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Jedwabne: History - 60 Years Later

[ The following is an unofficial translation by Peter K. Gessner of article published on March 17, 2001, by the Warsaw based daily, Rzeczpospolita, Poland's newspaper of record. It accompanied an abbreviated version of the book "Neighbors," specially prepared to this end by its author, Jan Tomasz Gross. -- A large collections of Polish language articles published about Jedwabne by the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita can be reached by clicking on the banner.]

At the beginning of the year 2000, Jan Tomasz Gross, a Professor of Political Science in New York, published - in an essay entitled "The summer of 1941 in Jedwabne. The reason for investigating the participation of the local populations in the extermination of the Jewish nation in the year of WWII" - the testimony given [on April 5, 1945 - trans.] before the Jewish Historical Commission in Białystok by Szmul Wasersztajn of Jedwabne near Łomża. Wasersztajn testified that on July 10, 1941, on the orders of the Germans, a group of civilian Poles, inhabitants of the town and its vicinity, corralled on the town square almost all the Jews living there, their neighbors, that for many hours they humiliated and tormented them, and then herded them into a barn and burned them alive.

Szmul Wasersztajn also testified that on June 25, 1941, three days after the town was occupied by the Germans (it had been occupied since October 1939 by the Soviet Union), he witnessed a pogrom of the Jewish population by the local Poles.

In that essay (published in a multi-authored book "Non-provincial Europe") Gross had not yet formulated his thesis that the responsibility for the mass slaughter of the Jews in Jedwabne on June 10, 1941 was not the Germans' (on whom fell rather the responsibility for "controlling the perpetration") but that it was the Poles who had carried out the crime. He later admitted that when he wrote the essay towards the end of 1998, he had not fully understood that this is what the Waserstajn's testimony was all about. He came to realize this only half a year later, after viewing a documentary film "Neighbors" produced by Agnieszka Arnold.

The first reaction to Gross's essay was Rzeczpospolita's [the Warsaw daily of record]. It published on May 5, 2000 a report "Burning Alive" from Jedwabne by Andrzej Kaczyński, in which Wasersztajn's testimony was confronted with the recollections of the crime's eyewitnesses, with the local oral tradition, and with the literature published on the subject. This and the subsequent articles in Rzeczpospolita (among other "Cleansing the Memory" on May 19 and "Don't Kill" on July 11, 2000), based on the testimony of witnesses, confirmed that on 10 July, 1941 in Jedwabne and on July 7 of the same year in Radziłów, groups of local Poles participated in the extermination of the majority of the local Jewish neighbors.

Wasersztajn's account was the basis, intra alia, for 22 local resident of Jedwabne being charged [in January 1949 - trans.] with collaboration in the crime, 11 of whom were convicted [in May 1949 - trans.] in the ensuing trial. It was made use of by Szymon Datner in a contribution about the extermination of Jews in the Białystok region (though he did not unambiguously assert that the perpetrators were Poles) which was published in 1969 in the Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute. In 1967, the account was referred to by Waldemar Monkiewicz the prosecutor of the Commission for the Investigation of Hitlerite Crimes (though he denied that Poles perpetrated the crime). And in 1988 it was cited by Danuta and Aleksander Wroniczewscy in report "... to stay alive" published in the Łomża's "Contacts".

In 1979, Antonina and Aleksander Wyrzkowscy received a diploma from the Vad Yashem Institute for saving the lives of seven Jews in Jedwabne. In 1980, a memorial book was published in Jerusolem in Hebrew and in New York in English, containing the history and recollections of Jedwabne as well as accounts of the extermination of Jedwabne Jews. And yet the news that Poles participated in the crime of extermination of the Jew in Jedwabne, did not become public knowledge (except for the inhabitants of the town who had maintained an oral tradition of the event), nor did the scholarly literature reflect it. Eventually, it was revealed by Jan Tomasz Gross upon the publication of his book "Neighbors: The story of the exterminaton of a Jewish town."

For half a year, few publications picked up the subject apart of "Rzeczpospolita" and later "Gazeta Wyborcza", the Jewish monthly "Midrasz", the Białystok dailies "Kurier Poranny" and "Gazeta Współczesna" as well as "Gazeta Pomorska" which confirmed the Polish participation in the crime. On the contrary, "Nasz Dziennik" as well as the weeklies: "Głos", "Myśl Polska" and "Nasza Polska" which denied the crime or sought to trivialize it or justify it. Of considerable importance was also an editorial conversation published in March of this year in which Jan Tomasz Gross, the well known historian Tomasz Strzemborz, the representative of the Institute of National Memory, Paweł Machcewicz, Andzej Zbikowski of the Jewish Historical Institute and the prosecutor in charge of the Jedwabne investigation, Radosław Ignatiew all took part. It allowed clear formulation of the difference in positions and to define the areas in contention.

To-date several hundred articles on the subject of the "Jedwabne matter' have been published which discuss the historical theses and sociological and moral postulates to be found in Gross's book, as well as their possible political consequences. There has also been a lot of discussion regarding the manner in which the victims and the site of the crime should be memorialized, the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the slaughter and the reponsibilites that, in this regard, fall on the national, church and local authorities.

In April, the book "Neighbors" by Jan Tomasz Gross will be published in the USA and other Western nations. It can be expected - as evidenced by the numerous articles in the world press - that this will become the principal source of knowledge about Poland and Poles in WWII.

Gross's work has become the object of criticism of many reputable historians. Some of these articles have already been published by Rzeczpospolita, others will appear shortly. Independently of the confirmation of the facts contained in the book - a matter is also being investigated by the Institute of National Memory - it has generated a debate, more far reaching than any for many years past, on the topic of Poland's 20th Century history and Polish-Jewish relations. The book was published, however with a small printing and many persons who would wish to take part in the discussion are not familiar with the theses advanced in "Neighbors". According the editorial board of Rzeczpospolita has decided to reprint the book in an abbreviated version specially prepared for this purpose by the author. Our readers will be able to arrive at their own opinion of this most talked about book of the year.

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