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A Monument Made of Words
Article by Dr Dariusz Stola

[The following is an unofficial translation by Peter Gessner of the article which originally appeared in two parts on June 1, and June 2, 2001 issues of the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita, respectively -- A large collections of Polish language articles published about Jedwabne by the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita can be reached by clicking on the banner.]

On the website of Pogranicze publishing house which published John T. Gross's "Neighbors" there is an updated list of publications dedicated to matters pertaining to the crime in Jedwabne. It already numbers over 250 texts, and this article will probably be given the number 274 or 297.[1]

But of course not all the relevant publications are listed there not to mention hundreds of comments broadcast on the radio and TV or accessible on the Internet, speeches delivered at meetings and seminars, etc. The discussion about Jedwabne has become the biggest, the most animated public debate on the Polish - Jewish past, regarding World War II, and it's possible that it's the largest historical debate of Poland's Third Republic.[2]

Articles, clippings, letters to editor, and other records of public statements accumulate and are kept in thick files like the one which I have myself started, entitled "Jedwabne." Thus, even before the monument of stone is erected on the outskirts of the Podlasie town[3], the monument of words, a grave made of paper, a memorial mound is being built out of newsprint. Somebody can ask : How important and meaningful is a paper monument? Firstly, it's superior to one of stone monument because it addresses a multitude. After nearly half of a century of oblivion and just a few months of debate in the mass media, almost 80% of Poles, that is over 20 million, have heard of the extermination of the Jedwabne Jews (as shown by a recent CBOS[4] survey). Secondly, it is during this public debate that we are formulating or retrieving the meanings that will later be ascribed to the stone monument. Devoid of such meanings, monuments become just so much stone and metal. Thirdly, a monument of words is a collective undertaking - it comes into being like a memorial mound[5] made erected a handful at a time, and as with the erection of such mounds, this social, and in a sense collective, process of its creation brings, besides from its physical form, something more - among people.

Too Early or Too Late?

Some say that one should delay any public expression of opinion in the matter of this crime until the prosecutors and historians elucidate all its circumstances. Such a moment will never come. The past is never fully elucidated, and particularly events as murky as a mass murder. Similarly with the opinion that Gross's book was published too soon, without checking this or that source, etc. That view has some validity, but so has the belief that the publication is overdue, and by about 50 years. The writing about history is a collective effort which progresses thanks to presentation of new descriptions and interpretations of the past, critique of these with suggestions for alternative interpretations, critique of these in turn, etc. It is to Gross's merit that he began this process for a matter that is only shocking and difficult but very weighty. It is well that this was done by a Polish. It is also worth noting that Gross demarcated the two main axes of the ongoing current discussion that are being followed - probably unconsciously - by even his fiercest critics.

Many objections have been leveled against "Neighbors" and some of them appear to be legitimate, but of course they do not invalidate the book. At the same time, raising them is also valid. As long as critiques do not evidence ill will and retain auto-criticism, they should be accepted thankfully. History is a field fashioned by traditions and rules such that, even when we argue, we act in concert and advance the truth. And serving the truth, we serve Poland as well. Those who believe that the fatherland would be better served by silence or misrepresentation "in the defense of the good name" or "in the present situation" are wrong. Unfortunately, voices are bing heard in this debate that do not respect the decent traditions and principles of the profession. This is a noisy variety of criticism which gives the impression of reliability, but embraces gossip, poses as honest but is full of abuse, pretends to be constructive but in fact principally generates information noise. That noise reminds one of the din which, according to one of the reports, was being created in Jedwabne by a couple of individuals who "going around with other bandits from abode to abode, played on a harmonica and a clarinet so as to drown the screams of Jewish women and children."

In spite of all the ambiguities and doubts, we possess a certain body of knowledge which, carefully stated, should not give rise to controversy. We know that on 10th of July, 1941, almost all of Jedwabne's Jews perished in unspeakable tortures, that Poles participated in the killings, that an important though unclear role was played by the Germans. Many detailed facts provided in the reports can be accepted as at least probable. We have thus some basis upon which to reflect, one that can contribute to the joint effort of historians and to a better understanding of the events by other readers. The caution of the statements, the frequent use of "probably" and "maybe" may annoy the reader, but these are better than giving the impression of certainty, given that the sources allow divergent interpretations.

Too Obvious a Fact

I will start with the fact that for many does not seem too obvious: on that day perished almost all of Jedwabne Jews and only Jews. The obviousness of this fact derives from knowledge regarding the subsequent events and also from a certain particular lack of astonishment. In the context of knowledge of the murder of nearly six million European Jews, among them almost all the Jewish population of Poland, the crime in Jedwabne differs only because of the participation of Poles and the archaic methods used in the killings, but not because of its encompassing character. On the other hand, the intent to slaughter each and every Jew within reach of German power is primary evidence of the unique character of the genocide, differentiating it from earlier persecutions of Jews as well as from mass crimes and genocidal actions carried out in the 20th century affecting other groups. This is all the more important with respect to Jedwabne since other characteristics of the Nazi's "final solution of the Jewish question" and its industrial-bureaucratic character are absent. And the absence of astonishment? Here I am getting at something which is well rendered by an old anecdote about a rumor that purportedly the Jews and the railwaymen were going to be arrested. "Why," someone asks, "the railwaymen?" And why the Jews?

