One summer day in 1941, half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half, 1,600 men, women, and children, all but seven of the town's Jews. Neighbors tells their story.
This is a shocking, brutal story that has never before been told. It is the most important study of Polish-Jewish relations to be published in decades and should become a classic of Holocaust literature.
Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts and other evidence into an engulfing reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but forgotten by history. His investigation reads like a detective story, and its unfolding yields wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism. It is a story of surprises: The newly occupying German army did not compel the massacre, and Jedwabne's Jews and Christians had previously enjoyed cordial relations. After the war, the nearby family who saved Jedwabne's surviving Jews was derided and driven from the area. The single Jew offered mercy by the town declined it.
Most arresting is the sinking realization that Jedwabne's Jews were clubbed, drowned, gutted, and burned not by faceless Nazis, but by people whose features and names they knew well: their former schoolmates and those who sold them food, bought their milk, and chatted with them in the street. As much as such a question can ever be answered, Neighbors tells us why.
In many ways, this is a simple book. It is easy to read in a single sitting, and hard not to. But its simplicity is deceptive. Gross's new and persuasive answers to vexed questions rewrite the history of twentieth-century Poland. This book proves, finally, that the fates of Poles and Jews during World War II can be comprehended only together.
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Twentieth-century Europe has been shaped decisively by the actions of two men. It is to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin that we owe totalitarianismif not its invention, then certainly its most determined implementation. The loss of life for which they are jointly responsible is truly staggering. Yet it is not what happened but what has been prevented from ever taking place that gives a truer measure of totalitarianism's destructiveness: "the sum of unwritten books," as one author put it. In fact, the sum of thoughts unthought, of unfelt feelings, of works never accomplished, of lives unlived to their natural end.1
Not only the goals but also the methods of totalitarian politics crippled societies where they were deployed, and among the most gripping was the institutionalization of resentment. People subject to Stalin's or Hitler's rule were repeatedly set against each other and encouraged to act on the basest instincts of mutual dislike. Every conceivable cleavage in society was eventually exploited, every antagonism exacerbated. At one time or another city was set against thecountryside, workers against peasants, middle peasants against poor peasants, children against their parents, young against old, and ethnic groups against each other. Secret police encouraged, and thrived on, denunciations: divide et impera writ large. In addition, as social mobilization and mass participation in state-sponsored institutions and rituals were required, people became, to varying degrees, complicitous in their own subjugation.
Totalitarian rulers also imposed a novel pattern of occupation in the territories they conquered. As a result, wrote Hannah Arendt, "they who were the Nazis' first accomplices and their best aides truly did not know what they were doing nor with whom they were dealing."2 It turned out that there was no adequate word in European languages to define this relationship. The term "collaboration"in its specific connotation of a morally objectionable association with an enemycame into usage only in the context of the Second World War.3 Given that armed conflicts, conquests, wars, occupations, subjugations, territorial expansions, and their accompanying circumstances are as old as recorded human history, one wonders what novelty in the phenomenon of German occupation during the Second World War stimulated the emergence of a fresh concept.4 A comprehensive answer to this question would have to be sought in multiple studies of German regimes of occupation.
After the fact, public opinion all over Europe recoiled in disgust at virtually any form of engagement with the Nazis (in an arguably somewhat self-serving and not always sincere reaction). "It is nearly impossible to calculate the total number of persons targeted by postwar retribution, but, even by the most conservative estimates, they numbered several million, that is 2 or 3 percent of the population formerly under German occupation," writes Istvan Deák in a recent study. "Punishments of the guilty ranged from lynchings during the last months of the war to postwar death sentencing, imprisonment, or hard labor. Added to those harsh punishments were condemnation to national dishonor, the loss of civic rights, and/or monetary fines as well as such administrative measures as expulsions, police supervision, loss of the right to travel or to live in certain desirable places, dismissal, and the loss of pension rights."5 "This was a war," to quote Heda Kovaly's poignant memoir from Prague, "that no one had quite survived."6
While the experience of the Second World War has to a large extent shaped the political makeup and destinies of all European societies in the second half of the twentieth century, Poland has been singularly affected. It was over the territory of the pre-1939 Polish state that Hitler and Stalin first joined in a common effort (their pact of nonaggression signed in August 1939 included a secret clause dividing the country in half) and then fought a bitter war until one of them was eventually destroyed. As a result Poland suffered a demographic catastrophe without precedent; close to 20 percent of its population died of war-related causes. It lost its minoritiesJews in the Holocaust, and Ukrainians and Germans following border shifts and population movements after the war. Poland's elites in all walks of life were decimated. Over a third of its urban residents were missing at the conclusion of the war. Fifty-five percent of the country's lawyers were no more, along with 40 percent of its medical doctors and one-third of its university professors and Roman Catholic clergy.7 Poland was dubbed "God's playground" by a sympathetic British historian,8 but during that time it must have felt more like a stomping ground of the devil.
