New Light Shed on Dark Polish Past

By Penny Schwartz

Published November 06, 2015, issue of November 05, 2015.

It was July 1941 when hundreds of Jedwabne’s Jews were rounded up on the town square. Many were brutalized. Later, they were marched to a barn where they were locked in and burned to death. In the aftermath, their homes were looted.

It was soon after the German army occupied the region that had been under Soviet control for the prior two years. At the time, the town’s population was about half Catholic, half Jewish.

After the war, a few men were tried and sentenced. But for some 60 years, post war and through decades of Communist rule, the events remained largely under the radar of silence and denial.

Fifteen years ago, the horrific massacre was brought to light in a book, “Neighbors,” by Jan Tomasz Gross, a Polish-born American and historian at Princeton University. Gross’ book jolted the country, revealing that it was local Poles who committed the heinous acts. It sparked an apology from the Polish president, an official government inquiry and an intense debate, with some continuing to deny that local Poles were involved and laying blame on the German Nazis.

At the same time, the book opened a window into a dark past that challenged Poles’ deeply rooted identity as victims of oppressive German and Russian rule.

In “The Crime and the Silence,” award winning journalist Anna Bikont delves deeply into the events in Jedwabne and surrounding towns, exploring how they shaped the lives of the people who lived there then and its residents today.

Last week, Bikont spoke at Harvard University and Boston University’s Center for the Study of Europe as part of a U.S. book tour for the English version of her book, translated by Alissa Valles, an author and PhD student who lives in Cambridge. First published in Polish in 2006, it won the 2011 European Book prize for its French translation.

Bikont has produced a monumental work of dogged investigation that combines extraordinary reportage with Bikont’s enlightening, often deeply personal journal entries.

As an adult, Bikont, an award-winning journalist with Gazetta Wyborcza, discovered that her mother’s family was Jewish, an identity she has embraced.

Bikont’s initial visits to Jedwabne drew her into an unexpected and admittedly obsessive four-year journey to seek out the truth – an investigation that took her to Israel, the U.S., Cuba and Costa Rico. She combed archives, trial testimonies, newspapers and church newsletters hunting for clues about the massacres and the indifference, deceit and silence that followed.

Most significantly, with her background in psychology, Bikont was drawn to the human stories, pursuing interviews with hundreds of people including current residents of Jedwabne, Jewish survivors, children of perpetrators, and local and national church leaders.

Bikont admitted that she was surprised by the level of virulent anti-Semitism she encountered. “It was not only about the past,” she said in remarks at B.U.

“There was so much hate. It was a shock to me,” she revealed.

Through her research, Bikont reveals the details of similar massacres of Jews in nearby towns. While Gross’s research put the number of Jews killed in Jedwabne at 1,600, the precise number has been difficult to determine. The government’s extensive study put the number at about 340. Bikont has suggested much higher numbers.

Bikont explores the role of local church leaders in fostering anti-Semitism as well as the zeal of nationalist parties which dominate in the region, who blamed Jews for supporting the Soviets’ brutality against local Poles.

She introduces readers to scores of people including Stanislaw and Marianna Ramotowska (formerly Rachela Finkelstejn). Stanislaw saved the lives of the Finkelstejn family. Later, he and Rachela married, after she was baptized by a local priest. He eventually opened up with Bikont, revealing vivid details of their lives, while she remained forever reluctant to reveal much, even of her Jewish childhood.

Bikont acknowledges that her most challenging interviews were with Zygmunt Laudański and Jerzy Laudański, two brothers who were convicted in the 1949 trial as perpetrators of the massacre.

She also offers examples of courageous individuals who saved the lives of Jews during the war, and current church and local leaders who have been outspoken in their condemnation.

Publication of this English translation of “The Crime and the Silence” comes as Poland has experienced several decades of a resurgence of Jewish life and in a notable interest among younger Poles in learning about their country’s past marred by periods of anti-Semitism and the tragedy of the Holocaust.

One year ago, the new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. The stunning museum, that traces the 1,000-year history of Jewish life in Poland, has an ambitious education program and thousands of school children have visited.

Bikont expressed a sense of optimism about its impact.

“In this, I think the museum really matters and that it will change things in the sense of knowledge,” she suggested. But she was more guarded as far as reshaping opinion because of the complexities of Polish identity.

“It’s an open question,” she admitted.

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