The Jedwabne Massacre of 1941: An Interview with Marcin Malek

Last week I received an editorial proposal from Marcin Malek, a Polish poet, writer, playwright, and journalist.

His submission about the murder of thousands of Jews in the village of Jedwabne during World War II, the controversial Polish films Aftermath and Ida, and the stunning recent statements by government officials refusing to acknowledge who was responsible for the mass murder prompted me to interview Mr. Malek for this article.

The refusal by Polish officials to accept historical facts is particularly shocking given that the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), investigated the massacre in 2002, and determined that the killings were indeed committed by Polish inhabitants of the town, albeit with the authorization of the German Nazis.

The truth behind the Jedwabne massacre first came to light in 2001; in a book by historian Jan Gross entitled Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland.

The book revealed that the massacre of thousands of Jews during World War II in the Polish town of Jedwabne had not been carried out by the Nazis, but by their very own Polish neighbors who lived among them.

On July 10, 1941, Christian Poles hunted down, clubbed, drowned, gutted, and burned alive 1,600 Jewish men, women, and children—all but seven of the town's Jews. Today there is no trace left of the Jewish community which lived there for more than 300 years.

Gross’s book Neighbors revealed the horrific revelation that sparked outrage and soul-searching across Poland when the truth came out a full sixty years after the atrocity was committed.

Even more outrageous was that for half a century, the cruel truth of the events of that day was concealed and distorted by the Polish authorities as well as the residents of Jedwabne, and they publicly denied any role in the mass murder.

But it gets even more shocking. During the 1960’s a small monument was erected in Jedwabne, at the site of a barn where at least 340 Jewish men, women, and children were burned alive on that evil day. The plaque placed the entire blame for their deaths on the German Nazis even though the Polish authorities and locals knew full well what occurred, and never revealed the monstrous truth.

Teri Schure: Released in 2012, the Polish thriller Aftermath, written and directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski revisited the slaughtering and cover-up of the Jedwabne massacre. It is also considered one of the most controversial Polish films ever made. Tell me about the movie and how it was received in Poland.

Marcin Malek: The film was quite popular in Poland, though not in the literal meaning because it gained more of a bad name than it deserved. And sadly, the actors appearing in Aftermath, especially Mr. Maciej Stuhr (one of the leading roles) became victims of racist, anti-Jewish attacks. Stuhr was accused of speaking untruths and deliberately distorting history. He was vilified for taking part in the project aimed at destroying the good name of Poland around the world. Lastly, Stuhr was deemed a traitor.

Teri Schure: In your article submission, you mentioned another film titled Ida, a Polish drama released in 2013 directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. What is this movie about and how was it received in Poland?    

Marcin Malek: The same thing happened with Ida, which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and won four Polish film academy awards, including best film. Yet the Polish Prime Minister Ms. Beata Szydlo said that it was anti-Polish, harmful to Poland’s reputation, and should not be shown to Polish youth.

The film, set in 1962 in Poland tells the story about the meeting and shared journey of two women, whose pasts intertwined in a dramatic way with the events from the time of Nazi occupation of Poland. The film differed from other films about Jewish extermination in that it highlighted the emptiness left by the almost complete elimination of Jews in Poland.

However, in my opinion, there were many facts that were unknowingly or intentionally left out, and untold by the director and screenwriter. Ida was widely, and in in some cases unjustly criticized by many of the same people who attacked the actors and the director of the film Aftermath. In my opinion, these attacks have brought more harm to Poland’s reputation than the movies themselves.

Ida was also criticized by many respected Polish historians of Jewish descent, including Helena Datner, of Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, and Agnieszka Graff, a writer, translator, commentator, feminist, and women's and human rights activist. Ms. Datner accused the director Pawlikowski of stereotyping the film’s Wanda Gruz character as a Jewish whore and alcoholic. Agnieszka Graff complained that Ida beautified the ugly truth and attempted to escape from the mud of history and politics.

Acclaimed historian and journalist Tadeusz Pluzanski, who I think, has rightly pointed out a very critical issue: that the film portrays a false impression that the Poles alone were responsible for the building and operating of the industrial centers of mass murder. In his opinion, all Poles were victims of those death camps. And that the death camps were on Polish soil but were created by the Germans for the sole purpose of exterminating the local Jewish population to make room for the German race. Pluzanski also went on to reiterate that many non-Jewish Poles safe-harbored Jews and risked their lives, and the lives of their families from certain death if the Germans caught them.