The centerpiece of the story I am about to present in this little volume falls, to my mind, utterly out of scale: one day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other halfsome 1,600 men, women, and children. Consequently, in what follows, I will discuss the Jedwabne murders in the context of numerous themes invoked by the phrase "Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War."9
First and foremost I consider this volume a challenge to standard historiography of the Second World War, which posits that there are two separate wartime historiesone pertaining to the Jews and the other to all the other citizens of a given European country subjected to Nazi rule. This is a particularly untenable position with respect to Poland's history of those years, given the size of, and social space occupied by, Polish Jewry. On the eve of the war, Poland's was the second largest agglomeration of Jews in the world, after the American Jewry. About 10 percent of prewar Polish citizens identified themselveseither by Mosaic faith or by declaring Yiddish to be their mother tongueas Jews. Nearly one-third of the Polish urban population was Jewish. And yet the Holocaust of Polish Jews has been bracketed by historians as a distinct, separate subject that only tangentially affects the rest of Polish society. Conventional wisdom maintains that only "socially marginal" individuals in Polish societythe so-called szmalcownicy,10 or "scum," who blackmailed Jews, and the heroes who lent them a helping handwere involved with the Jews.
This is not the place to argue in detail why such views are untenable. Perhaps it is not even necessary to dwell at length on this matter. After all, how can the wiping out of one-third of its urban population be anything other than a central issue of Poland's modern history? In any case, one certainly needs no great methodological sophistication to grasp instantly that when the Polish half of a town's population murders its Jewish half, we have on our hands an event patently invalidating the view that these two ethnic groups' histories are disengaged.
The second point that readers of this volume must keep in mind is that Polish-Jewish relations during the war are conceived in a standard analysis as mediated by outside forcesthe Nazis and the Soviets. This, of course, is correct as far as it goes. The Nazis and the Soviets were indeed calling the shots in the Polish territories they occupied during the war. But one should not deny the reality of autonomous dynamics in the relationships between Poles and Jews within the constraints imposed by the occupiers. There were things people could have done at the time and refrained from doing; and there were things they did not have to do but nevertheless did. Accordingly, I will be particularly careful to identify who did what in the town of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, and at whose behest.
In August 1939, as is well known, Hitler and Stalin concluded a pact of nonaggression. Its secret clauses demarcated the boundaries of influence spheres between the two dictators in Central Europe. One month later the territory of Poland was carved out between the Third Reich and the USSR. The town of Jedwabne first found itself in the Soviet zone of occupation and later, after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, was taken over by the Nazis. An important issue I thus felt compelled to address concerns the standard historiographical perspective on Soviet-Jewish relations during the twenty-month-long Soviet rule over the half of Poland the Red Army occupied starting in September 1939. Again this is not the place to put the matter to rest.11 We will simply have to remember that according to the current stereotype Jews enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Soviet occupiers. Allegedly the Jews collaborated with the Soviets at the expense of the Poles, and therefore an outburst of brutal Polish antisemitism, at the time the Nazis invaded the USSR, may have come in the territories liberated from under Bolshevik rule in 1941 as a response to this experience. I therefore explore whether there were any linkages between what happened in Jedwabne under the Soviet occupation (September 1939-June 1941) and immediately thereafter.
The Jedwabne massacre touches upon yet another historiographical topos concerning this epochone maintaining that Jews and communism were bound by a mutually beneficial relationship. Hence, allegedly, the presence of antisemitism among broad strata of Polish society (or any other East European society, for that matter) after the war, and the special role Jews played in establishing and consolidating Stalinism in Eastern Europe. I will address this issue briefly in the discussion of my study's sources and will return to these and related matters in the concluding chapters.
