Lessons Unlearned and Learned

When will Emmanuel Olisadebe finally become a real Pole? Only when he too apologises for Jedwabne.’ This cryptic Warsaw joke becomes clear only if one knows that Mr. Olisadebe, originally from Nigeria, is the sometime star of the Polish national football team, and Jedwabne is a town in northeastern Poland where 65 years ago the ethnic Polish part of the population slaughtered their Jewish neighbours. Since April 2000, when this previously unknown fact was revealed in a book called Neighbors, written by Jan Tomasz Gross, an émigré Polish professor at New York University, the issue of Jedwabne has provoked a nationwide debate and soul-searching.
As I noted in the previous essay, which deals specifically with the Catholic Church’s reaction to Jedwabne, ironies abound in this debate, ironies that are well reflected in the joke I quoted above. Mr. Olisadebe was himself a victim of Polish intolerance, the butt of vicious racist attacks by hostile fans. Furthermore, ‘real Poles’ is a self-designation often used by Polish anti-Semites, who want to thus differentiate themselves from the rest of the nation supposedly corrupted by Jewish blood and ideas. In other words, a ‘real Pole’ is precisely what Mr. Olisadebe presumably neither would want to, nor could become, while the apology demanded of him is one he certainly neither should, nor could, deliver. In a nutshell: Jedwabne presents everybody with impossible choices and dilemmas.
Indeed it does. The anthropologist Joanna Tokarska-Bakir said the story of that crime shattered the myth of Poland’s innocence — and a good thing it did, she says. Nonetheless, for most of her compatriots, relinquishing this myth, let alone saying good riddance to it, is a perspective almost too painful to envisage.
There are deep-seated reasons for this. First and foremost, perhaps, is that fact that, based on the only too real historical record of Poland’s suffering, it had indeed become the nation’s founding myth. The writer Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s Schiller, coined the phrase ‘Poland is the Christ of nations’ in the 19th century — and it stuck. The description encompassed both the humiliation of the partitions that divided Poland among Russia, Prussia and Austria and wiped it off the map for nearly 200 years, as well as the oppression of foreign rule. Moreover, it seemed to predict the horrors of the century to come: the German and Soviet invasions, Auschwitz and the Gulag, and finally Yalta. Poland innocently crucified for the sins of the world.
This myth, Tokarska-Bakir told her readers, has made it impossible for us to understand what others — non-Poles — were telling us about ourselves. More importantly, it has made us lie to ourselves about ourselves. From her perspective, the truth of Jedwabne is a liberation.
At the same time, though, it is an abomination. ‘I read this book and I cried and cried and cried,’ a friend of mine told me. ‘These were people like me,’ she said, ‘committing unspeakable horrors against people like you. This time, my folk were the murderers. And I cannot evade the question: I, too, am I guilty?’
Gross’s book does, in fact, make for unbearable reading. Eyewitnesses describe scenes of gleeful torture, of rape ending with the victim’s decapitation, her head used then as a football; of individual slaughter and finally the herding of the remaining victims into a barn, which was then set on fire. So much of that echoes scenes well-known from Polish history: but in those cases the Poles were the victims, not the perpetrators. Neighbours forced the Polish reader to transfer onto his own people the feelings he had reserved for their oppressors.
This was, and still is, no easy task, and yet most of Poland’s public opinion has risen to the challenge with admirable frankness and courage. As opposed to what obtained in previous discussions of Polish -Jewish issues, negationists and revisionists were expelled from the mainstream. Most of the authors of the hundreds of articles and letters published in the press took the straightforward position of accepting the facts and acknowledging their consequences. Gross’s findings were widely accepted, to the point that even legitimate historical criticism of certain elements of his work — that he had not consulted German or Soviet archives, for example — were attacked as attempts to cover up the bitter truth. The scope and depth of the Jedwabne debate, not to mention its frankness and courage, could not have been possible even a few years earlier. They were and remain proof of the country’s coming of age, of its outgrowing the reflex of refusing criticism. On the contrary, criticism is now seen as an asset, not a threat. Poland’s two main newspapers — the conservative Rzeczpospolita, which first opened the debate, and the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza, which eventually followed suit — fully supported the mainstream position. Gross’s opponents found themselves relegated to the rightwing, including extreme right-wing press. There, however, their cause was embraced with a passion.
