On July 10, 1941, residents of the small Polish town of Jedwabne herded local Jews into a barn and set it on fire. For nearly sixty years the massacre was suppressed and denied, until Jan Gross published Neighbors, positing that sixteen hundred men, women, and children perished in the blaze. Yet the facts remained obscure. In The Crime and the Silence, called “a terrifying and necessary book” by Julian Barnes and “a masterpiece of historical journalism” by Jan Gross himself, Anna Bikont sets out to report on this small town as it comes to grips with its own history. Her account alternates between journal entries from her time reporting—when she interviewed survivors and deniers, and withstood death threats—and chapters that recount the historical events that surround the killing. The following excerpt from Bikont’s early journal entries and the first chapter of her book combine what Timothy Snyder has called “the persistence and energy of a journalist with the humanity and care of a poet . . . tactfully delivering truths that we might all do well to contemplate.”
AUGUST 28, 2000
“It’s a lie that Poles killed the Jews in Jedwabne,” says Tadeusz Ś., a retired doctor from Warsaw and an eyewitness to the events of July 10, 1941.
My boss, Adam Michnik, the editor in chief of the Gazeta Wyborcza, receives this visitor in his office. When Adam informed me that according to Tadeusz Ś., who was referred to him by a friend, the crime committed in Jedwabne could not be blamed on the Poles, I heard in his voice both excitement and relief. I knew he hadn’t been able to come to terms with the facts revealed by Jan Tomasz Gross in Neighbors. We’d talked about it many times. Before Gross’s book appeared in May 2000, I’d said in a Gazeta editorial meeting that we should report on the little town confronting the crime from its wartime past.
Gross reconstructs events on the basis of three different sources: postwar testimony given by Szmul Wasersztejn, court papers from the postwar trial in which the defendants were charged with collaborating with the occupation forces, and the Jedwabne Book of Memory, recollections of Jewish emigrants from Jedwabne recorded in the United States. He draws tough conclusions and formulates even tougher hypotheses. In Jedwabne, Poles burned all the town’s Jews in a barn, a total of sixteen hundred people. “It was a collective murder in both senses of the word,” writes Gross, “in terms of the number of victims and of their persecutors.”
Adam rejected all my proposals to go to Jedwabne. Nor did he want to publish excerpts from Gross’s book before it was released. Now he wants me to hear for myself what really happened. He has insisted that I be present at this meeting, although Tadeusz Ś. wanted to meet with him alone. Our visitor doesn’t allow us to record the conversation or print his surname. Reluctantly he agrees to let me take notes. In 1941 he was fifteen. He happened to be in Jedwabne on July 10. He says he was on his way to the dentist.
“In the morning two Germans in black Gestapo uniforms rode into the market square on motorcycles. From a balcony I watched them ordering the Jews to assemble. They put the rabbi’s black hat on a stick to mock him. I followed the Jews all the way to the barn.”
“How many Germans did you see at the barn?” asked Adam.
“Three. Germans like to do things properly, so they had the barn owner brought out to open it with a key, though they could have just lifted the doors out.”
“And that was all done by three Germans?”
“There were probably more of them in plainclothes. There were three in uniform, with handguns. I saw the Jews go into the barn of their own accord, as if they were under hypnosis.”
“And they didn’t try to escape when it was on fire?”
“No, they didn’t. It’s horrible.”
“Did any Poles take part in this crime?”
“In every society there’s some criminal element. Pick up any newspaper, you’ll find plenty of reports on rapes, murders. During the occupation there were szmalcowniks, people who blackmailed Jews in hiding.”
“Only in big cities. You don’t know the provinces. It’s native-born Poles, the impoverished gentry, who live there. They wouldn’t think to take revenge on the Jews for betraying Poles to the Soviets. At the barn they were shouting: ‘Get yourselves out of there, Yids!’ There were just three Germans standing there with sawed-off shotguns, not even rifles. The older people who were there thought it was wrong. They talked about it at church the week after.”
“They thought they themselves had been wrong?”
“No, the Jews. Not one of them had it in him to turn on the Germans.”
“The Poles thought the victims were in the wrong?”
