Q&A: Hundreds of Jews Locked in a Barn and Burned to Death (by Poles, Not Nazis): Poland, 1941

Marcel Lozinski

Marcel Lozinski

Polish author Anna Bikont’s book The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne investigates an incident from Poland’s World War II past – a mass murder of Jewish men, women, and children carried out not by Nazis, but Poles.  Writing in the Sunday New York Times Book Review this week, Louis Begley called The Crime and the Silence a “beautifully written, devastating and very important book.”

1. At the center of your book is a horrific crime – the Jews of the town of Jedwabne being burned alive.  Based on your reporting, what happened in July 1941 in Jedwabne?  How many people were killed?  And who was responsible?

It happened one day in the summer of 1941, in a small Polish town in northeastern Poland. That day, July 10, the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne, encouraged by Germans, killed all but a few of their Jewish neighbors.

The Jews were rounded up in the market place, where they were beaten and humiliated. First the younger men and the old rabbi were killed one by one with axes and other farm tools. Then the whole population, the elderly, women, and children -- families often with 6 or 8 children -- were herded into a barn, and the barn was set on fire.

The Polish inhabitants killed and robbed as much as they could; then they washed themselves, went to mass, and finally drank vodka, as if they forgot what had happened.

Years later a book Neighbors, written by Jan T. Gross, now a professor at Princeton, reminded them of all that.  Gross wrote that 1,600 Jews perished in Jedwabne. That was the number etched into the stone erected in the place of the crime under the communist regime: “Place of Execution of Jewish Population. Gestapo and Hitler’s Police Burned 1600 People Alive, July 10, 1941.”

In fact, fewer than 1,600 Jews were burned, but it’s unclear how many fewer.  In 2001, rabbis from Israel halted the exhumation ordered by the Institute of National Remembrance prosecutor.  I assume that some hundreds of Jews, between 600 and 900 perished that day.   

It was not the Gestapo or Hitler’s police. “The perpetrators of the crime, strictly speaking, were the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and surroundings” – wrote the prosecutor upon completion of an exhaustive investigation launched in 2000.  

2. As shocking as this event was, one thing you write about in the book is that this was not an isolated incident.  How many other places in Poland did this sort of thing occur during WWII?

Jedwabne became the symbol of all crimes committed in this region. But it was not only Jedwabne. Five days earlier, on July 5, all the Jewish residents of the nearby village of Wąsosz were killed with axes one-by-one at night.

On July 7, the entire Jewish population of another nearby town, Radziłów, was burned to death in a barn.  All the Jews were killed in those three places. There were riots and pogroms in dozens of towns in this region at the time.

3. We often think of the crimes of the Nazis being imposed over the fierce opposition of the Poles.  But you make clear that many Poles were only too happy to participate.  How widespread was Polish support for the Nazis’ genocidal acts toward the Jews?

The outstanding Polish Centre for Holocaust Research, which was established in Warsaw in 2003, has been working on this issue.  They will be able to answer the questions about the scale of the killings of Jews by Poles in the next few years.

In many cases, Poles killed Jews without feeling that they were supporting Nazi genocidal acts.  They thought they had two mortal enemies, the Germans and the Soviets, and they identified Jews as pro-Soviet Communists.  Sometime the murderers belonged to the Home Army, the underground army fighting against Germans. 

4. In your book, you have a particularly chilling quotation from a Polish professor.  He says a significant part of the Polish population looked on with amusement – and he speaks of “the laughter that accompanied the Holocaust.”  Was there really laughter while these things were going on?

I have to say “yes” to your question.  I do so with great sadness because I am a Pole, and also because I am a Jew.  I have read dozens of witness accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that describe people on the Aryan side, Poles, crowding into attics and climbing rooftops to joyfully watch “Yids burn.”

5. You tell the story in the book about how you only learned as an adult, accidentally, that you were Jewish – your mother had hid it from you.  Did this knowledge change how you thought about the history of Jews in Poland and the Holocaust?

No. I was obsessed with this history before knowing anything about my roots. When I was five years old, my French-Jewish friend (I was raised in Paris) told me that Poles had killed the Jews. I always remember myself overwhelmed by this revelation. I took part in a psychotherapy workshop where we worked on a Jewish-Polish trauma (I was a Pole in the group). I had always read a lot about the Holocaust. 

6.   When your book was published in Europe it won wide acclaim – including the prestigious 2011 European Prize.  How has the book – and how have you – been received by your fellow Poles?

A well-known literary critic in one of the main newspapers, Rzeczpospolita, wrote that I couldn’t understand the Poles (the presupposition is always that you are either a Pole, or a Jew; so as a Jew, I am unable to be a part of the Polish nation).

The main Catholic radio station, Radio Maryja, denounced me as a “Jewish traitor.”  But also I received a lot of support.  I was astonished, in fact, by the many positive reactions to my book. 

A Polish sociologist who studies anti-Semitic attitudes, identified a new category of Poles, a category that emerged in the wake of  the national discussion about the Jedwabne massacre: the anti-anti-Semites, Poles ashamed of their families’, friends’, and neighbors’ anti-Semitism.  The people from this group came to my book readings and wrote me letters.

7. You describe how reluctant the citizens of Jedwabne were to take responsibility for the murders – they wanted to blame the Germans.  And in 2011, a memorial to the Jews of Jedwabne was vandalized with graffiti that said, among other things, “they were flammable.”  How do Poles feel about what happened in Jedwabne today?

Gross’s book opened a debate, one of the most heated in Poland after 1989, the year we became a free country and held our first free elections. A lot of Poles, who first reacted with denial and indignation, finally acknowledge that Poles committed the Jedwabne crime.  

This represents a revolution in the way of thinking about Polish-Jewish relations during the war.  But now the time of counter-revolution has come.

Not long ago, we had a presidential election in Poland. During the television debate, the first question asked of the incumbent by his rival Andrzej Duda was not about the economy or living conditions, or about the Ukraine or about Russia.  It was about Jedwabne.

He accused the President of allowing Poles to be falsely denounced for participating in the Holocaust.  He was referring to President [Bronislaw] Komorowski’s letter of 2011, read aloud on the 70th anniversary of the massacre in Jedwabne, which contained the sentence: “The nation of victims had to accept the difficult truth that at times it was also the perpetrator.” Andrzej Duda announced that as President he would appoint a special committee to fight defamation of Poland all over the world.

He defeated the President who apologized for Jedwabne. His right-wing opposition party has just won the parliamentary elections. A well-known Polish historian, who sought evidence to prove that Poles were heroes and Jews guilty of their own misfortunes, has become a Senator and announced that the winning party will launch a “historical offensive” to fight against mendacious books such as Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors.


Photo Credit:  Marcel Lozinski