First of all, very few of the Jews who were in Jedwabne on the morning of July 10, 1941, - and there were at least several hundred (800?) and up to 1500 - lived to see the evening. We do not know how many managed to evade death. We know of the seven who hid at Wyrzykowski's place, but there were others, maybe even a hundred individuals, who found good hiding places in town or outside of it, at least for a time. In any event, the number of survivors amounted to only an insignificant fraction of the overall number meant for slaughter - from a few to a dozen or so percent. That outcome of the events of that day does not seem to me to be the cumulative "cacophany of violence," the fruit of the internal dynamic of a social process of increasing aggression, even if driven by such powerful forces as ancient ethnic and religious prejudices, intergroup hate, and unchecked lust for loot or vengeance. It is evidence, rather, that the slaughter of almost all the Jews was the goal of the murderer's actions (at least at some point in time) and that the action was unusually successful since it was 85 to 95 percent effective.

I do not recall ethnically motivated rioting or incursions of peasant rabble in which violence was that effective, given this number of victims. Useful comparative material derives from the 1918-19wave of pogroms in the Ukraine where the crime motives one can surmize in the case of Jedwabne - ethnic resentments, stereotypes of "Jewish Bolsheviks," and the lust for loot - were no less intense and pervasive than in the Podlasie region[3] in 1941. Thanks to the detailed analysis of 1,300 recorded pogroms in the Ukraine, we know that 80% of Jewish families were able to survive them without loss of family members, that in 36% of the pogroms perished no more than 10 individuals, that in 88% the number of victims was fewer than 100, and that in none of them did the proportion of those killed to survivors even approach that of Jedwabne.

Similarly, the chronologically more proximal first pogroms in Kowno and Lwów in the summer of 1941, following the flight of the Soviets, each resulted in a couple of thousand victims, but these were small fractions of the local Jews. The crime in Jedwabne was, on account of its encompassing character, of a novel kind; it was not simply an exceptionally brutal pogrom.

I do not argue that in Jedwabne there was no "cacophony of violence." It did occur, but the events of July 10 cannot be simply reduced to that. I see it, rather, as one of tools used in the pursuit of the overall goal. Maybe some of the perpetrators - motivated by such human feelings as vengeance or robbery - desired that death or harm visit a particular person or group of persons, but beside them there had to be others who were motivated by the goal of total annihilation. And it was the latter that predetermined the final outcome of the event, rendering the remaining participants party to something they did not understand (at least, until some point in time.)

Secondly, the slaughter in Jedwabne was as selective as it was total. The reports do not mention any non-Jews that were killed in the streets of the little town or in Bronisław Sleczyński's barn. If, as some maintain, among the motives of the murders were the desire for revenge for the recent collaboration with the Soviet occupiers, then why among those carrying [the statue of ] Lenin or those driven to the barn there were no non-Jewish collaborators, who, after all, weren't lacking and who would have been a more rational target of vengeance that Jewish children.

Acts of vengeance, bloody but selective, took place earlier, immediately after the flight of the Russians. As we read in the testimony of Bardon, the objects of this vengeance were, among others: Kupiecki, a former policeman; Wisniewski, earlier the representative of the Soviet (...), Wisniewski, the secretary of the Soviet (...), three individuals of the Jewish faith (...) and two (more whom) I did not know." It was precisely then that the settling of accounts for the period of Soviet occupation - the background of which was so fully presented by Prof. Stromborz - took place (about which more later). Personal accounts were probably also being settled, old hatreds indulged in and, above all, a period of simple robberies - advantage being taken of the breakdown of law and order in the wake of the absence of governmental authority. With respect to the events of July 10, however, the lust for vengeance was clearly motivating the murderers indirectly, filtered through layers of prejudice and hatred of Jews in general. Even accepting the premise that they were adopting the principals of collective responsibility doesn't explain everything here. They could have, of course, also followed that principal with respect to the families of Polish collaborators and their brothers and fathers, yet they were slaughtering only Jews, and among them wives and children who, for sure, weren't collaborators.

The sequence or order of the slaughter

The unusual effectiveness of the murderers indicates the planned nature of the crime. If, at the time, it had come to a chaotic attack on Jewish homes and shops by a wrought up crowd, then the outcome would have resembled the brutal but limited incidents such as the abovementioned pogroms in the Ukraine, the effects of which were usually a few killed and some dozens wounded but above all robbery and vandalism on a grand scale.

Various specific facts, known from the reports, are evidence that the anti-Jewish action of July 10 had the characteristics of a planned and organized event. We know about a meeting of a group of Germans who came to the little town with its administration, during which a plan was agreed to or firmed up. The warnings given to some of the survivors by their Polish friends is likely evidence of some earlier planning as is the appearance on the market square of boys from surrounding localities. We know that prior to the action, members of the administration were going from house to house, usually with a German policeman, ordering men to present themselves at a prearranged location, that clubs and staffs (which someone must have prepared) were distributed to them and that tasks were assigned such as herding the Jews to the market square, controlling the roads leading out of town, and guarding the assembled Jews. We know that on the periphery of the town men on horseback were patrolling and catching runaways which also seems like fulfillment of a specific task. Later, they instructed the Poles mobilized for the action, to escort the Jews from the market square to the barn outside the town. Of such assignments spoke both witnesses and those themselves accused of the slaughter. It maybe that other tasks were assigned to them also, tasks that after the war they did not wish to admit to.