“For not defending themselves.”
“But if someone is being murdered in front of me, I should come to his aid, right? And if I don’t, because I’m scared, or stunned, because the situation is too much for me, I’d blame myself, not the victims.”
“Poles would have helped them if they’d fought back against the Germans. When the Jews grabbed rifles and went around town under the Soviets, they were real tough guys, but when the Germans took them to the barn, what did they do? Folks get offended if you get them caught up in something like that. The Jews should have defended themselves. People called them cowards because they waited for the Poles to defend them and didn’t do anything for themselves. But saying that there were sixteen hundred people in there is a lie and a joke.”
“And how many of them do you think there were?” I interject.
“A thousand, no more,” Tadeusz Ś. replies. I look at Adam and see his face go pale.
At the end Ś. warns us again: “Please don’t mention my name. I don’t want those Jewish vultures to lie in wait for me at my house.”
SEPTEMBER 1, 2000
The Institute of National Remembrance announces it is launching an investigation into the Jedwabne massacre. When I run into Adam Michnik in the hallway at the Gazeta Wyborcza, he tells me that the conversation with Tadeusz Ś. haunts him. He suggests I use it as the basis for a short story set in the town of J. during the war. But I don’t write fiction.
I decide to put in a request for a year’s unpaid leave and go to Jedwabne for myself, if I can’t do it for the Gazeta. There must be a memory of the atrocity in the town, there must be some witnesses. I will try to reconstruct the facts, but also what happened to the memory of those events over the last sixty years.
SEPTEMBER 5, 2000
The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. I hold five little pages written in a sprawling hand, with certain words crossed out. It’s Szmul Wasersztejn’s Jedwabne testimony, translated from the Yiddish. “Infants were murdered at their mothers’ breasts, people were brutally beaten and forced to sing and dance. Bloodied and maimed, they were all herded into the barn. Then gas was poured on the barn and it was set afire. Afterward thugs went by Jewish homes, looking for the sick and the children left behind. The sick they carried to the barn themselves, children they hung in pairs by their little legs and dragged them there on their backs, then lifted them with pitchforks and heaved them into the hot furnace of the barn.”
• • •
Lord, Rid Poland of the Jews
It is the tenth of Tishri 5699, or, according to the Gregorian calendar, October 5, 1938: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most important Jewish holiday. On that day, all Jews go to the synagogue. Crowds of people flock across the market square. The next day no Jewish child in Jedwabne or Radziłów will go to school, and Jewish shops will be closed until sunset. There are no Catholic townspeople to be seen, only Yiddish can be heard that evening. In Jedwabne the mayor’s mother, Mrs. Grądzki, who’s not particularly fond of Jews, stands leaning against the wall of the synagogue on Szkolna Street as she does every year; she is moved by their songs. She has come to hear her favorite, the Kol Nidre, the prayer for absolution of oaths forgotten, or taken rashly or under duress.
The older children go to synagogue and participate in the daylong fast, but the young ones—many households have up to seven or eight children—are entrusted to Polish neighbors that day. They are given a hard-boiled egg or milk straight from the cow, which they drink from their own cups—the neighbors respect that the children are to keep kosher. They understand each other well enough—Yiddish is a language they hear every day: in shops, on the street, working with Jews. Some Poles speak it fluently. Among those in Jedwabne who speak good Yiddish is Bronisław Śleszyński, the man who will give his barn to burn the Jews.
It is May 3, 1939: a big Eucharistic procession on a national Polish holiday. In church the choir sings, “We raise our plea before your altar / Lord, rid Poland of the Jews.” In their Sunday best the faithful come out after Mass to participate in a celebration organized by the church in collaboration with local members of the National Party, a party founded by Roman Dmowski, whose obsession was the eternal Jewish conspiracy against Poland.
