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Poland: Devil’s Playground

Andrew Yurkovsky

In a single day in July 1941, half the population of the Polish town of Jedwabne was murdered. The victims—all but seven of the town’s 1,600 Jews—were killed by Catholic Poles, who acted under the leadership of Jedwabne’s mayor and priest. Most were herded into a barn and burned alive. German troops occupying Jedwabne did not plan, order, direct, or carry out the killings.

This is the story that Jan T. Gross, a professor of politics at New York University, relates in his book, Neighbors. Gross’s study, first published last year in his native Poland, is still arousing heated debate.

In March, officials removed a monument in Jedwabne that had attributed the pogrom to the Nazi occupiers. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has stated that he will perform an official act of penance there on July 10, the 60th anniversary of the massacre. Other government and Catholic Church officials, while expressing horror over Gross’s findings, have been more equivocal in speaking on behalf of the Polish people.

As Gross had hoped, Neighbors has caused many Poles to reflect anew on the country’s wartime experience. Writing in the moderate Warsaw newsmagazine Wprost, (March 25), Stanislaw Janecki and Jerzy Slawomir Mac offered a litany of sins committed by Poles against Jews, including silence and indifference. They concluded: “Thus we extend our apology to the Jews—in the name of the nation, the society: each and every one of us. We apologize...to clear ourselves of blame, to enter the 21st century with a clean conscience.”

Maciej Letowski, in his column in Warsaw’s moderate weekly Tygodnik Solidarnosc, professed confusion at Gross’s revelations and the critics’ rebuttals (March 16). In such a situation, he argued, one must rely on authorities, but not state authorities. “[T]he nation’s reckoning with its past is better left to the nation,” he wrote. “The state should stay away from it to the best of its ability.”

Some journalists and historians have charged that Gross selectively read his sources. In Warsaw’s conservative Zycie (March 31-April 1), historian Piotr Gontarczyk charged that Neighbors minimizes the German role. “[Gross] omitted anything that did not support his pre-established thesis,” he wrote. Another scholar, Tomasz Strzembosz, writing in Warsaw’s centrist Rzeczpospolita (March 31-April 1), said that relations between Jews and Poles, before and after the pogrom, were much more intertwined than Gross suggests.

Zycie columnist Jan Wrobel wrote that Poles proved to be both victims and evil-doers during the war—one could hardly expect it to be otherwise (March 10). “A lot of Gross’s findings are easily disputed, but the Poles’ participation in the action is irrefutable,” he allowed.

An editorial in Rzeczpospolita is hopeful that an open debate has occurred (March 20). A sign of that openness is support by nearly one-half of Poles, according to a survey, for President Kwasniewski’s apology.

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