A systematic and planned quality charaterizes the action of conveying males to the cemetery and killing them, first ordering them to dig holes into which then were flung the murdered. They were led to the cemetery in groups, thanks to which, the perpetrators were in majority at the place of execution and could easily deal with any attempted resistance. This sequence of killing - in the first instance, able bodied men - served to forestall any desperate resistance when the crowd of remaining Jews (which by now consisted mainly of women, the elderly and children), beaten and terrorized, were driven to the barn. Evidence of organization and some kind of discipline is also evident in the, as it would appear, modest scale on which robbery took place on that day. There is information regarding the subsequent occupation of the property of the slaughtered. On the other hand, this subject does not crop up in the fragments known to me of accounts of events of July 10.

There was thus a certain sequence to the actions which included a goal, a division of tasks, [and] a plan of action (modified in some respects during its course, for instance the Jews were originally to be herded into another barn.) Individual witnesses, whose reports are the basis of our knowledge, could only perceive a sequence of dreadful scenes, particularly if they were observing the events from the vantage point of victims. The victims were surprised and shocked by what was taking place and their reports center on two aspects that to them were most shocking, that is the brutality and the participation of their neighbors in the crime, while they mention the organizational activities only marginally. Those participants in the action who could have either known the plan or perceive its outline as a whole (for instance, Bardon) had reasons not to make this knowledge known, particularly since after the war no one asked them about it. Obviously the structure or order of the actions in Jedwabne was different from instances of mass executions carried out by the German police on their own. It had a general structure - it could be said, a branching one - within which there was room for individual initiatives and lightly coordinated actions of individuals or small groups of wrought up perpetrators in which the venting of personal hatreds and and settling of individual accounts could take place. None the less, there were limits to individual initiatives. Most clearly it was not possible, for instance, to make exceptions among the victims or to leave one's assigned post. It was also necessary to refrain (temporarily) from robbery, etc. We know of instances of these rules being infringed, but these surface precisely as deviations from the rules.

Division of labor

What appear as particularly important to me is that this sequence or order of the action introduced a specific division of labor in which there were roles with differing degree of involvement in the slaughter. At the top of the list of roles landed, by the virtue of the glaring nature of their actions, the actual murderers, employing iron instruments and wooden clubs. Towards the end of the day, one of them supposedly threw a lighted match onto the gasoline drenched barn. It was precisely the picture of such "eager perpetrators" (to use Daniel Goldhagen's term), feverishly active ("he was running down the street, Jerzy Ludański - very on edge") and bustling, that stamped itself on the memory of surviving victims and witnesses willing to talk. It appear that these individuals were wrought up or feverish while so engaged, in a "festive" mood rather than in a work-a-day mode. This distinguishes them, it should be noted, from the picture, known to us from other massacres, of German functionaries stolidly carrying out their work. The personalities of the "eager perpetrators" from Jedwabne are presented sufficiently clearly and frequently in the reports so as not to raise questions regarding the existence of this group (though its size and composition are not clear.) There are among them also volunteers who were not recruited in the anti-Jewish action. In particular, supposedly among them there were many arrivals from surrounding localities. At the other end of hierarchy of roles was "standing in the market square," the only function to which the accused in the 1949 trial would admit. That role did not require, in contrast to the bloody deeds of the perpetrators, moral savagery and hatred of the victims. General obedience to those in power and fear of punishment for deviations from carrying out of assigned duties probably sufficed for the performance of such roles. In the middle of the list of roles one can place functions of increasing violence such as dragging out the Jews from their homes, catching those who were fleeing, etc. We note that functions that were not violent were essential to the plan for the extermination of the Jews, though of secondary importance. Similarly with regard to other actions which made achieving the assigned goal easier or possible (among these, ones which - in an different context - would be blameless, for instance, fetching gasoline from storage, opening and clearing the barn of machinery, etc.)

It would appear that the number of individuals in specific roles was inversely proportional to the engagement of these roles in the slaughter. There need not have been many "eager perpetrators" in order for the assignment to be carried out. Their number could have been small, precisely because of the division of labor, that is, specialization of functions which allowed relieving the professionals of activities which could be carried out by others. Similarly, their number need not be large since the presence of armed Germans convinced the victims of the uselessness of trying to resist (how else could one explain the absence of resistance?) Even their brutality turns out to functional, since by sowing terror they paralyzed the will of the victims, lowered the probability of undesirable behavior and thereby decreased the energy and means necessary to carry out the action. This is not to say that all the elements were preplanned, only that without them the outcome might have been different. For, starting the action on the morning of July 10, the Germans and Karolek were acting in conditions of significant uncertainty.

