Shame and the blame
IanThomson salutes an important investigation. DanielSnowman enjoys relative values
BEYOND THEIR ideological differences, Hitler and Stalin were united in their determination to carve up the Baltic States and destroy Poland. Without their opportunist alliance of 1939 — the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — Hitler would not have been able to implement the mass killings of Jews in Poland, or Stalin been able to deport thousands of Baltic “enemies of the people” to the frozen immensity of Siberia.
Revisionist historians have tried to argue for a supposed moral equivalence between Hitler’s extermination of the Jews and the earlier Stalinist extermination of the kulaks. Yet the industrial exploitation of corpses and their ashes was a uniquely Hitlerian atrocity; never before had a European government planned the annihilation of an entire people.
In the summer of 1941, as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact collapsed and the Germans overran Poland, the humiliation and murder of Jews was made a civic virtue. The small town of Jedwabne, in north-east Poland, witnessed its share of atrocity. One hot day in July, the town’s Jews were rounded
At ease in earlier times: Jedwabne’s synagogue in the 1930s up in the market square, tormented, then herded in their hundreds into a barn, which was set ablaze.
For years, the massacre was blamed on the occupying Germans, but a book by the US historian Jan Gross, Neighbours, published in 2000, revealed that it was the work mostly of Poles.
Prompted by Gross, in 2004, the Polish journalist Anna Bikont published her own, grimly absorbing investigation into Jedwabne, The Crime and the Silence. Written in diary form, the book has only now been translated into English — by Alissa Valles. It unfolds as a series of interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators in Poland, Israel and the United States.
In the course of her research in Jedwabne in particular, Bikont encounters unabashed antisemitism; a belief persists that the murdered Jews were Bolsheviks who had sent gentiles to Siberia under the Soviet occupation. Though most Jews were of course not Communist (and most Communists were not Jews), Hitler had encouraged a belief that Bolshevism was uniformly a Jewish “scourge”.
Antisemitism arose in Jedwabne, as elsewhere in occupied territories, from a Christian failure to live up to the biblical precept of “love thy neighbour as thyself”. Townsfolk, eager for Jewish property, helped Polish thugs carry out the atrocity.
Bikont, herself Jewish, is commendably tenacious in her attempts to confront priests, government officials and local historians. The Crime and the Silence, written in a journalistic firstperson (“I’m scarcely on the ground at Warsaw when my cell phone rings”), ascribes the massacre to the Poles.
Among the 10 men convicted by the Soviets in 1949 for the massacre were three brothers. Still alive, the brothers not surprisingly blame everything on the Germans and claim they were acting under orders. (The Nazis, they claim, were provoked by an incident involving “Jews crowding round their car, throwing wet snow.”)
An estimated 340 Jews of all ages were locked inside a barn and burned alive. The Crime and the Silence, a harrowing work of investigation and documentation, deservedly won the European Book Prize in 2011. Ian Thomson is the author of ‘Primo Levi: A Life’