, 1941. The killings that occurred earlier might have been acts of vengeance, but the burning of everyone in the barn exceeds any measure of revenge for the actions of the militias, etc.
- The dispute is that Mr. Strzembosz claims that during the Soviet occupation, many Jews in this area, in cooperation with the Soviet authorities, took an active part in persecuting the Poles. However, Mr. Gross basically denies this.
Paweł Machcewicz: Even accounts now to be found in the Eastern Archives of the Karta Center contain opinions that in various places, including Jedwabne, the Jews were the most visible group collaborating with the Soviets and the NKVD.* An examination of the very events of July 10 shows that elements of vengeance existed there. The Jews were forced to dismantle Lenin?s statue, carry the red flag, sing "This war was through us," etc. So the problem seems to exist.
Jan Tomasz Gross: You are absolutely right. This problem exists in many different guises. It was revealed recently in an interview with Maria Janion in Gazeta Wyborcza. She cites Konstanty Jeleński from 1956: ?A favorite argument of Polish anti-Semites is that the Jews joyfully welcomed the Red Army entering eastern Poland in 1939. In any case, it seems absurd to level accusations against those citizens whose collaboration can be explained by self-preservation. Jews would have been less attracted to communism if Poland had not shunned them for so many years?.
So the population generally believed that the Jews had collaborated with the Soviets. That is the same thing as saying that the Polish population was anti-Semitic. For this is an anti-Semitic stereotype that is firmly rooted, and of course one has to pay attention to it. One cannot talk about the events in Jedwabne and gloss over the fact that there was anti-Semitism and that the National Democracy* was the leading ideological force which penetrated the minds and moods of the local population. It is not without reason that they murdered Jews rather than, say, old people.
In your article, Tomasz, published in Rzeczpospolita under the title "Covered-Up Collaboration," you say a lot of things that are obviously untrue. First of all, from beginning to end you use large-scale quantifiers such as: The Jews persecuted the Poles, the Jews sent Poles into banishment, the Jews shot at the Polish army This is the mirror image of Shamir?s famous remark about the Poles drinking in anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk. Your image of Jews is that they are Pole-haters. I wonder what kind of sensitivity enables us to reverse stereotypes in that way.
Secondly, when you say the Jews sent the Poles to Siberia, you are uttering downright lies. There were proportionately more Jewish victims of these deportations than Polish victims. Between one-fourth and one-third of the deported civilians were Jews. Your article says: The Poles are persecuted by the Jews, the Jews send them to God knows where. Well, it was not like that. The Jews suffered just as much as everyone else under the Soviet occupation, if not more. The whole stereotype of Jews supporting the Bolsheviks and communists is nonsense. They supported them to such an extent that they demonstrated their antipathy toward the Soviets en masse, for which they were punished terribly.
Tomasz Strzembosz: These are two completely different issues - someone?s attitude towards the USSR and the communist system on the one hand, and the attitudes of the Soviets to that person on the other. This problem arises when the Jews flee from the Lublin region across the San River but are greeted with machine gun fire. They choose the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union does not want them. These are two totally different matters. If the Jews collaborate with the Soviets, and I know of several such cases, and are subsequently deported into the depths of the USSR, it does not mean that they are merely victims and never perpetrators. Besides, Yezhov, the head of the NKVD,* was also shot. What does that make him, a perpetrator or a victim? He was both. Polish Gulag inmates met NKVD there, and these were sometimes murdered later by their fellow prisoners. Many Jewish communists also abandoned their communist ideology once they were in prison or banishment. But that does not mean that all Polish Jews were communists. It is like saying that no Poles were communists.
However, it is a fact that a lot of Jews worked in the militia, both uniformed and plainclothes, and not just in Podlasie. In accounts gathered in Palestine in 1944, in other words at a very early stage, Jews who had survived the USSR themselves say how many of them had joined the militia in the Lublin area which was taken over by the Red Army in late September and October 1939, even though the Red Army ruled over them only for a few weeks. This confirms Polish reports, by the way. But what troubles me is not triumphal arches, but the fact that in 16 places in so-called Western Belorussia, the Jews opened fire on the Poles.
That is why information about 30, 40 or 5 percent of the Jewish being deported is no answer to the question about the extent of their collaboration with the occupation regime. Why? Because that was a system that devoured its own children.