Regarding the number of Poles participating in the action - one of the principal themes of the Gross-Strzombosz polemic - the number of 23 advanced by the latter appear to pertain only to the particularly active participants and even so omits the perpetrators from outside of Jedwabne. So small a number conflicts with the repeated statements in the reports that surrounding the Jews there was "a mass of people," "a large crowd." On the other hand, the number of 92 perpetrators from Jedwabne alone, the number advanced by the first historian, was arrived at by a method that raises legitimate doubts. The fact that this is the number of as many names that appear in the records of the interrogations by the UB[6], attests rather to their investigative efficiency (and the methods employed by them ..) who proceeded in this matter in a rather routine way, that is, wanted to obtain from the interrogated a confession of guilt and testimony implicating the largest possible number of other individuals (the fact that the interrogated frequently implicated deceased or missing individuals indicates that they understood the principals of the game.) It appears that the major part of the disagreement regarding the number of participants from Jedwabne arises from the disparate treatment by the two historians of the individuals who were in the assisting roles and had a lower degree of involvement in the killing. Prof. Strzembosz clearly bypasses these. Prof. Gross, on the other hand, thrusts them in the same bag as the "eager perpetrators."

The number of participants is important as regards to the question of how representative they were of Jedwabne's Polish community. Acceptance of the higher number, approaching half the number of adult males (as we read in Neighbors on page 63) permits the drawing from their behavior of some postulates regarding the overall population. But then what (or whose) behavior is being discussed? The point is that the larger the number of participants that we accept, the more we incorporate among them individuals who fulfilled secondary roles, were doing it unwillingly and under duress or, even, abandoned them at the first opportunity (as some testified during the trial.) On the other hand, when we direct our attention to the action of the "willing perpetrators," we speak either of a group containing individual from outside Jedwabne or of a smaller group. Hence, we do not have a basis to draw general conclusions regarding the Polish population of the little town from their behavior.

Moreover, the group of "willing perpetrators" cannot be treated as a "random sample." It most clearly didn't arise by a random process but by selection and hence was not representative. It is likely that Karolek, in carrying out his mobilization (which did not encompass all the males) and assigning various roles prior to the event, took into consideration the individual characteristics, known to him, of the inhabitants of the town. What is more important, subsequently a process of self-selection took place: particular individuals included or excluded themselves from the group of perpetrators by avoiding - or failing to avoid - assigned taks, carrying them out with particular eagerness or, even, voluntarily joining in the beatings and killings. This was not a group of "ordinary people," like the Germans described by Christopher Browning who, through [random] recruitment, ended up in the 101st Police Reserve Battalion and exterminated the Jews of Jezefów.

Hidden resistance

We know of Poles who didn't want to accept any of the roles and run away from town or hid in the houses. Their example shows that this type of passive resistance, the refusal to take part in the action, was perceived by them as dangerous but possible. We also know of individuals who helped Jews to flee or hide, that is, were actively resisting the action. We know of no instances of open, manifest opposition. A reason for this, in at least one instance, appears obvious - fear, and it seems equally obvious that the fear was not only of the Germans, but also - and maybe above all - of their Polish neighbors. The brutality of the "eager perpetrators" and the power wielded by Karolek gave rise to fear not only among the Jewish victims.

Continuing the topology of behaviors we come to the onlookers who quite clearly of their own initiative, not by anyone's command, turned up around the Jews assembled in the market square and, later, in the vicinity of the barn. Presumably, they constituted the largest group of Poles present at the crime. At the same time, by their silent passivity they are the most inscrutable. Both the malefactors and the individuals who avoided participation in the action or helped Jews as well as those who showed either sympathy or satisfaction regarding their suffering, expressed or revealed themselves. [However,] the group whose motives can be deduce only from their silence, resists our analysis. One can surmise that in the eye of the victims, the crowd of onlookers appeared as an unfriendly group which surely was not without effect, for instance, on judgments regarding the feasibility of flight or resistance. The victims had a basis for this view: the behavior and statements inimicable to Jews were of course evident, manifest - because there was official sanction and encouragement for such and a sufficient number of Poles were willing to do than - while contrary behaviors and statements remained invisible - because forbidden, dangerous, and carried out in concealment. It should be noted, I believe, that the perceptions by the Poles of Jewish attitudes during the Soviet occupation were similar, and thereafter the generalized postulates that the Poles drew from them.

Last but not least, let us consider the managerial roles, the people who - as we would say today - administered the anti-Jewish action in Jedwabne. In first place we should list the mayor, Marian Karolek; next Bardon and the members of the town's administration: Sobota and Wasilewski. Although they did not necessarily have blood on their hands, in the perspective accepted herein, their roles are perceived as crucial. Unfortunately, although witnesses underscore their importance, we do not know more precisely in what manner they were carrying out their administrative functions. And this is a germane question, the question of leadership without which complex collective actions easily undergo scattering and fizzle. Why did the participants in the action carry out Karolek's assignments? What caused them, for instance, not to all scatter in search of booty - particularly since we postulate that the motivation of robbery played a not small part in their actions and "who's first, is who's most fortunate." On what rested his power, what were its sources? Who was Karolek himself? There are no satisfactory answers to these questions. I pose them because, as I was taught during my studies, a good question is half the answer.

The Germans

Pondering on the question of leadership and the sequence or order of the slaughter in Jedwabne, we come inevitably to the question regarding the role of the Germans. For the Germans appear not only as the members of a given ethnic group but also in specific roles, and these roles are important not only in a "higher historical-metaphysical sense," but also in the most practical of senses.

