In May 2000 a Pole called Jan Gross wrote a book “Neighbours”, about a long hidden crime perpetrated by Poles in the eastern Polish town of Jedwabne against their Jewish neighbours when, on 10th July 1941, hundreds of Jewish men, women and young children were herded into a barn which was then set on fire. Inevitably the book caused outrage within the country: how dare the writer slander Poles when it was clearly a German atrocity?
Unfortunately it wasn’t. Anna Bikont, an award-winning Polish-Jewish journalist decided to follow up Gross’s book with her own investigations. This absorbing and appalling story is the result. First published in Poland in 2004 and translated into English in 2015, her book – part interviews, part journal, part written testimonies – deserves to be read by anyone interested in Catholic-Jewish relations in Poland who is prepared to accept some deeply unpalatable truths.
Despite the denials, it is obvious from reading Bikont’s account that there has been an historical, dark stain of anti-Semitism in Poland – particularly in the eastern region, nearest to Russia. Certain priests and bishops shamefully reflected this in their own writings and pronouncements from the lectern. Abetting this native prejudice against Jewish neighbours – families who had settled in Poland for decades if not centuries – was the outlook of the pre-war nationalist party in Poland: to be a true patriot you had to be Polish, not Jewish.
The war made all this much worse; between 1939 and 1941 the districts bordering Russia were overrun by Soviet troops. They mistreated and deported to Siberia people from both sections of the population – but at least the Jews knew they were not singled out for particular persecution. Some freethinking Jews were also Communists, which did not help to endear then to their Catholic neighbours in Jedwabne. Then in 1941 the Russians withdrew, leaving the local Jewish population to the mercy of the German invaders. This gave the Catholics, already brutalised and impoverished by enemy occupation, the chance to take revenge on people they feared and mistrusted (and whose belongings they greedily coveted), knowing that the German soldiers would turn a convenient blind eye on a locally organised pogrom.
All the facts were painstakingly investigated by the Polish prosecutor appointed for the task, Radoslaw Ignatiew. He earns the author’s respect for his patient, fair-minded handling of this explosive and controversial story. Despite the wrath of certain members of the hierarchy and the fury of the local descendants of the murderers, he concluded that “Strictly speaking, Poles did it.” At the very least 340 people were murdered; and the killers, respectable townspeople helped by young thugs, some from neighbouring villages, numbered about 40. Ignatiew added soberly at the end of his report: “I have to say in the course of the investigation I have encountered blatant expressions of anti-Semitism.”
Anna Bikont, who only discovered her own Jewish inheritance as an adult, is a brave woman. Despite the hostility she was shown by the residents of Jedwabne, the many doors shut in her face, the telephones slammed down and defamations in the press, she never gave up. The journal parts of the book at first seem tedious in their attention to minute details of her experiences throughout 2001. Then the reader comes to see that Bikont wants them to accompany her on a sad journey, in which everything has to be recorded out of respect for the dead and for the sake of the justice which has been denied them.
The testimonies of the survivors and the grainy photos of their dead relatives are heartrending to read and see – as is the continuing fear of those she interviewed, that they will be persecuted by Polish neighbours, even 60 years later.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.