LONDON — In 2001, American historian Jan T. Gross set off a maelstrom of passionate historical debate upon the publication of his book about the massacre of hundreds of Jews during World War II, “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland.” There were already numerous history books about WWII’s brutal atrocities, but what set Gross’s book apart was its revelation that these murders were not committed by the Nazis, but by the Poles themselves.
While this came as a shock to the world at large, years prior to “Neighbors” publication, Polish-Jewish journalist Anna Bikont had been eager to report on the crimes of Jedwabne. But her editor, Adam Michnik — one of Poland’s most prominent Jewish writers and public intellectuals — didn’t want her to write the story.
“At the time he was afraid because Poland was coming into the European Union and NATO,” says Bikont, who helped found the left-wing newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in 1989. “He thought this could promote an anti-Polish feeling with our European neighbors, and that it was better not to write about it.”
“Michnik also told me he didn’t believe so many people could be burnt in a barn, that it simply wasn’t possible,” she tells The Times of Israel.
‘Many Jews were burned. But also many were shot one-by-one when they tried to hide. So it’s very difficult to give an exact figure’
Based on Bikont’s extensive research, on July 10, 1941, the Jews of Jedwabne, a town in northeast Poland, were herded into a barn and burned alive by their Christian neighbors. The numbers of Jews murdered in the massacre has been widely contested over the last few decades, but Bikont believes it’s likely to be between 600 and 900.
“Many Jews were burned. But also many were shot one-by-one when they tried to hide. So it’s very difficult to give an exact figure,” she says.
As part of her research surrounding that fateful day, Bikont interviewed the few survivors from Europe, the United States, South America and Israel, and scoured museums and national archives for written testimonies from people who survived the war.
Published in Polish in 2004, “The Crime and The Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne” is a mixture of journalistic memoir and historical analyses. It includes in-depth interviews from both the victims and those who carried out the crimes.
The book was re-published in French as “Le Crime et le Silence” in 2011 and won the European Book Prize. It has recently become available in English for the first time.
Bikont tells The Times of Israel that to properly understand how hatred against the Jews manifested so intensely before the war and the Nazi occupation, one must understand the connections between anti-Semitism and the Catholic Church.
“Poland is a very Catholic country, so the Catholic Church has had a huge impact on the anti-Semitism that happened before the war, especially in east Poland in places like Jedwabne,” she says.
In the 1930s, with anti-Semitism raging across Europe, Bikont claims Polish Catholics organized their entire social fabric around a deep mistrust and hatred for the Jews.
“Even children at the time would play anti-Semitic games such as the ‘Jew is the thief,’” she explains. “So the Church taught Poles to have hostility and contempt for Jews from early childhood.”
Soviet occupation of Poland’s mixed ‘blessing’
Bikont documents in her book how the Soviet occupation of wartime Poland also played an important role in stirring up a strong anti-Semitic feeling, especially in Jedwabne.
In 1939, both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland, carving up the country between them. The two occupying armies coordinated their efforts against Poland until 1941’s Operation Barbarossa in which Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, causing a complete shift in their relationships.
Called “the reign of terror,” the Soviet occupation destroyed the entire fabric of social life built up by the Jewish community for centuries — the Jewish municipal government was liquidated, Hebrew schools were closed, Yom Kippur became a normal work day, political parties were dissolved and Zionist activists were put on deportation lists.
But the occupation was beneficial for Jews too, says Bikont. Many began to experience equal rights for the first time in their lives and were given the right to attend public school, to study, or to pursue professional careers in medicine or education.
‘Many young Jews were particularly happy about the Soviets coming into Poland’
“Many young Jews were particularly happy about the Soviets coming into Poland,” says Bikont. “But when the Poles saw these Jews who had a normal life, that was not full of humiliation, they really resented that. So hatred for Jews from the Poles became far greater in the Soviet times.”
During this time, many Poles were involved in the Soviet underground, where Poles often betrayed other Poles. But, Bikont says, it was easier for many to say that it was the Jews who denounced the Poles, so it didn’t look like Poles were betraying each other.
“Jews were given the blame for a lot of things in these paranoid and suspicious times,” she says.
This helps to explain why the Jews, who were systematically rounded up to be torched alive in the barn on July 10, 1941, were paraded around the marketplace in Jedwabne beforehand. Crucially, though, they were made to carry a statue of Bolshevik Revolution leader Vladimir Lenin, just before they perished. This was seen both as a sign of humiliation, and to indicate Jewish-Soviet collaboration.
The Soviet iconography was extremely significant in representing feelings of far-right Polish nationalism at the time, says Bikont.
“All of the propaganda was anti-Bolshevik propaganda. So the Polish nationalists wanted to associate Jews with this statue of Lenin and to make these links between Jews and communists,” she says.
In all of the accounts that Bikont heard — both directly from her own research and from secondary sources about the Jedwabne massacre — the names of Zygmunt Laudański and Jerzy Laudański were always mentioned as the most active participants in the crime.
Both brothers were sentenced to prison for the massacre. Zygmunt was sentenced to 12 years, but served just six, while Jerzy served just eight of a 15-year sentence.
As part of her research Bikont interviewed both brothers.
“It was the most horrible thing I have ever had to do in my career,” she says, looking extremely distressed as she thinks back to the interviews.
Meet the murderers
“Both brothers seemed very content in what they saw as achievements in their lives,” Bikont tells The Times of Israel. “I saw that they were happy remembering how they raped and killed Jewish women. They showed no remorse in these interviews and they were completely cynical.”
Even though both brothers served time in a communist prison, Bikont says after their release they were greeted as heroes in their local community.
‘This is very difficult to think about for a Polish person, to be both a victim and a perpetrator at the same time’
“The Laudański brothers were liberated because most people who were in the prison were involved in anti-communist activities. It’s very difficult for Polish people to admit to any of these things, because all the time during the war the narrative was the same: that it was the Germans who committed the crimes, and not the Poles, who were always seen as the victims.”
Many people in Jedwabne think that the Germans ordered the Polish to carry out these crimes, Bikont notes. But she says it’s untrue.
“This is very difficult to think about for a Polish person, to be both a victim and a perpetrator at the same time. In Poland especially because we are used to thinking about ourselves as a nation of victims throughout history. This is why I think it’s so difficult for Poles to admit what happened in Jedwabne.”
In Jan Gross’s book, “Neighbors,” the historian writes that the murderers of the Jedwabne massacre were ordinary people. But Bikont believes that such a description has led to many academics and journalists claiming, falsely, that it was the Polish working class who predominately carried out the murders.
‘We are used to thinking about ourselves as a nation of victims throughout history’
In her book Biknot quotes a prominent Polish sociologist, Antoni Selek, who wrote on this period of history that “the most active participants in the atrocity were from the lower rungs of the social hierarchy, unsettled, unfettered by bonds of family.”
“This is simply not true,” says Bikont. “There is a mythology out there that the people who committed these crimes in Jedwabne were the poor and the marginalized. Sure, there were also some people who were criminals who joined in on the pogroms. But it was not organized by them. It was organized by the local nationalistic Polish elites.”