Shame and the blame

IanThom­son salutes an im­por­tant in­ves­ti­ga­tion. DanielSnow­man en­joys rel­a­tive val­ues

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

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’

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

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