Critics of Gross and his revelations continue to hold that fundamental information about the Jedwabne massacre is still missing. The number of victims is unknown, the role of the Germans, they maintain, has still not been elucidated. Some of this criticism is valid. Much, however, is an attempt at cover-up. This trend has been especially bolstered by those who claim that the massacre — if it took place at all — was a case of understandable, if excessive revenge for the ‘evil’ the Jews had committed as Soviet collaborators over the preceding 21 months. Jedwabne had been part of the Soviet zone of occupation, and the massacre occurred almost 3 weeks after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. This ‘blame the victim’ approach has been heavily endorsed by the conservative part of Polish public opinion, including by most people now living in Jedwabne itself. The rare local eyewitnesses willing to testify were threatened, intimidated and finally forced to leave town. Antonina Wyrzykowska, a local woman who heroically saved six Jews from her and their neighbours and kept them safe throughout the war, had to flee the town after the war was over. She eventually found refuge in the United States. Her daughter, still living in Poland, was too terrified to even speak to the media. And as Krzysztof Godlewski, the decent mayor of Jedwabne who tried to help his compatriots face the truth, told me, a plaque to honour her would not survive the night. For Jedwabne, she is not a heroine but a traitor. The town was hostile to the high-profile commemorative ceremony held July 10, 2001 to mark the 60th anniversary of the massacre, and consequently Godlewski resigned the day after. He, too, later emigrated to the United States.
Nonetheless, by the spring of 2001, a year after the book was published, it seemed that the Jedwabne debate would trigger a real catharsis, a real historical soul-searching that could enable a breakthrough in the way Poles see themselves and their relations with other nations, particularly the Jews. The international press was favorably impressed by the quality of the Polish debate. A public opinion poll in Poland showed that a surprising 85 per cent of those polled were aware of the debate; over the previous dozen years, probably only the abortion debate had this kind of salience. More importantly still, 32 per cent accepted that Poles should apologize to the Jews, and were personally willing to do so. This meant the impact of the debate had spread way beyond the chattering classes. ‘A minority, yes, but a huge one,’ was the optimistic comment of American-born Michael Schudrich, the rabbi of Warsaw and Łódz.
But in March 2001, the institutional Church, long silent, finally joined the discussion. Cardinal Józef Glemp, the Roman Catholic Primate of Poland, acknowledged that the murder had been committed by ‘baptized Poles’ and stressed the need for contrition, but at the same time he demanded that Jews too apologize for the crimes of Communism. He also expressed surprise at the ‘noise’ made over the case. The bishop of the Łoma diocese, of which Jedwabne is part, had no doubts: the noise was made in order to extort money. He expressed his solidarity with ‘the besieged town of Jedwabne’ and called on its parishioners to ‘endure.’ Asked if anyone had confessed to having participated in the crime, the parish priest of Jedwabne said, smiling, in a television interview, ‘Not one conscience had been moved.’
The institutional church did organize a mass of contrition, at which God was asked forgiveness for crimes that had been committed with the participation of Poles. Held on May 27, 2001, it was a truly moving ceremony, but Jedwabne and anti-Semitism were not explicitly mentioned. A missed opportunity, then? Not so. The rearguard battle fought by much of the church and a part of Polish public opinion and opinion-leaders has managed to reduce the impact of the Jedwabne debate. It could not, however, alter its fundamental message: Poland is finally mature enough to face the black pages of its history. No longer hiding behind the myth of innocence, the country is willing to engage the truth – though this is a difficult task, even for those who approach it honestly. The Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza originally held back from the Jedwabne debate: Adam Michnik, its editor-in-chief, genuinely believed that Gross must be wrong, that Poles are simply incapable of cold-blooded mass murder. When he realised the mistake was his, the paper joined in the debate with a passion. In a polemic with the American literary critic Leon Wieseltier, who was sharply critical of Michnik’s treatment of the Jedwabne affair, Michnik, of Jewish origin himself, wrote that he came to realize that, ‘had I been in Jedwabne that day, I would have ended up in that barn.’ If Michnik, with his sensitivity to Jewish issues, and his long history of intellectual courage, was loath to acknowledge the fact, how much more difficult must it have been for others.
An essay about Gross’s book, published in Gazeta Wyborcza on November 18/19, 2000 sheds valuable light on the Jedwabne debate and how Poles reacted to the revelations. Titled ‘Every Neighbor Has a Name,’ it was written by the journalist Jacek Žakowski. ‘I would be lying if I said that this book does not fill me with fear,’ Žakowski writes at the beginning of the essay. ‘This fear has three sources,’ he continues. ‘First, there are the facts’ described by Gross. Second is the motivation behind them. ‘Whatever it was that impelled them to that crime may still lie somewhere deep within them (within us? within me?),’ he writes. Without a hint of equivocation or leniency, he analyzes the terrifying consequences of that reflection. The third reason for his fear is that ‘all of us share the responsibility for whether or not such things ever happen again’ — and, he goes on, there is no guarantee that the future will not be equally murderous. ‘After Bosnia and Rwanda,’ writes Žakowski,, ‘it is hard for us to be shocked by human cruelty.’ Reflecting on the individual evil that may well lurk within each of us, or reminding us that this evil may again reveal itself in all its murderous might in the future, Žakowski shows himself to be fully conscious of the challenge that the Jedwabne crime poses to our good feelings about ourselves.
