Jedwabne 75 Years Later
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.
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.