Jan Tomasz Gross: Do you think Wanda Wasilewska, one of the main collaborators, attended synagogue? And what about Felix Edmundovich Dzherzhinsky, who founded the KGB?
Tomasz Strzembosz: One can cite other cases, this time Jewish ones. There was a something which, in my opinion, equaled the phenomenon of szmalcownicy:* representatives of Jewish communities collaborated with the Soviet authorities and handed Poles over to them.
Jan Tomasz Gross: In Jedwabne, the Poles delivered fellow Poles into the hands of the Soviets. Mr. Laudański was an NKVD agent. He said so himself.
Tomasz Strzembosz: You are mistaken. The case of Laudański and others is linked to Kobielno. The Jedwabne Jews are not guilty of betraying the partisan base in Kobielno. But they blamed for the arrests that occurred in Jedwabne from 1939 onwards, including the great arrest on the night of June 16-17 preceding the Kobielno operation, and for involvement in the deportation on 13 April 1940 and 20 June 1941. In any case, vengeance for collaborating with the NKVD did not apply only to the Jews of Podlasie. It also applied to Polish peasants throughout the Jedwabne area. We know of many cases.
Andrzej Żbikowski: As far as the Soviet occupation and the collaboration of Jews is concerned, it is necessary to clarify a few matters. What is collaboration? It is cooperation. So if it is cooperation, it has many shades, and various groups of people cooperate in various forms. If we are talking about cooperation with the apparatus of repression, then of course a group of Jews collaborated, but a group of Poles, Belarussians and Ukrainians collaborated as well. I think one can talk about overrepresentation of Jews in the sense that in Jedwabne there were more or less as many Jewish agents as Polish ones. The Soviets only needed a dozen or so agents. I know a lot of reports, submitted during the war by Jewish bezhentsy* who escaped from German occupation, and these reports mention groups consisting of one NKVD agent, one Jew and one Pole. Such groups went around together arresting people. But in small towns, groups of several or a dozen or so Jewish agents, and similar ones consisting of Poles and other nationalities residing in the area were organized.
As to the number of Jews deported, the Soviets deported Jewish bezhentsy not because they were Jews, but because they were bezhentsy. And they wanted to solve the problem of these bezhentsy in their own way. First, they wanted to send them for "voluntary labor" in Belorussia and the Ukraine. Several thousand Jews went there. Some of them returned, so that did not work. Then they were given a choice: either return to the General Government* or take Soviet citizenship. Most of them, some 80%, refused Soviet citizenship. Why? Because they were scared that if they did, they would never leave Russia again. So they were punished by being deported under the same terms as the Poles, Ukrainians or Belarussians before them.
Jan Tomasz Gross: What I meant was that the Jews under Soviet occupation were treated the same way as others. Yet before that they were discriminated against, like all other minorities in these areas, because the Polish Government between the wars practiced discrimination. But communism discriminated against people on a class basis, not on a religious or ethnic basis. The Jews under Soviet occupation were attacked in various ways for being Jews. Zionists were persecuted and members of the Bund* were locked up. Religious life, so important to the Jews, was completely destroyed, etc.
Andrzej Żbikowski: Concerning Polish-Jewish relationships under Soviet occupation, the welcoming of the Red Army is not the most important matter. The Red Army was welcomed by a handful of people, mainly Jews, but not many. The problem was a shift in the situation of people during the occupation. Poles suffered the most persecution because they were citizens of a defeated country. They were removed from positions of authority. The Jews reaped certain benefits from the situation. Social space does not tolerate a vacuum. If experts are required, and no Poles are employed and there are no Belarussians or Ukrainians with the right qualifications, then the jobs go to, for instance, Jewish doctors. From the sources, one can also discern a rather visible schadenfreude on the part of the Jewish population.
Paweł Machcewicz: The question of Jewish relations vis-a-vis the Soviets is more than just the number of NKVD* agents of Jewish origin on the one hand, and the number of Jewish deportees on the other. But it is true that numerous accounts, e.g. many reports by the Polish Underground State* or Karski?s* report, keep repeating that the Jews built triumphal arches welcoming the Soviets. We also know that in September 1939, in eastern Poland, the Jewish population took part in many acts against the Polish authorities. We know of various kinds of militias that collaborated with the Soviets, and in which the Jews took active part. I wish to ask Prof. Gross, are all these the accounts of anti-Semites?
