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July 17, 2016 1:59 pm

Jedwabne 75 Years Later

avatar by Jonny Daniels

Email a copy of "Jedwabne 75 Years Later" to a friend
The site of the Jedwabne massacre. Photo: provided.

The site of the Jedwabne massacre. Photo: provided.

There are few sites as divisive and emotionally stirring as Jedwabne, especially when dealing with contemporary Polish-Jewish relations.

Jedwabne is the name of the city where Polish citizens rounded up their Jewish neighbors, forced them into a wooden building, and burnt them alive — mercilessly murdering the children along with their parents. According to the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland, at least 340 Polish Jews were murdered there. This all happened on July 10, 1941, exactly 75 years ago.

Sadly, however, with no end of historic proof and the vast majority of Polish politicians speaking about it, there are still those who refuse to believe that this happened, and have concocted a slew of odd conspiracy theories to explain the massacre.

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Growing up, I would have thought that Jedwabne was typical of the Polish attitude towards Jews during the war. As a Jew in England, I understood that the Poles were just as bad, if not worse, than the German Nazis; growing up we wouldn’t buy a German car or electronics, and our attitude towards Poland was always incredibly negative. When I sat with Noble Laureate, Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, he even said the reason why the Nazis built their camps in Poland was because they knew the Poles wouldn’t protest the mass killings of Jews.

Over my last two and a half years of being deeply immersed in Polish history, culture and politics, I understand something else to be true — something very complicated to attempt to put into words and something incredibly unpopular on both sides.

On July 10, standing in Jedwabne, my thoughts were clarified.

Let’s start with the not-so-obvious fact that not every Polish man was Jan Karski, and not every Polish lady was Irena Sandler (two Polish Christian heroes of the Holocaust). The Polish nation must be honest and open about its sometimes difficult past — and while remembering the heroes, it also must remember the not-so-isolated incidences, such as Jedwabne and Kielce.

On the other hand, truly what else can we expect from Poland?

As Noah Kleiger, a well-known Israeli journalist and survivor of Auschwitz, said to me the day after the death of Elie Weisel, “I didn’t agree with Elie about one thing, his notion of forgiveness. I could never and would never forgive those bastards for what they did to me and my family; however, I cannot blame their children, and not their great grandchildren.” And, in all fairness, how can we continue to blame the descendants for the actions of these people?

We as a Jewish community have to get over our hatred of Poles and Poland; it doesn’t help us. As Israelis, we have few better friends on the international stage, with the Poles a constant ally in the United Nations, military training partners and more. I won’t feed you the nonsense that Poland is undergoing a Jewish revival, because it’s not; by comparison, there are around 20,000 Christian-born Buddhists in Poland today, that’s a revival. But Poland is also one of the safest places for Jews in Europe today.

As for the notion that Poles “were the worst” — I just can’t understand it. The guards at concentration camps were Ukrainians and Litvaks; in cities like Kovno the locals butchered the Jews, their women watched, holding their children to the windows to get a better view, then all together sang the national anthem in celebration. For sure, in Poland there were collaborators and bad people, but not enough to judge a nation.

The last survivor from the city of Jedwabne, Itzhak Lewin, who was there on July 10, said something so true: as with everything in life, there is always a balance; you cannot have good without bad. A great deal of his friends and family were murdered by Poles in the massacre in Jedwabne, yet he was also saved by Poles who hid him and some of his family members just 5 kilometers away from the killing site.

We cannot and should not forgive those who undertook the most repugnant and abhorant crimes against our people. We must forever remember those we lost. However, we must also understand how to move forward. We must work to better our future and focus on the good. Focus on those who did something a lot harder than killing or giving up their neighbor — those who risked their lives and the lives of their loved ones to save their neighbors. That is how I choose to move forward.

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  • David Siegel

    Otherwise, this was an interesting piece. I agree with your survivor about not blaming the descendants for the crimes of their elders. That’s like many Christians, who for many centuries, and even many today, who still hold Jews responsible for the killing of Jesus. I won’t get into whether they were right or not, as this is not the focus of the article.

  • David Siegel

    Your sentence should be “incidents, such as Jedwabne and Kielce”. You wrote incidences.

  • Bolo

    Jews are dumb. The end.

  • Sally

    Jonny,

    Both need to be focused on. We can never forget that many of the perpetrators were just ordinary neighbors who obviously demonstrated more than “ordinary” behavior once the war started and they knew they could easily get away with it.

  • Yaakov

    We shouldn’t need to put any kind of spin on anything, one way or the other. We can see things as they are. We don’t need to point out that children were murdered along with their parents; every life is valuable regardless of age. We don’t need to aggrandize someone by identifying him as the winner of some prize, especially when the same prize has been awarded to many objectionable people; we can evaluate the person’s accomplishments based on their own merits. And we can look at the residents of eastern Europe just as they were, many bad and at least some good, and we can try to learn from all of it.

    • Bloke

      Many Jews were also Eastern Europeans. Does your last sentence also refer to them?

  • Mike

    Poland and it’s people consider the Jews to be weak beings. All it took for Jews to be crippled psychologically for eternity is for a rogue group of Poles to kill an insignificant number of Jews. Considering the casualties Poles took fighting and from Ukrainian Volhynia murders the Poles make Jews look feeble minded and weak. The Poles moved on a long time ago and most Poles don’t care about WW2 because they have a purpose and are too busy with careers, living happy lives, and nation building. WW2 is a distant event which no one dwells over. The heroes and fallen are remembered on particular days and that’s it. Poles don’t like Jews because Jews are a constantly whining group that never stops accusing Poles but Poles could not care less and simply find Jews annoying. Poles don’t want to have anything to do with Jews and don’t care what they think. Jews should seriously move on because the newer generation of Poles are conservative right wing patriots and don’t tolerate Jewish annoyances. If Jews want to be treated with human respect then I highly suggest to stop annoying Poles by constantly running your mouths, because that’s all you are doing and nothing more. Move on, go make some Jew babies in Israel.. Poland has nothing to do with Jews in the modern day and Jews are nothing more than an old tale, move on.

    • bloke

      Sounds ridiculous and there’s no need to antagonize anyone.

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