Unfortunately, regarding their activities on July 10, Polish and Jewish witnesses have little to say. We do not know even with any certainty how many of them there were. In the reports, they usually appear as nameless and faceless figures in gray uniforms. Reports speak of their meeting with the town's administration, of their participation in the mobilization of the male Poles to guard the Jews - and that employing violence and threats with arms in hand, - of participation in the herding of the Jews in the market square, beatings, and rushing them to the barn, and of photographing - or filming - the events.

In addition, certain characteristics of the events permit one to surmise their actions at some moments crucial from the organizational standpoint. In contrast to their participation in the herding and beating of the Jews, the latter activities were hidden from the eyes of witnesses or were such as not to be evident at a glance, particularly in the context of the shocking scenes of violence and brutality. Thus, firstly, I presume that the notion to murder all the Jews was not a local product, but an imported one, brought in a "taxi." Of course, one cannot exclude the possibility that this notion arose spontaneously in the mind of Karolek or Sobuta, but the fact that its apparence occurred in the period when the German authorities began similar actions in other localities and a mysterious Gestapo group arrived in Jedwabne, makes it look as more than a coincidence. The matter is not as simple as it might appear because the slaughter in Jedwabne had a pioneering character - about which more below.

A briefing, not a consultation

Secondly, the fact that the crime was committed only 18 days after both the flight of the Soviets and the above mentioned bloody settling of accounts with collaborators, and precisely on the day when the mysterious group of Germans appeared in the town, permits one to doubt that this was a spontaneous initiative of the local inhabitants motivated by a desire for revenge for the Jew's collaboration - real or imagined - with the Soviets. It's not impossible but less likely than the supposition that the inspiration came from outside. Somehow it's difficult for me to believe that the administration in Jedwabne petitioned the German authorities to agree to the slaughter the Jews and to provide a special Gestapo group with photographic equipment. Incidentally, let us note that no one inflamed the Polish participants into action, didn't fan their hatred by - for instance - a speech about Jewish treason, the need for revenge for experienced wrongs, etc. Thirdly, the meeting, so critical for the course of events, of the Germans with the town's administration was more of a briefing than a consultation. After all, the administration was installed by the occupying power - the circumstances of its creation are unclear - and was totally subordinate to them; there could be no question of any partnership. To maintain that the town's administration made an "agreement" with the Germans is a misunderstanding. This does not alter the confirmed fact that members of the administration carried out the anti-Jewish action with a dedication that exceeded simple obedience. Fourthly, the high effectiveness of the action is evidence of the significant organizational abilities of its leaders. And again, it's not impossible that this was due to the inborn talents of Karolek and Bardon - regarding whom there is no information that they were in any kind of leadership roles prior to the war - but it's as likely that at the base was the police training and experience, the thought out plan, and the competent supervision of German officers.

Maybe it's worth asking what the Germans in Jedwabne didn't do. Arguments ex silentio (i.e. based on a lack of evidence to the contrary) have their faults, but it is an arresting fact that in the available sources we find many, more or less detailed accounts of murders committed on July 10 by Poles, but I have not come across any mention of a concrete murder committed on that day by a German. When the witnesses before the 1949 tribunal were reneging on the confessions forced from them during interrogations, they did not provide alternative explantions for the deaths of so many Jews in the streets of the town or the cemetery. In the reports of the events there is also absent the element, so frequently met in all accounts of liquidations of Jews communities in occupied Poland - the sound of shots. This silence in the reports by people working in the fields outside the town is striking They heard the screams, yet none speak of shots. Weren't there any or were there so few as not to register on the memory? And yet several dozens of individuals were killed besides those in the barn. That silence indicates that they were not killed with firearms - as, at the time, the German Einsatzgruppen (special execution squads) were want to do in dozens of small towns in the west (of Poland) - but rather by other means and therefor surely not by the hands of the German policemen.

Percursor and exception?

Coming back to the pioneering character of the crime in Jedwabne and surroundings, one should mention the chronology of the extermination. From the start of the German-Soviet war, the Einsatzgruppen carried out many mass executions of civilians, killing in July overall tens of thousands, primarily Jews. Their victims were usually adult males and not whole communities with women and children. A discussions has been ongoing for a long time among historians regarding as to when the decision was taken that the "final solution" via total extermination was to take place, not at some future time, but right away. The most compelling thesis appears to be that, although the Einsatzgruppen knew from the start of the invasion that the eventual goal was the total liquidation of the Jews, the practical decision permitting the realization of this goal occurred in the middle of July. Evidence of this is the repeated reinforcement of the Einsatzgruppen's strength, hitherto relatively modest (about 3,000 individuals), to make possible the execution of hundreds of thousands victims, by additional Gestapo and police units in the second half of July.

The slaughter in Jedwabne, and the similar action in neighboring Radzilow, about which we unfortunately know even less, was one of the early if not the earliest instance of the almost total slaughter of a whole community. I cannot exclude the possibility, but doubt that such an initiative came from Karolek or Sobuta - if so, one could consider theirs to have been a significant contribution to the history of not only the little town but the world's. Even limited to the size of Jedwabne, the intention to slaughter everyone was something really novel. To my knowledge, such an notion never appeared in the pre-war anti-Semitic magazines in Poland. Although the rhetoric of Polish anti-Semites had advocation of removal as one of its characteristics, the envisaged "final solution" was the emigration of the major portion of Jews and the journey from that dangerous metaphor to mass murder takes a little time. Evidence of this is the example of the most ardent anti-Semitic leaders of the NSDAP.[7] Even the Nazi leaders, whose rhetoric for a long time had been inuring to an uncompromising approach and one of removal, came to a decision regarding total liquidation only gradually, through stages of discrimination, forced emigration, then ghetto-isation and decimation via hunger and disease, radicalized by the war and diversified by plans - jettisoned after a while - for "reservations" and relocations.