The most important thread in his essay, however, consists of Žakowski’s reflections upon the second of the fears aroused in him by the reading of Gross’s book. Here, the source of the fear is neither the events presented in the book nor the ever-present threat that they could recur in the future. Rather, Žakowski’s fear stems from the fact that ‘in appealing to the language of ethnic quantifiers, Gross runs the risk of causing or contributing to further misfortunes’ — that is, to new crimes like the one in Jedwabne. It is, in fact, not clear who might end up murdering whom after reading Neighbors. Still, we all know that language can indeed lead to crimes. This, says Žakowski, is what makes it so important to use language in a responsible way.
The thesis that Gross ‘clearly pushes us in the direction of such language’ appears repeatedly in Žakowski’s essay. What sort of language is this? Žakowski answers without ambivalence: ‘This is the language of ethnic war, of genocide.’ He cautions that, ‘In Europe, we were reminded of the danger of such [nationalistic] quantifiers when we saw what happened in Bosnia.’ And he concludes: ‘I am all the more astonished at Jan Gross — who himself once heard that language in Poland [Gross emigrated after March 1968], for now being ready to call it forth again and to run the risk of nourishing ghosts that are on their way to extinction.’
If we were to take Žakowski’s rhetoric seriously, we would have to place Neighbors on the same bookshelf as the collected speeches of General Moczar and Radovan Karadzic. However, there is no question of treating Gross’s book that way, because Žakowski’s charges are just as empty as they are serious. Nevertheless, they cannot be passed over indifferently. Žakowski is a respected journalist, and his essay was the first important voice raised in Gazeta Wyborcza in the Jedwabne debate.
The Institute for National Remembrance (IPN), Poland’s prosecutorial and historical office dealing with the crimes of the past, released its report on Jedwabne on July 9 2002, one day before the sixty-second anniversary of the massacre. The Institute’s findings were the leading story that day on State TV news. But the next day, the anniversary itself was not even mentioned. This indicated that the way the crime will be understood and remembered is now more important than the crime itself. That the future is more important than the past.
The results of the inquiry left no room for doubt. Nonetheless, the headlines of Polish newspapers reporting on the findings managed to reproduce the main themes of what had turned out to be one of the most important debates of post-Communist Poland. ‘Murdered by Neighbours’ was the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza’s huge headline. The conservative Rzeczpospolita gave it a slightly different spin: ‘Neighbors After All,’ it read, as if unwilling quite to acknowledge the fact. The headline in the national-Catholic Nasz Dziennik, home to Gross’s most vehement critics, was indignant: ‘Poles Accused Without Proof.’ Similarly, the headline in the right-wing Lycie read, ‘Poles Guilty’ — but it was complemented by a huge photo of the rabbi of Warsaw, Michael Schudrich, extending an accusatory finger — as if it was he, and not the Polish Institute, who had passed the verdict. And that verdict was, in thewords of the headline in the local Warsaw daily Zycie Warszawy, not ‘for’ Jedwabne, but ‘on’ it. ‘Verdict on Jedwabne,’ the paper’s banner screamed.
The IPN report itself contained no surprises, nor could it have had. Eyewitness reports, material evidence, and human memory are unequivocal: though the report found that the crime was ‘due to German inspiration,’ the role of the Poles was nonetheless ‘decisive.’ They arrived in Jedwabne that day ‘with the intent to participate in the premeditated crime of murdering the Jewish inhabitants of the town.’ The report confirmed the events of that day, as first established by Gross in his book. The assembling of Jews in the town square. Their death march toward the Jewish cemetery, forced to bear on their shoulders a bust of Lenin left behind by the previous, Soviet occupiers. The cramming of people into the barn. The locking of the gates. The pouring of petrol. And the fire. And then the bodies, whose number we will never know.
The report correctly stresses, in an implicit polemic with those who accused the entire town of the crime, that the group of immediate perpetrators was limited to ‘not less than forty men.’ However, ‘the passive behavior of the majority of the population of the town towards the crime’ was deemed no less important. The Institute could not determine — for after 61 years this was no longer possible — what the motives of this passivity were: acceptance? indifference? fear? It is certain, however, that without it the crime would not have been as extensive.
One does not have the right to expect heroism, but one would search in vain, in eyewitness testimonies, for information about neighbours who would at least have pointed out a safe escape route, diverted the tormentors’ attention, given a piece of bread. Antonia Wyrzykowska, who saved six Jews and kept them in safety all through the war, was the lone and shining exception — and she was later hounded out of town as a traitor. Besides her, the Jews of Jedwabne were alone that day, faced by their neighbors who were hunting them down. Again and again, for evil to triumph, it is enough for good people to do nothing.
