In the next few months a new book by Jan T. Gross will be released under the title „Neighbors.” The book was published last year in Poland and has already stirred bitter controversy in the Polish press.
The author alleges that in 1941, immediately following the German attack on the Soviet Union Poles in the small towns of Jedwabne and Radzilow in northeastern Poland (near Lomza) attacked and murdered their Jewish neighbors in a particularly brutal fashion: by burning many of them alive. This was done, according to Gross, without German help and the only cause of the massacre was Polish anti-Semitism.
The fact that the book is being rushed into print so quickly and that the charges it makes are so inflammatory is troubling, as is the fact that its appearance will surely provoke a whole series of unsavory condemnations of Poles and everything Polish in the popular press. In short, it is hard to see anything good coming from the way this will probably be handled and it will not be long before both Polish and Jewish extremists will be making hay out of this book. Those searching for the truth will be frustrated.
In this case the truth is very complicated and makes a poor sound – bite – even more so be-cause in the case of Jedwabne and Radzilow the truth is going to prove messy and ugly, leaving few of the participants with clean hands.
Although the events in question have been known to historians for a long time, Gross is the first person to write a book about them. However, a great deal remains unclear and much more research will have to be done to get to the bottom of things. Unfortunately, the author seems to have overlooked or ignored a great deal of relevant source material. The book is based mainly on the testimonies of two Jewish survivors. One scholar knowledgeable about the situation has identified eight separate archives that are likely to contain relevant source material that Gross failed to consult.
Before World War II, the area was typical of many areas of eastern Poland. The population was made up of Polish peasant farmers and Jewish and some Polish merchants in the towns with a scattering of Germans.
Jedwabne and Radzilow seem to have been about 50 percent Jewish. There is no particular evidence that before the war, ethnic relations were any worse than anywhere else.
After the Nazi and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, the Lomza area was controlled by the Soviets. They imposed a severe reign of terror, killing or deporting large numbers of Poles and lesser numbers of Jews. As in many places in eastern Poland, when the Soviets first arrived they were greeted joyously by the Jews and other ethnic minorities. Whether this was due to hatred for Poles, love for the Russians, or fear of Nazis (or some combination of these) is in dispute. During the Soviet occupation a significant minority of Jews in eastern Poland collaborated with the Soviet terror apparatus and helped inform on, arrest, and even kill Polish community leaders. Others took property from Poles who were deported to Siberia with words like „you won’t need it, soon you’ll be going to the polar bears.”
Polish families, men, women, children, old people and young, were packed in cattle cars with no food or heat and sent to their deaths in Siberia.
It is important to stress that this happened because the Soviets wanted it to happen, because the Soviets wanted to stimulate hatred and rivalry between ethnic groups. For an oppressed and terrorized population, it mattered little whether the neighbors collaborated a little or a lot, for the actions of a few reflected on the many.
The exact sequence of events leading up to the massacre of the Jews is still the subject of debate. A large Polish underground group was attacked and broken up by Soviet secret police with the help of local informers just before the start of the Nazi-Soviet war and a large group of Poles was being deported just as the German attack began. There was chaos, confusion, and fear in the days and weeks after the Germans took over.
What may have begun as revenge against local communist collaborators then spiraled out of control and angry Poles seem to have taken revenge on the Jewish population as a whole. They seems little dispute that Poles did participate in the massacre, but who exactly participated and why is disputed. Gross claims that it was only the Poles, but Polish historians have pointed to the clear presence of the infamous German Einsatzgruppen in the area as well as the possible participation of local ethnic Germans.
Throughout occupied Europe, German officials and agents often tried to incite the local population to attack their Jewish neighbors. This often failed, but in these two small towns, the effort seems to have succeeded.
Jewish families, men, women, children, old people and young, were packed into barns and buildings set on fire. Some Jews survived, hidden by local Polish families.
It should be stressed that a great deal about these events remains uncertain and a great deal of further research is needed. Unfortunately, the result of Gross’ book will probably be further hatred, harsh words, and hysterical press articles, films, and sound bites. Truth will be obscured rather than revealed as some will focus only on Jewish crimes while others will focus only on Polish crimes.
The larger reality is that both Poles and Jews have wronged each other and continue to do so, and despite what anyone tells you neither side is perfect or innocent. We would all do well to keep this in mind in the days ahead.