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The Need for Atonement
by Jan Nowak-Jeziorański

[Jan Nowak-Jeziorański is the holder of the presidential medal of honor, a World War II hero, and the former director of Polish Section of Radio Free Europe. The text below is an edited translation of the an article that appeared in the Warsaw-based Polish daily Rzeczposplita on January 26, 2001. The original translation was first published on February 6, 2001 in Dr. Michael Szporer's SIEC, an email newsletter. -- A large collections of Polish language articles published about Jedwabne by the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita can be reached by clicking on the banner.]

The discussion around Jan Tomasz Gross' book S±siedzi [Neighbors] continues. The book, after 60 years, threw a shaft of light and recovered from oblivion the bestial murder during the war of the Jews of the small village of Jedwabne. Unfortunately the debate is beginning to move in the wrong direction.

No nation finds it easy to acknowledge things that cover it with shame. It is human nature that we are inclined to remember the wrongs done to us, and that we do not wish to remember the wrongs what we did unto others. Instinctively, self-defense compels us to call into question even indisputably proven facts, to seek mitigating circumstances, to clear our own conscience while blaming others.

Pride and Shame

The question is, surely, not whether 1,500 or 900 Jews were murdered in Jedwabne. The most important issues are not whether the motive for the murderers was greed or revenge for the collaboration of the Jews with the Soviet occupiers. Or whether Professor Jan T. Gross did not include some important sources, omitted a sentence cited in a document, or did not take into consideration the testimony of a particular witness.

In the light of not one or two, but dozens of testimonies and accounts, not only by witnesses and victims, but also by the perpetrators, it is an undeniable fact that old people and children, men and women, were murdered in Jedwabne in an unbelievably brutal manner at the hands of Poles. Attempts to undermine this fundamental assertion are in the light of the presented evidence are nothing but a denial of the truth. From the documentation presented by the author it is clear that the Germans were the instigators of the pogrom. Already in the introduction, Gross informs that on that fatal day German cameras and film crews waited and that there was a meeting of the Gestapo with the village authorities. The pogrom was not spontaneous. It is also clear from Gross that without German encouragement, permission, and support the slaughter would not have been possible. This does not in the least change the fact that Poles of their own volition tortured and killed their victims. None of the Polish murderers were in uniform and one cannot hide behind the argument that he had to obey orders or perish himself. Likewise, one cannot explain the massive murder as revenge for the collaboration of Jews with the Soviet occupiers and for their participation in the persecution of Poles. Gross cites the written accounts of the ringleaders of the slaughter who, in testimony before the judicial authorities of the PRL, cited their cooperation with the NKWD during the Soviet occupation as a mitigating circumstance. Even if it was to posit that not a single Pole during the Soviet occupation embraced the protective red banner and that all Jews without exception collaborated with the Soviets, nothing can justify the killing of people by stoning, by butchering with knives, the decapitations, the stabbing with sharpened stakes, the wholesale murder of women and men, of the old and the young, driven to the Jewish cemetery, the burying alive of still breathing victims, the drowning of women with their children in the pond, and at the end the driving of the remaining victims to the barn and burning them alive.

As long as we are still share national pride in our victories, in our laudatory actions and in the Polish contribution by our creators to the common treasure of human values, then we must also bring ourselves to feel national shame for shameful actions. As a nation nearly entirely Christian, we must beat our breasts, acknowledging the sins and transgressions of Polish Cains who transgressed the commandment ­ Do Not Kill! If we expect from others redress for crimes committed in Poland and against Poles, we must also show the will to redress the evil committed by those close to us.

In the Footsteps of the Germans

No one ever performed a greater service for the Germans than Chancellor Willi Brandt when, in the eyes of the entire world he fell on his knees before the monument to the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto. This was a symbolic act of atonement for the German crime of genocide, and an act performed by a person who had nothing to do with the genocide. The strong sense of collective guilt that the majority of Germans continue to exhibit to thid day has led the world, not excluding Poland, to more easily pardon them their terrible crimes and not to now burden the German nation with them but rather "the Nazis".

For many years we protested against the deceit that was the Russian inscription in the Katyń forest, an inscription that said that in this place in 1941 the German fascists murdered Polish prisoners of war. In Jedwabne similar falsehoods are inscribed on two monuments. On the one erected during the PRL era there is an inscription speaking about the execution of the Jewish people, who were burnt bz the German Gestapo and police. Not a word about the Poles. The other monument was erected more recently, for in the years of the Third Republic ­ "to honor the memory of 180 persons, including two priests, murdered in the Jedwabne commune by the NKWD, the Hitlerites, and the UB". On this marker the signature reads: ­ "the community". Not a word about the Jews. As I write these words, both monuments are still standing.

The Appeal by Rabbi Baker

The obliteration of this shameful blot demands at least a symbolic act of acknowledging guilt and atonement. It could be the fulfillment of the imploring plea of the Rabbi from Jewabne, Jacob Baker. Invoking John Paul II's request to Jews for forgiveness for the suffering that Jews endured at the hands of Christians, Rabbi Baker asks for the dignified burial of the bones of the murdered, their interment in a Jewish cemetery and the memorialization of the place where the synagogue stood.

The ceremonial commemoration of the victims of the bloody pogrom at Jedwabne under the call Do Not Kill, with the participation of the Primate, of bishops, of representatives of the highest state and civil authorities, and of Jewish organizations could become a symbolic act of atonement that is so necessary.

Only in this way can we heal the nation of the ethnic or class hatred that led in the past to the most terrible crimes in human history. Kosovo is its contemporary example.