The IPN report was like opening a window in a musty room. Even its language is simple, direct and clear, as always when words are being used the way they should be: to tell it the way it was. It is difficult not to appreciate the scientific, prosecutorial and moral effort of prosecutor Radosław Ignatiew, the report’s author, and professor Leon Kieres, the head of IPN. How good it is that they are today the voice of Poland. And how good it is to be of that Poland. (By the way, one thing the report did not do was to identify by name those who that day were evil triumphant. It was a decision that I agree with. After 61 years, the trial of the few surviving perpetrators would have been a farce. A different judgment and a different Judge await them now. And a host of terrible witnesses.)
But where do we go from here?
The commemorative ceremonies in 2001 that marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre attracted world attention for the presence of the president, the absence of the government and of the episcopate, the emotion of the visitors and the hostile indifference of the locals. One year later, the monument at the site of the massacre stood abandoned and quiet. A group of Jews from Warsaw, led by Rabbi Schudrich, recited psalms. Then kaddish was recited by a Mr. Levin from Israel, a survivor of a similar massacre in the nearby town of Wizna. ‘In Wizna it was worse, much worse,’ he repeated.
The grass at the monument, strewn with cigarette butts, had been badly cut. Someone had scratched out the word ‘Hitler’ on the memorial plaque. Or was it ‘Hatler’? The Polish Press Agency release said that the letters were not very legible. The monument on the Jewish cemetery site, across the road, bore the marks of pounding, and freshly removed paint smears. ‘But in general, it is surprising how well the monuments have survived the year,’ said someone from over his prayer book. The local department of works let it be known that it had not been commissioned to take care of the monument. The mayor of the town, who in 2001 had participated, to the ire of his constituents, in the ‘Jewish ceremonies,’ had left Jedwabne and emigrated to the United States.
‘The truth about Jedwabne lies in the middle,’ bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, otherwise considered a main moral voice within the episcopate, said after the IPN report was released. At first I had wanted to ask the bishop: in the middle of what? One day later, after we had prayed at the site of that terrible barn, I already knew. It lies in the middle of an open Polish field. Between the church and the forest. ‘The corn, then, was low as it now is,’ Mr. Levin recalled. ‘No way one could hide.’ And so we have the truth about Jedwabne, and we know where it lies. The important thing now is what we shall do with it.
I believe that Jedwabne should become, like the heroic defense of Westerplatte against the Germans in 1939, like the pogrom in Przytyk in 1936, like the doomed workers revolt of 1970 and the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, part of Polish collective identity. It should become one of those things that come to mind, when the word ‘we’ is being uttered, part of the obligatory school curriculum. No, not out of perverse self-flagellation. One cannot forget that Jedwabne would have never happened if not for the Germans. And not to be used as a counter in some ghastly moral arithmetic, in which it would be balanced off by the existence of Žegota, the wartime underground Polish ‘Council to Save the Jews.’ Such sums cannot be made. Žegota cannot be used as analibi for Jedwabne. Jedwabne cannot besmirch the crystal purity of Žegota. But we have to remember Jedwabne in order not to fall into the trap of deluding ourselves. To be able, as Joanna Tokarska-Bakir has written, to finally understand what the others are telling us. ‘Poland,’ says Rabbi Schudrich ‘is engaged in a process of deep, difficult and honest soul-searching. Other countries could learn from that.’
This is a terribly difficult task. But it is becoming feasible. For there are two Polands in Jedwabne. That which lies about the crime or ignores it, turns its back on it and on the victims, batters inscriptions on the monument. And that which honestly and courageously calls the crime and its perpetrators by their name. And by admitting this, Poland finally liberates itself.
In fact, books like Neighbors, along with recent, pioneering studies of the postwar fate of the Germans in the north and west of Poland, and studies of the violence-soaked history of Polish- Ukrainian relations are vitally necessary in Poland. They are no less necessary than works documenting the crimes to which Poles fell victim, so that we can know where we wronged others, as well as where we were wronged. And also so that, having asked forgiveness in the former cases and having forgiven in the latter, we can all finally arrive at the sort of moral order in which it will no longer be possible for anyone to be implicated in culpability for a crime from half a century ago only because he is a Pole (or a Russian, or a German, or a Ukrainian, or…)

Konstanty Gebert is a reporter and columnist at Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s biggest daily newspaper, and  the founder of the Jewish intellectual monthly Midrasz.

He will be speaking at Limmud Conference 2009.

This essay was originally published in: Konstanty Gebert: Living in the Land of Ashes; Austeria, Krakow — Budapest 2008.

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