As to the broader context of Holocaust studies, this book cannot be easily located on the functionalist-intentionalist spectrum. It stands askew of this distinction, already blurred in recent Holocaust historiography, and belongs instead to a genre"only now beginning to receive appropriate scholarly attention"that belabors the "pepetrators-victims-bystanders" axis.12 But it shows that these terms are also fuzzy and can be read as a reminder that each episode of mass killing had its own situational dynamics. This is not a trivial point, for it meansand further studies will, I think, demonstrate that Jedwabne was not unique in this respectthat in each episode many specific individual decisions were made by different actors present on the scene, who decisively influenced outcomes. And, thus, it is at least conceivable that a number of those actors could have made different choices, with the result that many more European Jews could have survived the war.
In an important respect, however, this is a rather typical book about the Holocaust. For, as is not true of historical studies we write about other topics, I do not see the possibility of attaining closure here. In other words, the reader will not emerge with a sense of satisfied yearning for knowledge at the conclusion of reading; I certainly did not do so at the conclusion of writing. I could not say to myself when I got to the last page, "Well, I understand now," and I doubt that my readers will be able to either.
Of course one must proceed with the exposition and analysis as if it were possible to understand, and address prevailing interpretive historiographical strands. But I think it is in the nature of the subject matter that we will have to pose queries at the end of the storyand how about this? and how about that? And this is just as well, since perhaps the only relief we may hope to find when confronted with the Holocaust is in the process of asking such endless follow-up questions, to which we will continue to look for answers. The Holocaust thus stands at a point of departure rather than a point of arrival in humankind's ceaseless efforts to draw lessons from its own experience. And while we will never "understand" why it happened, we must clearly understand the implications of its having taken place. In this sense it becomes a foundational event of modern sensibility, forever afterward to be an essential consideration in reflections about the human condition.
Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Outline of the Story 14
Before the War 33
Soviet Occupation, 1939-1941 41
The Outbreak of the Russo-German War and the Pogrom in Radzilow 54
Who Murdered the Jews of Jedwabne? 79
The Murder 90
Intimate Biographies 111
What Do People Remember? 126
Collective Responsibility 132
New Approach to Sources 138
Is It Possible to Be Simultaneously a Victim and a Victimizer?143
Social Support for Stalinism 164
For a New Historiography 168
What People are Saying About This
This tiny book reveals a shocking story buried for sixty years, and it has set of a round of soul searching in Poland. But the questions it raises are of universal significance: How do 'ordinary men' turn suddenly into 'willing executioners?' What, if anything, can be learned from history about 'national character?' Where do we draw the line between legitimately assigning present responsibility for wrongs perpetrated by previous generations and unfairly visiting the sins of the fathers on the children? The author has no facile answers to these problems, but his story asks us to think about them in new ways.
David Engel, author of "The Holocaust: The Third Reich and the Jews"
Neighbors is a truly pathbreaking book, the work of a master historian. Jan Gross has a shattering tale to tell, and he tells it with consummate skill and control. The impact of his account of the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors is all the greater for the calm, understated narration and Gross's careful reconstruction of the terrifying circumstances in which the killing was undertaken. But this little book is much, much more than just another horror story from the Holocaust. In his imaginative reflections upon the tragedy of Jedwabne, Gross has subtly recast the history of wartime Poland and proposed an original interpretation of the origins of the postwar Communist regime. This book has already had dramatic repercussions in Poland, where it has single-handedly prised open a closed and painful chapter in that nation's recent past. But Neighbors is not only about Poland. It is a moving and provocative rumination upon the most important ethical issue of our age. No one who has studied or lived through the twentieth century can afford to ignore it.
Tony Judt, Director, Remarque Institute
This is unquestionably one of the most important books I have read in the last decade both on the general question of the mass murder of the Jews during World War II and on the more specific problem of the reaction of Polish society to that genocide. All of the issues it raises are handled with consummate mastery. I finished this short book both appalled at the events it describes and filled with admiration for the wise and all-encompassing skill with which the painful, difficult, and complex subject has been handled.