Jan Tomasz Gross: I have read practically every single report at the Hoover Institution on this subject. I have been dealing with this subject for 20 years. When did the collection of these accounts begin? Very early. The head of the Institution has written the following memorandum: The anti-Semitism of the remarks we have gathered is so all-embracing that before the texts are published, we should seriously consider editing them. As far as the anti-Semitism of the people in General Anders's army* is concerned, we do not have to reach for the archives. You can read about it in plenty of works on the subject of Anders?s army. Anders even issued a special order on this matter?anti-Semitism was that widespread.
The exception or the rule?
- To what extent does the history of the atrocities in Jedwabne and Radziłów compel us to take a completely different look at the history of the occupation in Poland, especially the history of Polish-Jewish relations? To what extent were the things that happened in Jedwabne and Radziłów an exception?
Andrzej Żbikowski: I have read many thousands of Jewish accounts in various languages, and in none them did I find a single mention of burning people alive in barns. This must be the tip of some pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, Polish-Jewish relations spread out on other levels. Usually, these relations are vexed. I do not think the episode of one single month in 1941 is the biggest problem. The problem is the attitudes connected with the concealment of the Jewish population, with the lack of help, and with widespread indifference. This indifference forms the base of the pyramid whose apex is Jedwabne. Very few organizations or political forces were involved in helping the Jews. The heroism of the Żegota* activists and of all those righteous people who already have or should have a tree planted in their honor is, of course, commendable, but these were just a drop in the ocean. Most of the population was indifferent. Acts of hostility, envy, blackmail and betrayal were much more numerous than we had previously thought.
Paweł Machcewicz: For me, the most controversial part of Prof. Gross?s book were his remarks towards the end. I felt he was metaphorically extrapolating his specific analysis of the events in the two towns to the whole of Polish-Jewish relations and to the general attitudes of Poles toward the Holocaust. He said the following, and I quote: "In collective Jewish memory this phenomenon is ingrained?that local Polish people killed the Jews because they wanted to, not because they had to . . . After all, Jedwabne?though perhaps one of the most excessive (the most excessive, it must be hoped) of all murderous assaults by Poles against the Jews?was not an isolated episode." In the light of what Andrzej Żbikowski said just now, I think this is wrong. Jedwabne and Radziłów were exceptions. The opinions of Prof. Gross are expressed in a way I find unacceptable.
Andrzej Kaczyński: It seems to me that the question of whether we should adopt a new approach towards history, different from what has previously been regarded as canonical, because of Jedwabne and Radziłów, is badly posed. History never ends. It is always being written anew. Numerous new facts and phenomena, not just on Polish-Jewish relations, are now coming to light which no one has ever investigated before. I consider this a challenge. They must be described and explained. It is necessary to continue to investigate the events in Jedwabne and Radziłów - not just with the help of the prosecutor and Institute of National Remembrance,* but also with the help of journalists. Many of the assessments that have been plentiful in the media on the present debate are, in my opinion, premature.
Tomasz Strzembosz: After this discussion, I still do not know what happened in Jedwabne. I have encountered reports which seemed to me much more credible than Wasersztajn's. And these reports all told me something different. I cannot ignore them completely. Also, just like other Warsaw historians, I do not have the UB* documentation.
Jan Tomasz Gross: Jedwabne and Radziłów are a phenomenon that goes far beyond anything else that happened in this area. This is because of the pure tragedy of a situation in which the Jewish population of those towns was murdered by their Polish neighbors in such a cruel and final way. This is an event that, to my mind, creates a completely new way of recording the history of the occupation.
As far as Polish-Jewish relations are concerned, we have a great deal to do. The Poles, themselves the victims of the German occupation, behaved with indifference toward the Jews, and displayed no sympathy for their suffering. The Jews were in a lower circle of hell, and this fact was exploited. I am very pleased that Mr. Machcewicz, who will be engaged in education and is responsible for this at the Institute of National Remembrance, promises that these matters will be investigated and that we will learn everything. I hope he is right. Because we have never properly mourned over the fate of our Jewish fellow citizens. We have not suffered through and lamented the Jewish disaster during the war. I would like to believe that the Jedwabne affair will represent an opening in that direction, because it is so exceedingly dramatic.
The discussion was chaired by Jan Skórzyński and Paweł Lisicki.