Thus, if the notion of liquidation of the Jedwabne Jews anticipated the decision, centrally taken, to extend the mass executions to the whole population and didn't arise from Karolek, then is source has to be looked for in the initiative of the mysterious Germans who arrived in the "taxis." They might have come to Jedwabne - and Radzilow - already with such intention or arrive to it on site, perhaps during the action - when the Jews had been herded into the market square, the task was, in large measure, accomplished. The instructions of their leaders, who spoke of the total ideological and racial character of the war against the "Jewish Bolsheviks," of enticing the local populations into "self-cleansing" actions, the sanctioning by the Third Reich of crimes in the conquered territories, and the more closely not known guidelines regarding Jews were a sufficient basis for such and initiative. Walter Stahlecker, the commandant of Einsatzgruppe A, in a report of October 1941, mentioned how they clandestinely inspired the local populations to undertake pogroms, though aware that "through pogroms alone the Jewish question in the East will not be resolved." "In keeping with basic instructions," the goal of his units was "the most complete possible elimination of Jews." Such instructions sufficed for the slaughter in Bialystok on June 27 of 2,000 Jews - among them several hundred burnt in a synagogue - and another 3,000 two weeks later. In that light, the crime in Jedwabne appears as a successful test fulfillment of the guidelines, in which, thanks to the utilization of the local population, it was possible to overcome the barrier of the initial inadequacy of the German police force to the long term tasks it was charged with.

Unlike in the General Gouvernement[8]

What distinguished Jedwabne and surroundings from the rest of Poland? What was particular there or what was missing among the people - since surely it was not the influence of emanations from the nearby swamps. I see several factors clarifying - partly - this geographical concentration. These are summarized by the following sentence: this was an ethnically Polish - Polish-Jewish - fragment of the Soviet occupation. Let us note right away that pointing to anti-Jewish prejudices and resentments evident before the war is not a satisfactory explanation. Such sentiment were obviously evident in many other locations in Poland. Though in the Lomza district[9] the influence of anti-Jewish nationalists was strong, this region did not stand out in particular relative to other localities influenced by them. For the tragedy in Jedwabne, these factors were surely necessary but insufficient.

Let's begin with the area west of Jedwabne. In the General Gouvernement and the areas annexed to the Reich, the Germans could not be perceived as liberators for even a moment. They were simply the occupiers, the enemy. For their part, the Germans held the Poles in too high a contempt and were too apprehensive of them to encourage them to collaborate in an organized way. That quickly cooled down a couple of incorrigible Germanophiles, ready to collaborate with them, and the river of Polish blood, which they promptly spilled, irrevocably distanced them from the remainder and negated their later attempts to draw the Poles into action against the Soviets. In the history of the German occupation we do have the problem - continuing to await thorough analysis to this day - of individuals ingratiating themselves to the Germans, scattered collaborations of some entities - in particular with regard to the persecution of Jews - and "private" exploitation of the Jewish tragedy and defenselessness - in the form of szmalcownicy[10] - as well as the "gray region"[11] of accommodation with the conditions of the occupation. On the other hand, we didn't have of collaboration by Polish organizations and leaders, a problem that plagued the Ukrainians and the French. No Pole who chose to collaborate with the Germans, including collaborating in the persecution of Jews, could claim the right to do so in anyone's name but his own.

Under the German occupation, a Polish Underground arose and was active - it was different under the Soviet one, where it was suppressed more effectively, an example of which is given by the history of Jedwabne. It was Tomasz Gross, of course, who a while ago drew attention to how important was the normative effort of the Underground's leadership, showing ordinary people what one should and should not do under the new and exceptional conditions of the occupation. The authorities of the Underground Polish state and the Government of the Republic [in exile] in London, in which were represented also forces far removed from philo-Semitism, repeatedly warned against collaboration with the occupiers in anti-Semitic actions and instances of such collaboration were criticized and sometime punished when they occurred. When the character of the "final solution" became known, even the anti-Semitic groupings of the extreme right distanced themselves from the German crimes (though not from the anti-Semitic sentiments.) No further than a dozen or so days before the Jedwabne crime, instructions were sent [by the Government in London - tr.] to the homeland [i.e occupied Poland - tr.] in which we read that "the government emphasizes the necessity of warning the community that it not succumb to German incitements in the territories liberated from Soviet occupation." Four months earlier, the Underground's "Buletin Informacyjny" [Information Bulletin], the most important periodical of Underground Poland, was asking its readers to "abstain from any, even only pretended collaboration in anti-Jewish actions organized by the Germans." The population reached by radio broadcasts, listened to illegally, and the underground press, reflect, in some measure, the collective authority and requires that these voices be considered in discussing mass behavior.

