Death haunts the Pol­ish town that killed its Jews

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

Any vis­i­tor t o the re­mote town o f J e d w a b n e , i n n o r t h - e a s t Poland, is go­ing to know some­thing about its hor­ri­fy­ing past. on the out­skirts there is a memo­rial that marks the site where hun­dreds of Jed­wabne’s Jews were burned alive in a barn in July 1941. it is the only rea­son to visit this colour­less place.

to­day, the memo­rial no longer at­tributes the mas­sacre to the nazis. it was changed in 2000 af­ter it was re­vealed that it was not the oc­cu­py­ing Ger­mans who wiped out the Jewish half of the town, but the Jewish vic­tims’ gen­tile neigh­bours.

it is the si­lence that first strikes you when en­ter­ing Jed­wabne. this is the si­lence for which many Pol­ish towns in the re­gion are known and which is ro­man­ti­cised in many folk songs about the area. “not just songs,” says ro­man Pawlowski, a jour­nal­ist who writes for the Pol­ish daily Gazeta Wy­bor­cza, “ but post-war po­etry and lit­er­a­ture as well.”

With a pop­u­la­tion of about 2,000, Jed­wabne is not what you might call a des­ti­na­tion. nor is it on the way to one. Few peo­ple pass through. Ly­ing be­tween two rivers, the sur­round­ing flat, forested land­scape is sat­u­rated with swamps. the near­est city is Bi­a­lystok, which, af­ter War­saw, is the only Pol­ish city whose Jewish ghetto mounted an up­ris­ing against the nazis. it did not last long.

some­times it is hard to know whether your im­pres­sion of a town like Jed­wabne — in this part of Poland, there are many — is in­formed by a knowl­edge of its his­tory or by your ex­pe­ri­ence of the place. the grey lit­tle two-storey houses that bor­der the town’s main square; the dou­ble-spired church that over­looks it; the lined faces of old men who sit on benches, ap­par­ently with noth­ing to talk about — ev­ery­thing, ev­ery blade of grass and ev­ery cob­ble­stone seems to be in­formed by the mas­sacre.

this might be be­cause it was in this very square where Jed­wabne’s longestab­lished Jewish pop­u­la­tion were beaten and made to dig out weeds from be­tween cob­ble­stones. or per­haps it is be­cause Jed­wabne’s grand church, like many oth­ers in the re­gion, was funded largely by money ex­torted from Jews, whose yearly choice was to pay up or suf­fer a pogrom.

Jed­wabne’s Jewish his­tory is sim­i­lar to many other Pol­ish towns. its wooden syn­a­gogue was built in 1770, though de­stroyed in a fire in 1916. in the 1930s records show that Jed­wabne was home to 144 crafts­men, in­clud­ing 36 tai­lors and 24 cob­blers, most of them Jews. By the time the sec­ond World War broke out, its pop­u­la­tion was 2,500, of whom over half were Jewish. on mar­ket day, the square would have been crammed with the stalls of Jewish trades­men.

on the day i vis­ited in early septem­ber there was just one dreary sec­ond­hand clothes shop in ev­i­dence. its sign op­ti­misti­cally promised “west­ern fash­ion”, but there is not much pass­ing trade on th­ese near-de­serted streets. it had closed be­fore i left.

“the Jewish shtetls used to be noisy, crowded places be­fore the war,” says Pawlowski who comes from nearby tykocin, a town whose Jews were buried alive a month af­ter Jed­wabne’s were burned. “now they are si­lent. it is the si­lence of a ceme­tery.”

on that hot sum­mer day in July 1941, the peo­ple of Jed­wabne ripped out the heart of their own town, and the place has been dy­ing ever since.

The then Pol­ish Pres­i­dent Alek­sander Kwas­miewski lays a wreath in 2001 at the mon­u­ment in Jed­wabne mark­ingthe mas­sacre of the town’s Jews by Poles. Jed­wabne’s ex-MP Michal Kamin­ski, whose al­liance with the Tories has caused con­tro­versy in the UK, op­posed the idea of a for­mal apol­ogy by­thethen Pres­i­dent

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