Thirteen years ago, Polish historian Jan Tomasz Gross published Neighbors, a relatively slim volume that details a major atrocity: in July, 1941, residents in Jedwabne, North Poland, murdered most of the village’s Jewish population. This publication of this compact tome, just 130 pages long, created a maelstrom of debate about Poland’s understanding of its past, the reverberations of which are still being felt.
Gross, in Neighbors, uses a combination of original research and evidence assembled through the yeoman’s toil of other historians to create a narrative that allows the reader to glean some sense of the day’s Sturm und Drang. A two-year-long inquiry by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance vindicated the book’s central finding: that on 10 July 1941, with the help of roaming plunderers and bandits, Jedwabne’s Poles forced the town’s Jews into the main square, before butchering and immolating them.
From early on that day the Jews understood that they were in mortal danger. Many tried to escape into neighboring fields, but only a few succeeded. It was difficult to get out of town without being noticed, as small vigilante groups of peasants were milling around trying to ferret out and catch hiding and fleeing Jews. A dozen teenagers grabbed Nieławicki, who was already in the fields when the pogrom began, as he was trying to sneak across the fields to Wizna. He was beaten up and brought to the square. Similarly, Olszewicz was caught in the fields by the peasant youths, beaten up, and brought back to town. Some one to two hundred people managed to run away, hide, and survive that day – among them, as we know, Nieławicki and Olszewicz. But many others were killed on the spot, right where they were apprehended.
Neighbors is not solely an account of a wartime atrocity in occupied Poland. By showing that, after initially bringing criminal charges against several of the accused, the state then proceeded to doggedly censor the events of the day, the book serves as an indictment of post-war Polish governments. It also forces the reader to reckon with the fact that, throughout the Second World War, no nation acted in a manner beyond reproach.
With economy and force, Gross illustrates the need for a fundamental reconsideration of Polish complicity in anti-Jewish atrocities, using evidence ranging from the history of the pogrom, to the leading role of Poles, and the atrocity’s suppression by a parade of governments, socialist, conservative and liberal alike. This is why the impact of Neighbors, and Gross’s more recent work – his 2012 book Golden Harvest continues in the same vein – continues to be felt to the present day.
Gross is now based at Princeton, but his writing is the bête noire of recalcitrant Poles and the fodder of prime time chat shows and highbrow periodicals alike. A glance at the reception afforded to his works on Amazon shows a clear divide between those readers convinced he is producing important historical work and those who are certain that he is a fabulist intent on ‘bashing the Poles’. The reason for his infamy is fairly straightforward: more than anyone else, Gross has defied a strong current of historical narrative that Poland is exclusively a victim of history. How can we read a book like Neighbors – an account of an atrocity that has been acknowledged as fundamentally true – and square it with the heirloom account of sui generis Polish wartime suffering?
Gross’s supporters insist that the book’s appearance has created an entirely new dimension to the historiography of the Second World War in Poland. They point to a cultural reluctance to acknowledge the depth of past anti-Semitism in historical and contemporary accounts, and a national identity built on the foundations of wartime suffering and victimisation.
His detractors, meanwhile, occasionally turn to pummelling straw men in their attempts to challenge his work. They point out that ‘every third tree in the Yad Vashem Institute has a Polish name’, or that there are more Righteous Among the Nations of Polish stock than any other nationality. There are those critics of Gross’s – and he has many – who have no qualms about playing the man. According to them Gross is, by turns, mendacious, unpatriotic, motivated by profit or, among a small but vocal set, not quite Polish enough (Gross was born to a Jewish father). Aiming for all at once is Lech Wałesa, chief anti-communist agitator of the Solidarity trade union and later first President of the Polish Republic, who once called Gross ‘a mediocre writer … a Jew who tries to make money’. His volley represents one of the less measured criticisms and, unfortunately, draws attention from those interested in critiquing the integrity of Gross’s scholarship and not his heritage or his motives.
In a reply in the journal Slavic Review to the frenzied response to Neighbors, Gross repeats that he compiled all available extant evidence, while acknowledging those Polish journalists and historians he cites who have been chiselling away in obscurity. His reply reminds us that there is still one unresolved matter of importance: the true death toll. In its review of the events in Jedwabne, prompted by the publication of Neighbors, the Institute of National Remembrance counts grave markers and comes to ‘probably about 300’. Using what he says is the independent testimony of witnesses, an embargoed police summary and the 1931 population census, Gross insists the number is five times greater, although he understands that the number of people dead that day is part of a larger story:
Let me say up front that I do not wish to deprive of life, even on paper, more people than were actually killed in Jedwabne. In fact, I would prefer it if there were fewer Jewish victims, not more. In addition, the moral issues at stake, as well as the implications for Poles’ self-understanding concerning the historical significance of their collective experience during the German occupation, remain exactly the same, no matter whether 400 or 1,600 Jews were killed.
We tell ourselves lies, little and large, to comfort ourselves and keep a grip on the past. Smoothing the crooked timber of history is the very stuff of which nations are made. No one has yet outdone Ernest Renan’s 1882 quip that ‘forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation [of the nation].’ There are those for whom the events retold in Neighbors are a peripheral concern, or a minor factotum to be ignored in the service of a cause of greater importance: the safeguarding of Poland’s virgin Christian martyr meme.
Officially, there was recognition: in 2011, 60 years and six months after the Jedwabne Massacre, Poland’s President Bronisław Komorowski apologised in Israel on behalf of all Poles.
I write this not to inflict harm or shame. It brings me no particular pleasure to shed a little light on a shameful chapter of contemporary Polish history. I write this because I firmly believe that history cannot be the handmaiden of our contemporary prejudices. It can be of more use to us today if we use it as a guide to answering the questions of who we are, and how proud we ought to be of ourselves.
If we continue to persist in using the historical record as a means of tallying right and wrong, as a minor footnote to a debate conducted with scant reference to fact, then we only deny whatever upsets our long-held shibboleths. We will only bicker without healing.
Tomasz Nalecz, historian and adviser to President Bronisław Komorowski, writes in Time:
Hyenas are everywhere. But the Polish society passed extremely well the test, which was the war. I am not ashamed of Poles.
But historical recollection cannot, must not, simply be about passing some arbitrarily construed test. In this framing, Nalecz ignores that one of the everyday tragedies of wartime society was the blurring of lines between victim and perpetrator. He ignores the reality of people who, in another life, may have been something else but were, in those they lived, the executors of terrible cruelty. Headstrong belief in a myth which has been emphatically punctured by Gross and other historians should make way for a heartfelt discussion of Polish atrocities during Nazi occupation. Confronting the past, and doing away with the canard that the Second World War was some Manichean struggle between good and pure evil, is the way to pass the ‘test’.
By illuminating a corner of Polish history many would rather be left dark, and showing how ordinary people can be motivated to do and believe awful things, Jan Gross has affirmed that the history of Europe in the twentieth century needn’t be the province of navel gazing and trivia; to this day, it can be an way of giving sense to the senseless while we ponder the clouds of extremism gathering over Europe.
Culpability for crimes committed during war is meted out long after guns fall silent, treaties are signed and borders redrawn. The debate in Poland over what happened that July day in Jedwabne, and about the historian who helped bring the events into the glare of the spotlight, is about the reluctance to accept a burden of responsibility for crimes perpetrated against a victimised minority, and the responsibility a contemporary society has to acknowledge its past. Poland is by no means the only nation with monsters under its bed; a fact recognised by all save the most rabid ‘anti-Poles’. Rather than pretending those monsters aren’t there or wishing them away, the Polish community, and the community of historians, needs to continue to confront them wherever they roam, with clear eyes and a full heart.