Under the Soviet occupation, the situation was different and this had its consequences, particularly in the initial period after the German attack of June 22, 1941. The exceptionality of this period should be stressed, since later the same factor as in the General Gouvernemt came into play, particularly the persecution of Poles and the development of an underground. The influence of the Soviet occupation is key to the elucidation of the event in Jedwabne, not only and even, above all, not because of the collaboration of the Jews - the factual one, which cannot be denied, as well as the imagined and mythologized (the mythologizing also cannot be denied). The Soviet occupation is a much more complicated factor, demanding attention, above all because of the horror that it was. It was a terrible time for all ethnic groups in the annexed territories, but particularly for the Poles. Only in this context could the German invaders in the summer of 1941 appear at first as liberators. Nearly two years of Soviet reign inoculated many people with deeply felt fear of chaos and the brutality of the world. Such traumatic experiences sow in people's innards seeds from which later germinate the strangest thoughts, feelings and behaviors. In addition, those years deranged and jarred to the core the social order, undermined the respect for standards, dampened the voice of conscience. It was a lesson of obedience to the state, and at the same time, egoism, ruthlessness, and the utilization of a mighty and brutal state to advance private initiatives and settle scores - for instance, by denunciation. The joint experience of the rule of these two totalitarian countries is surely difficult to understand for inhabitants of happier lands and epochs.

For the purposes of discussion by us of the question of the participation by Poles in the German anti-Jewish action on the lands of Soviet occupation, one has to differentiate areas that were Polish - or more precisely: Polish-Jewish - from the remaining ones where there was significant participation of other nationals, and particularly where national Lithuanian and Ukrainian movements became evident. The Lithuanian and Ukrainian nationalists quickly formed armed units and the Germans were greeted not only as liberators from the Soviet yoke, but also as allies in the expected (re)establishment of their states, which the Germans cleverly took advantage of for their own purposes. It was exactly those groups that joined or led, sometimes on a large scale, actions slaughtering Jews. The Poles looked on this with fear, mindful of the anti-Polish inclinations of their recent minorities, viewing themselves as potentially the next victims.

The extensive participation in the next few years of the Balts and the Ukrainians in the carrying out of the "final solution" cannot be explained by some higher level of anti-Semitic prejudice than among the Poles. In terms of attitudes and prejudices against the Jews prior to the war, it is difficult to point to any significant differences between a Polish catholic boy and a Lithuanian one; independent Lithuania seemed a country more well-disposed to Jews than Poland. The determining and distinguishing factor during the war appears to be a political one - the orientation of the leaders towards collaboration with the Germans, and the Germans' intention to take advantage of it.

After separating out the territory occupied by the Germans [prior to June 22, 1941 - ed.] and the ethnically mixed Eastern lands, we are left with an area to which the above explanations do not apply, where the political and ethnic conditions were the same as in Jedwabne. In several towns in the Bialystok region[12] we even encounter not only condition generally similar, but with events, the scenario of which corresponds almost exactly to fragments of the Jedwabne history. Except that it does not culminate in the slaughter with the organized participation of Poles. An almost identical "funerals" of statues of Lenin took place during this period in Brańsk - where the mayor, installed by the Germans, "hated Jews", in the words of the historian, and "maybe that fact determined him being invested with that function" - and also in Czyżew and Kolno. Why the Jedwabne scenario did not get replayed there?

The State of Jedwabne

The portrayal of event that I have proposed here leads to a postulate different from that presented by Tomasz Gross. He wrote "the murderers were not Hitlerites ... but the community." That statement is, to tell the truth, a reaction to the text of the inscription on the [earlier - tr.] monument at Jedwabne and a bitter and ironic commentary regarding the effort it embodied to blame the "NKWD[13], Hitlerites and UB," for this evil, but it corresponds to a tendency evident in other fragments of the book. What I am concerned with is not to confront the Poles and the Germans, as much as "the community" with "the authorities." and a couple of concepts which dominate our thinking about totalitarian states. For a long time, Gross has been advocating a new way of looking at the practices of operation of a totalitarian state, excellent examples of which we find in his book "Revolution from Abroad." This is a matter close to my heart, because in the microhistorical perspectives it perceives the human - but of course no less frightening - face of the system, restores the subjectivity to the individual entangled in the actions of a totalitarian state, individuals who, in the classical theory of totalitarianism usually appear as small cogs in the bureurocratic machine or inert fragments of the human mass, mobilized into action by a mixture of indoctrination and fear. I am under the impression, however, that this time Gross went too far with the "privatization" of the present events or else has chosen an example the documentary basis of which is weak, sometime murky and permits divergent interpretations.