A Mutual Moral Accounting

The six centuries of the presence of the Jews in Poland is today a closed book. To close the book with dignity, a mutual and straightforward accounting is necessary. Not everything in the mutual relations of Poles and Jews was bad. In the centuries before the rebirth of Israel, it was that Poland that served as a refuge for Jews persecuted and driven out from both the East and West. A dignified, final accord would fulfill an idea raised in the press, the publication of a great ledger by Polish and Jewish historians. It would consist of two parts. The first would present that which good was in their mutual intercourse. The second would be a straightforward accounting of the wrongs committed.

This mutual and common examination of conscience would certainly be rejected with fury by the extremist elements on both sides, but it would have great significance for those who feel their attachment to the common values based on the Decalogue and in the Gospel.

The matter of the massive murder in Jedwabne presents us with more than just a moral dimension with which we have to come to terms. It can also strike a fatal blow to the good name of that Poland which belongs to the civilized world. Jan Gross's book will be published in English in New York on April 1. At the same time the influential American newspaper The New York Times will publish excerpts in its book review section that is widely read by the eastern intellectual elite.

As long as we demand from the Russians acknowledgment of the Katyń atrocities, identification of the instigators, and disclosure of the circumstances of the murder of unarmed Polish prisoners of war in the forests of Katyń and elsewhere, we cannot feel resentful to the author of S±siedzi because sixty years later he uncovered and documented the massive murder committed by Poles in Jedwabne, a murder about which we would prefer not to know and not remember.

Preventive Measures

Historians have the right to carefully verify the documents and accounts provided by Gross. Some of his conclusions are polemical in character and also stirred my reservations. However, we do not have time to wait for the moment when each item has been placed under the researcher's microscope, tested, corrected or filled in. Fundamental Polish interest demands initiating immediate preventive action, limiting the damage that the world reaction to the news of the slaughter in Jedwabne will deal to Poland's good name.

Within the Jewish Diaspora, especially in America, as in Polish community, there are extreme, chauvinistic elements, together with those that believe that the cultivation of hate and the demands for revenge can be a dangerous boomerang. On the basis of my own personal experiences I am convinced that we have among American Jews both friends and relentless enemies. The oldest and the most influential Jewish organization in the United States, the American Jewish Committee headed by David Harris in the most effective manner supported the efforts to bring Poland into NATO.

At the other extreme there are Jews who are the counterparts of belligerent Polish anti-Semites. They see in Poles, in all Poles, the most anti-Semitic nation in the world. It seems they do not perceive symptoms of this social disease in Russia, Germany and in other countries of our region. The danger exists that Gross's book will be exploited, in ways not intended by the author, to promote the thesis that "every Poles sucked anti-Semitism with his mother's milk". I took these words of Shamir as an abuse of the memory of my mother who was deeply religious and who taught her sons from their youth that displaying contempt to another person because of his origin, religion, or race is a mortal sin that violates the commandment to love your neighbor. Those Poles who have fought racial prejudices their entire live must also take Shamir's words the same way.

Accusing the Polish nation of collaboration with the Hitlerites and participation in the Holocaust is the same type of slander as the Auschwitz lie that denies the existence of extermination camps and gas chambers.

Countering Slander

I spent the war in Poland, I wandered all over Poland. In the first year of the occupation, I met not only my Jewish friends and schoolmates among the Jewish intelligentsia. Earning, at the time, a living through commerce, I often visited the small town of Konstantynów in Podlasie that was populated in the majority by Chassidic Jews. Jews lived in deathly fear of the Germans. They did not fear the Poles. In the first year of the occupation, trading relations with the Polish population enabled Jews to avoid hunger and to survive. Extortionists [szmalcownicy] only later became a terror for Jews who were trying to conceal their origin. From documents in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, it appears that the pogrom in Jedwabne was not an isolated incident. There were more. It is worth noting, however, that they occurred in Lithuania, in the Bialystock region, and in Eastern Galicia immediately after the flight of the Soviet occupier. Jedwabne was not a common phenomenon throughout Poland.

To conclude from the 1941 pogroms that the Holocaust was the extermination of Jews was the common work of Poles and Germans is libel. Everyone who feels him or herself Polish has the responsibility to defend themselves against such slander. The majority of Polish society might be charged with indifference to the extermination of Jews, were not the fact that the entire civilized world demonstrated indifference and passivity to the genocide. The difference is that Poles were eyewitnesses, defenseless witnesses living in constant fear for their own lives and those of their beloved.

Adam Michnik correctly, in my presence, warned Jews gathered at New York synagogue, that the defamation of Poland could provoke second wave of anti-Semitism among people who fought against racial prejudice all their life .

It is worth adding that any eruption of neo-anti-Semitism in Poland would cause terrible harm not to Jews, since there are barely a few thousand remaining in Poland, but to the status and good name of Poland the world over. Certainly this was not Gross's intention when he revealed the crimes committed by Poles at Jedwabne. In order to avert secondary anti-Semitism it would be appropriate to include the tragedy of the Jedwabne Jews in the ongoing Polish ­ Jewish dialogue in the United States. Jan Tomasz Gross ought to a Polish participant in that dialog, for much depends on how he himself presents S±siedzi to western readers.

Translator's notes:
PRL: Polska Republica Ludowa, or Polish People's Republic, i.e. during the period of communist rule
Third Republic: the country's name since December 1989 when Poland's parliament voted the end of the Polish People's Republic.
UB: Urzad Bespieczenstwa, or the Office of Security, i.e. communist Poland's secret police

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