Anniversary of Polish Pogrom Prompts Debate, Soul-searching

Sixty years ago this month, half the people in a small town in northeastern Poland brutalized the other half, torturing them before herding them into a barn and setting it on fire.

The horrific events took place in the town of Jedwabne. The victims were Jedwabne’s 1,600 Jews. The perpetrators were their Polish Catholic neighbors.

On July 10, the anniversary of the massacre, Poland’s president and prime minister will join local officials, Jewish leaders and relatives of the murdered Jews for a solemn ceremony to unveil a monument at the site of the slaughter.

Speakers include President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who is expected to apologize for the massacre on behalf of Poles, and the Israeli ambassador to Poland, Holocaust survivor Shevach Weiss.

Rabbi Jacob Baker, a representative of the victims’ families, will also speak and lead prayers. New York cantor Joseph Malovany will chant Kaddish.

The official ceremony will be preceded by a commemoration in the synagogue in Warsaw on Friday — the 15th of Tammuz, which is the anniversary of the slaughter according to the Jewish calendar.

Jewish leaders said the commemoration would be a “complement, not a competition” to the official event. They expressed gratitude to Kwasniewski and other government leaders, despite lingering controversy over the wording on the monument, which does not firmly place the blame for the massacre on local Poles.

The ceremonies are the culmination of months of lacerating debate in Poland about both the Jedwabne massacre and its implications.

The debates, carried out in the media, churches, public meetings, conferences and other forums, were sparked by the publication last year of “Neighbors,” a book about the massacre by Polish-born New York University professor Jan Gross.

The often emotional, even painful, exchanges were the most open and in-depth exploration yet into Poland’s role and responsibility in the Holocaust.

They could be compared to the postwar debates in Germany over collective guilt for the Holocaust.

But, says historian Marta Petrusewicz, the Polish debates, coming after decades of ignorance or denial, are even more complex.

“The debate in Germany was forced on the Germans as part of the whole program of de-Nazification,” said Petrusewicz, a Warsaw-born Jew who left Poland during the Communist regime’s anti-Semitic purges in 1968.

“In a way, though horrible, this is a simpler debate than others,” she said. “In other countries, such as France, such examinations came later, in the 1980s. There was a refusal for years to face it.”

In Poland, she said, “the debate is the most complicated of all. It touches on the myth of Polish innocence. This myth is extremely deep among Poles — even in self-critical people.”

Poles suffered deeply under the Nazis. The ideal of Polish resistance and heroism was bolstered under communism.

“Polish sins, our disgraceful deeds and shameful historical events were fully covered up to prevent conflicts with the official version of history,” said a recent editorial in a Polish newspaper. “Children were brought up on tales of Polish splendor and heroism, tolerance and undeserved misfortune plaguing our nation since its founding.

“An average person learned to attach emotionally to the history and affirm it,” the editorial said. “In 1990 censorship disappeared, yet the frame of mind which resulted from 60 years of constant brainwashing turned out to be much more difficult to modify than political and economic institutions.

“The identity is shaped by generations, and only profound education or communal catharsis can reframe its illusionary content. The truth about Jedwabne could catalyze such a purifying process, yet it’s hard to determine whether Poland is ready for the total reshaping of its identity.”

Indeed, Poles in general did not and do not suffer the guilt of Germans as perpetrators of the Holocaust; if anything, they suffer another kind of guilt, a guilt one Polish writer has called “guilt by neglect.”

This entailed the guilt of having been bystanders — victims of the Nazis themselves but at the same time witnesses, often indifferent or even complacent to genocide.

Communist-era taboos prevented an objective public analysis of the Holocaust, Jewish issues and history itself — and even dissident historians sometimes shied away from these issues.

Much of the material on Jedwabne that Gross consulted for his book — including research carried out by the Jewish Historical Institute — had been published or was otherwise easily available.

But, noted Petrusewicz, it lay untouched by scholars.

“Not even important dissident historians, including Jews, looked into these openly accessible archives,” she said.

“It is mind-blowing. There is no objective justification for it. There was an enormous block that made all of us totally blind.”

This isn’t the first time the issue of Poland’s role and responsibility in the Shoah has been aired in Poland.

But it marks the first time such themes are being touched in a Poland that has a functioning democracy, market economy and free press.

For example, Claude Lanzmann’s epic film “Shoah” sparked unprecedented discussion and generally outraged reaction after parts of it were shown on Polish television in the mid-1980s. Lanzmann himself accused Poles of involvement in the Holocaust, prompting an official protest from Poland’s Communist government.

In 1987, a Krakow scholar published an article in a liberal Catholic weekly saying Poles should feel some complicity in the Holocaust, if only because of their indifference.

This touched off an exchange of articles that British scholar Antony Polonsky described as “the most profound discussion since 1945 of the Holocaust in Poland and, above all, of the vexed question of the Polish response to the mass murder of the Jews.”

It was the first time these highly-charged issues, incorporating a full range of philo- and anti-Semitic views and rival visions of Poland and its past, were aired in a public, if still limited, forum.

The Jedwabne debates have included hundreds of published articles, broadcasts, round-table discussions, sermons and letters to the editor.

There are several Web sites devoted to the issue, including www.pogranicze.sejny.pl/english/jedwabne, which lists dozens of articles in English.

Few believe the official ceremony will put an end to the discussion or the difficult process of coming to terms with the past.

“It’s a good thing it is happening, but it’s not the end of the story by any means — nor should it be,” said Petrusewicz.

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