In the events of July 10, I perceive, besides a collection of "uncoerced reactions and behaviors" of some of the Poles of Jedwabne and surroundings, a certain ordered sequence without which the matter would have taken a different course, without which the subject of our analysis might have been terrifying and disgraceful but belonging to a different category than genocide. This ordered sequence comes from a state, one might can even say that order is the State. In the events of July 10 we see the appearance of a State that is very peculiar, simply grotesque - the territorially small State of Jedwabne that existed by the will of the occupant and was (co-)administered by its loyal collaborators. We cannot see in it simply a form of communal self-organization, a product of a community of citizens. Let us note, however, that the legitimacy of the power of the collaborators is something more that simply the violence-supported will of the Germans. One of its roots is the feeling of relief, that the Soviet occupation has come to an end, thanks to which the new invader can assume the role of the liberator. The little State has its hierarchy and structure of subordination with the Germans at the top, and further down Karolek, Sobuta, Bardon, Jerzy Landyński with others as helpers. What's most important for the events considered here, is that it has the basic properties of a state: it has at its disposal means of compelling and to define who and on what basis can use violence. On that basis, for the day of July 10, it allows the use of violence by everyone and without limitation on the condition that it will be used against the Jews and only the Jews. The violence against the Jews is not only allowed but expected and rewarded - by promises of participation in the looting - and any efforts to oppose it must expect punishment. Just thus arises a stage on which next is played out a sequence of acts of atrocity, in which eager perpetrators appear singly or in groups of twos and threes. recruiting themselves from the local population.

The final outcome demonstrates that the essential roles were sufficiently garrisoned, that it was possible to slaughter almost the whole population in one day with a relatively small involvement of the German forces. Even if we accept that more that a few "taxis" of Germans arrived, that the their number was nearer to that which the cook, Julia Sokolowska, testified to in court - 60 Gestapo and many (several dozens?) gendarmes - it would be a force of relatively few, given an operation involving the slaughter of several hundred to 1,500 Jews. In the above mentioned Jozefów, a whole battalion of 500 armed men was sent in against 1800 Jews; in Białystok on July 12 and 13, 1941, two battalions carried out the executions of 3,000 Jews. It follows that without the participation of the local population, the Germans presence in Jedwabne on 10th July, 1941, would not have been sufficient to slaughter almost all the Jews on that day.

The Nation and treason

Finally, I would like to take note of a certain problem embedded in the current discussion of the crime in Jedwabne. Voices are heard, also from individuals in positions of significant authority, of the need for an apology, a statement of sorrow or similar act which should somehow be performed in the name of the Poles. I see two aspects to that kind of action. The first is the taking of a position vis-a-vis the slaughter. It establishes again and ceremonially, the condemnation of the criminal act and recognition of the innocent victims and as such it cannot give rise to any objections. Particularly important is the question of innocence, the defense of the victims against slander, since voices are heard that what occurred in Jedwabne was a justified payback. But there is also another aspect, that is the recognition and expression of some bond between those apologizing - and Poles in general - with the individuals who allowed themselves to perform criminal acts. That aspect requires public reflection.

I am not concerned here with question of collective guilt encompassing people not involved in the events of July 10, 1941, nor with the question of who can speak on behalf of the Poles, questions which give rise to understandable controversies. All I want to do is to draw attention to those Poles who voluntarily took part in the slaughter of the Jedwabne Jews and later failed to demonstrate any regret, are the last with which the Polish nation should associate itself in this kind of symbolic action. Since they were not only murderers but also traitors who collaborated with the enemy against their co-citizens. Collaboration with the occupier against their Jewish neighbors infringes in an obvious manner the laws of the Republic. The motives that led to this treason - ethnic hatred, desire for revenge, or lust for power - are of secondary importance. Facts remain facts. Let's add that as sources indicate, some of them managed within a short time, to commit treason twice, first collaborating with the Soviets, and then immediately with the Germans. All of this they did to the detriment of their neighbors and countrymen, against the laws of the Republic and the counsel of its legitimate leaders. The dualism of an act of apology can be in its expression even more ambiguous because the victims of the crime who were part of the Polish nation. One needs to be careful that such an act should not, once again, estrange the victims. After all, it is they that demand our remembrance.

Translator's notes

[1] - Texts are no longer numbered by Pogranicze, but those currently listed by the publishing house exceed 800.
[2] - The Third Republic came into being in December 1989 when the democratically elected parliament of Poland passed legislation terminating the existence of the communist Polish People's Republic.
[3] - Polesie: region and now province of Poland in which Jedwabne is located.
[4] - CBOS: Centrum Badania Opinii Spolecznej (Public Opinion Research Center), a publicly funded independent research organization.
[5] - In the 19th and 20th centuries, the prehistoric practice of memorial mounds was revived and two such large mounds were erected near Krakow honoring, respectively, two great Polish heros: Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Jozef Pilsudski.
[6] - UB: Urzad Bespieczenstwa (Office of Security) a statewide communist investigative and secret police created in 1944 with Soviet "assistance."
[7] - NSDAP: NazionalSozialistiche Deutsche ArbeiteiPartei - The German Nazi Party.
[8] - General Gouvernement: The half of German-occuped Poland which in 1939 was not directly incorporated in Germany but was ruled as a colony where in all universties, high schools, musea, archives, libraries, and publishers were shut, magazines, and music by Polish composers banned, all private radio set confiscated, etc.
[9] - Lomza district: the district encompassing Jedwabne.
[10] - Szmalcownicy: name given to criminals and extortionist who, during the WWII German occupation, prayed on the Jews and individuals sheltering them, using the threat of denunciation to the Germans as the means of blackmail. When this was feasible, the Polish Underground would execute them. [from szmalec: lard]
[11] - "gray area": illegal commercial transactions such as the black market, bribe-taking, etc.
[12] - Białystok region: Bialystok is the capital of the Podlasie province where Jedwabne is situated.
[13] - NKVD - the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, i.e. the Soviet secret police.

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