Antony Polonsky, Brandeis University
"An important contribution to the literature of human bestiality unleashed by war." —The New York Times Book Review
"Like an oral tale transcribed by a folklorist, it has the ring of the eternal to it.... Hatred like this runs deep in human nature and is ever ready to erupt again. Be warned." —Los Angeles Times
"Extraordinary." —New Republic
"Neighbors is a truly pathbreaking book, the work of a master historian. Jan Gross has a shattering tale to tell, and he tells it with consummate skill and control. The impact of his account of the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors is all the greater for the calm, understated narration and Gross's careful reconstruction of the terrifying circumstances in which the killing was undertaken. But this little book is much, much more than just another horror story from the Holocaust. In his imaginative reflections upon the tragedy of Jedwabne, Gross has subtly recast the history of wartime Poland and proposed an original interpretation of the origins of the postwar Communist regime. This book has already had dramatic repercussions in Poland, where it has single-handedly prised open a closed and painful chapter in that nation's recent past. But Neighbors is not only about Poland. It is a moving and provocative rumination upon the most important ethical issue of our age. No one who has studied or lived through the twentieth century can afford to ignore it."Tony Judt, Director, Remarque Institute
"This tiny book reveals a shocking story buried for sixty years, and it has set of a round of soul searching in Poland. But the questions it raises are of universal significance: How do 'ordinary men' turn suddenly into 'willing executioners?' What, if anything, can be learned from history about 'national character?' Where do we draw the line between legitimately assigning present responsibility for wrongs perpetrated by previous generations and unfairly visiting the sins of the fathers on the children? The author has no facile answers to theseproblems, but his story asks us to think about them in new ways."David Engel, author of The Holocaust: The Third Reich and the Jews
"This is unquestionably one of the most important books I have read in the last decade both on the general question of the mass murder of the Jews during World War II and on the more specific problem of the reaction of Polish society to that genocide. All of the issues it raises are handled with consummate mastery. I finished this short book both appalled at the events it describes and filled with admiration for the wise and all-encompassing skill with which the painful, difficult, and complex subject has been handled."Antony Polonsky, Brandeis University
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A powerful book relating the story of Jedwabne, Poland where the Polish population is responsible for the murder of the town's Jewish population in 1941. I have long lived with the myth that all Poles were sympathetic to the Jews, but historically this wasn't the case - as anti-semitism continued after the war and into the communist take over of Poland. Most telling is how this anti-semitism was fed by the Catholic clergy. This book has important lessons for us today - as hatred is preached from pulpits and temples and mosques. It was Abraham Heschel who said that the Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers - it began with evil words.
Sets the record straight (for non-Poles, at least) about who massacred the Jews in Jedwabne, Poland, in 1941. Gross tries to make an historiographical case study out of it but fails.Brief story briefer: 98+% of Jedwabne's Jewish residents were murdered in early July 1941. History held that it was the work of German special forces, and the community allowed (perhaps even encouraged) that story. However, trials held in Poland in 1949 revealed publicly that Jedwabne residents played the critical roles in the murders, and oral historical evidence accumulated over the subsequent half century indicated that the community knew all along that it was they, and not the Germans, who committed the murders.There really isn't much to be said about the murders: they happened in the course of a very few days, with the vast majority occurring on a single day. Nor is there much to be said about why Christians killed their Jewish neighbors. There is more to be said (though not much of it is) about why the community allowed a false history to be told for so long, and what that may suggest about the domestic whos, whys, and hows of Poland's alliance with the Soviets.So my first big criticism is that this book is even shorter than it appears (even with its narrow pages, wide margins, and copious photos and notes). It's like a précis of a longer, more academic book. The simple fact of the matter is that the story of the event itself is not that long; yet it occupies the bulk of the text. The more interesting historical and historiographical questions are dispensed with in a very few pages each, basically by presenting an hypothesis and discussing how it might be examined historically, without actually engaging in such examination.My second big criticism is that the book is too abstruse for what it is. The style is more appropriate to the professional academic historian than the casual reader. For a non-Pole, the catalogue of unfamiliar personal and place-names is difficult to keep straight, and Gross assumes that once a name has been identified the reader will remember it throughout the book (a gazetteer at the end would have been helpful in this regard, and no great burden to include given the extensive photos and notes.) Then, because this book is less about History than the study and telling of it, the story isn't presented in narrative form until halfway through; prior to that chapter, the story's various historical contexts that interest Gross are examined. The upshot is that the reader picks up the story in disordered bits and pieces before the narrative version is given. While Gross may have historiographical reasons for that, I think it would have been just as effective, and much simpler, to present transcripts of official documents and oral histories, perhaps with annotations. The second half of the book (the hypotheses half) falls victim to high-syllable-count academic-speak that, given the brevity with which its subjects are treated, is not worth the effort of decipherment.None of this is to dismiss the importance of the events or how they have been portrayed since: just that this book attempts far too much for its size (and, given that, a good portion of its audience), and consequently doesn't really succeed in any respect.