The procession moves through the streets around the market square, on either side a file of girls in white carrying bouquets of flowers, and in between them, little boys in surplices, with bells. They are followed by older kids belonging to the Association of Young Catholic Men and Women, and adults bring up the rear of the procession, which fills the street from end to end. They are accompanied by an orchestra and flag-bearers on bicycles. On the steps of the church on the square a National Party member invited over from the larger town of Łomża, gives a speech. He speaks of Poland today, dominated by the foreign element, and Poland tomorrow, when the nation will liberate itself from its enslavement to international Jewish finance, and Poles will buy only from Poles. At the visitor’s side stands the parish priest, also a National Party member. The people gathered unfurl banners: Peasants and workers into trade—Jews to Palestine or Madagascar; A penny to a stranger harms the nation; Rid Poland of Jews. They shout slogans and sing:
Ah, beloved Poland,
you’ve people in the millions
and on top of all that
you’re filled up with Jews.
Rise up, white eagle,
smite Jews with your claws,
so that they will never
play the master over us.
That day the Jewish inhabitants of the town don’t leave their houses, don’t allow their children to go out. The next day they will say with relief that it wasn’t too bad: a gang of National Party members getting drunker and drunker, singing patriotic songs to the accompaniment of an accordion, and yelling “Beat the Jew,” until deep into the night, but only a few windows were broken in Jewish homes.
Although the Jewish and Christian inhabitants of Radziłów and Jedwabne did not ordinarily look very different (in these parts Hasidim were rare and Jews most often dressed like regular townspeople; the elders wore hats), although their children generally went to the same schools (Jedwabne had no separate Jewish school; Radziłów did, but it was private and few parents could afford the fees), although Jews and Christians often lived side by side in the same apartment buildings, and there were friendly ties among children, neighbors, and business partners—they lived separate lives and spoke different languages. Jews, especially the young, got along fine in Polish, but at home they spoke Yiddish. The keeping of kosher kitchens ruled out reciprocal invitations to visit. Jewish children often studied Hebrew and Jewish history after school, and they also helped their parents in their shops or workshops. Polish children went to help on the farms (even the Poles who lived in small towns usually had farmland, cows, and pigs), and often for that reason left school after a few grades.
Social and cultural life ran on separate tracks. Immediately after World War I there had still been a few things Poles and Jews did together—picnics, festivities initiated by the volunteer fire brigade, the riflemen, or the reservists—but Jews often met with an unfriendly response from Poles, and in the latter half of the thirties they were simply thrown out of these organizations. The lives of Catholics revolved around the parish and the world of churchgoers, as well as events organized by the National Party, which was blatant in its exclusion of Jews.
In this region 90 percent of both communities were poor or destitute. Remembering the thirties in his diary, Mosze Rozenbaum of Radziłów, who emigrated to Australia in April 1939, wrote that hunger would wake him at night and he wasn’t able to concentrate in class. In winter he would go out into the courtyard and eat a handful of snow to fool his stomach out of its pangs.
However, the Jews were not as poor as the Poles whom they employed—women in the household, men in the workshops. The Sabbath czulent was often the most nutritious dish the Polish neighbors’ children had a chance to eat all week, when they brought their school notebooks over to a Jewish friend’s house on Saturday night. When the Catholic neighbors were told that the Jews were the cause of their poverty, many had no trouble believing it.
Morris Atlas, formerly Mosze Atłasowicz, who left Radziłów before World War I, asked his father in a letter from across the ocean in the latter half of the twenties whether he should come back to Poland to help him in his old age. His father’s answer was brief: “Better stay where you are. This isn’t a good country for Jews.”
Anna Bikont is a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza, the main newspaper in Poland, which she helped found in 1989. For her articles on the crimes of Jedwabne and Radzilów, she was honored in 2001 with Poland’s most prestigious award in journalism, the Press Prize. In 2011 she received the European Book Prize for Le crime et le silence, the French version of The Crime and the Silence. In 2008 and 2009, Bikont was a Cullman Fellow of the New York Public Library.
Alissa Valles is a poet and the cotranslator of the collected poems and prose of Zbigniew Herbert, as well as the translator of other modern Polish poets, including Aleksander Wat, Miron Bialoszewski, and Ryszard Krynicki.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
Read an Excerpt of Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering A Lost World in a 1938 Family Film
On Lucia Berlin: The World in Perpetual Motion
The Supernatural Grace of Flannery O’Connor