In conclusion: I consider the movie Ida to be an excellent picture, certainly not deserving of such a wave of hatred. But I also think Ida portrayed Poland unfairly. Yet in spite of all the controversy, Ida received high praise from critics all over the world for its artistic and historical significance and was awarded an Oscar, which was something of great importance.

Teri Schure: Why do you think Ms. Zalewska and Mr. Szarek refuse to acknowledge the truth behind the Jedwabne Massacre?

Marcin Malek: Their refusal to recognize and accept the historical facts is not only detrimental to historical accuracy but offensive and very saddening. It proves that the Polish power elite either do not want to or cannot demonstrate good will within the historical narrative.

Today, for the Polish ruling elite, history is not so much a means of understanding and acknowledging the past, but a tool for tailoring the future to meet the needs of the dominant party.

As a poet and writer, I find it very disturbing and difficult to accept, which is why I agree with the latest protest by historians condemning recent statements by Polish officials. 

Recent declarations by the Minister of National Education (Anna Zalewska) and the new head of the Institute of National Remembrance (Jaroslaw Szarek) caused a real storm among the scientific community. Those statements forced many prominent historians to condemn the shameless attempt to downplay or even deny the role of non-Jewish Poles in the mass murder of Polish Jews during World War II.

Members of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research had this to say in an excerpt from a 7/22/16 article in the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza:  

…we are deeply disturbed by the growing number of statements made by the Polish politicians and other people who have a direct influence on the shaping of Polish historical memory. …Last week Ms. Anna Zalewska, the minister of national education, a person whose influence on the instruction of the Polish youth cannot be underestimated, declared in public that she was unable to say who were the perpetrators of the 1946 Kielce pogrom or of the notorious mass-murder in Jedwabne, in 1941. These were shocking words, and equally shocking was the lack of any reaction whatsoever on the part of the Polish government. Indeed, the ignorance or bad will demonstrated by Minister Zalewska is not an isolated event.

…Jaroslaw Szarek, recently appointed to the position of the director of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), when queried about the identity of the murderers from Jedwabne, immediately pointed to the Germans, invalidating, by the same token, the previous findings of the IPN, an institution with which he had been associated from the very beginning. These declarations bring shame to minister Zalewska and Dr. Szarek and, more importantly, they become part and parcel of the Polish historical policy (political history) which openly defies the historical facts.

If the Polish elite deliberately deny the historical truth, spewing nonsense that they do not know who murdered the Jews in Jedwabne and Kielce, how does that make Poland look to the rest of the world?

And conversely shouldn’t we be outraged at the injustice when someone uses the term “Polish Concentration Camps,” or when German movies unfairly portray soldiers of the Polish Home Army, who sabotaged German operations, and fought several full-scale battles against the Germans, as sworn anti-Semites?

I don’t know whether we can convince the world that Poland was also a victim of World War II or not.

But we should not forget that Poland was part of the Allies in World War II, who opposed German, Japanese and Italian aggression.

Or that the Armed Forces of the Republic of Poland were part of the Coalition Forces that participated in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan led by NATO. Or that Polish forces also took part in the Iraq War.

And more recently, that a massive military training exercise involving more than 20 NATO and partner countries began in Poland this past June, amid growing efforts to reassure eastern European nations rattled by Russia's actions in nearby Ukraine.

We need to remind the world that Poland has the highest number of recipients of the Righteous Among the Nations award and whose names appear at the Wall of Honor at Yad Vashem. These Poles were non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazi’s.   

Nearly 6 million of its population—approximately 21.4% of Poland's citizens died between 1939 and 1945, half of whom were Polish Jews.

And Warsaw was the most damaged of any city of World War II. Poland’s capital was leveled to the ground and according to German plans, after the war, Hitler wanted to turn Warsaw into an artificial lake to punish Poland and serve as a reminder to the rest of the world what his power could do.

Disputing the parts of history the Polish government would prefer not to acknowledge only diminishes historical facts that we as Poles are proud of.