In the novel Neighbors, Jan Gross brings together all of the sources and written documents regarding the murder of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland. The story is a unique one because it displays how brutal people can be to their own neighbors; people they have known for generations. The entire Jewish Community in Jedwabne was destroyed by its Polish neighbors and, only years later, the people responsible were put on trial. The trial itself, though, did no justice to the suffering and humiliation Jews went through. Gross did an amazing job doing research for his novel. It feels like he dug up every paper and interviewed every witness regarding the mass murder. It truly feels like you get the whole inside look and that everything you read is fact. The only thing I did not like about the novel was how the information was presented. I got lost several times in the large amount of foreign names and leaps from topic to topic. The plot could have been presented in a more interesting and easy to read manner but I could see the need for straightforward facts. A major theme that stuck out to me throughout the novel was the lack of human compassion. Out of the 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne, only 7 survived due to a Polish woman named Wyrzykowska. Only one woman came to her senses and had compassion on the Jews out of all of the Polish people in the town. It is amazing to see how fast a human’s beliefs and ethics can be changed with propaganda. I would suggest this book to anyone looking to broaden his/her knowledge or view of World War II. The book is exhaustingly sad but it is an emotion worth risking. The book really gave me a new insight and appreciation for my blissful life. If you liked this book, I would suggest Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt.
Few books that I have read recently have succeeded to the same extent in evoking the feeling, the fear, the terror, the horror, the sheer egregious unreality of the Holocaust. . . as this book does.
My attention was drawn to this book by a review in Newsweek. Jan Gross is a man of courage, a true unbiased historian who seeks out the truth regardless of its consequences. He is a refreshing contrast to the contemporary 'historians' who study the first half of the twentieth century, and are unable to separate their biases from their work. Gross supports his findings with documented interviews and depositions of witnesses and the accused, which resulted from a trial held by the polish authorities in 1949, and was conveniently forgotten for fifty years. Unfortunately, the author has failed to provide any German witnesses or records that might be available in German archives of the massacre. However, he leaves no doubt that the genocide at Jedwabne was perpetrated with brutal fervor by the victim's non-jewish neighbors and other Poles from neighboring towns. Yet, according to Newsweek, the memorial marker at Jedwabne still blames the Germans for this atrocity, just like the memorial at Katyn. Up until this landmark book was published it has been all too easy for the Poles to blame their misdeeds during the war on the Germans. If nothing else, this book will force the Poles to recognize the reality of their own virulent anti-semitism that has pervaded their history for centuries.
Intrigued by 'Neighbors...,' I researched the topic and became shocked by arguments posted by several Polish historians who point to well-documented information, so different from that provided by Gross. The fact that Gross does not take it into account seriously undermines his credibility and the historic value of his book.
The author in his book says that Germans did not play any role in murdering the Jews. He also forgot to make any serious research on this issue. There are many things that are not included in that book. The first the book did not include the investigation which is under way and which could solve some facts including the role of the Germans. Overall the author did a poor work on this book, and is not critical on many issues.
German archives provide information, completely ignored by Gross, which establishes that it was a German unit, and not the Poles, who herded the Jews into a barn before setting it on fire. Gross also tries, unsuccessfully, in downplaying the fact that large numbers of local Jews had earlier collaborated with the Soviet occupants in sending Poles to horrible suffering and often death in Siberia.