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The Day We Burned Our Neighbors Alive

Polish journalist Anna Bikont faces history in Jedwabne in her masterful new ‘The Crime and the Silence’

David Mikics
October 20, 2015
Reuters/Jendrzej Wojnar/Agencja Gazeta
A man uses a pressure hose to clean the monument with Nazi swastikas painted over it in Jedwabne, September 1, 2011. Vandals daubed Nazi swastikas and SS signs on a monument in the town of Jedwabne, eastern Poland, which commemorates the mass killing of Jews burned alive by their Polish neighbors during World War II.Reuters/Jendrzej Wojnar/Agencja Gazeta
Reuters/Jendrzej Wojnar/Agencja Gazeta
A man uses a pressure hose to clean the monument with Nazi swastikas painted over it in Jedwabne, September 1, 2011. Vandals daubed Nazi swastikas and SS signs on a monument in the town of Jedwabne, eastern Poland, which commemorates the mass killing of Jews burned alive by their Polish neighbors during World War II.Reuters/Jendrzej Wojnar/Agencja Gazeta

“I can’t sleep at night. I see it as if it were yesterday. … That terrifying scream that probably didn’t last for more than two minutes, it’s still inside me.” The woman speaking these words was 10 years old on July 10, 1941, when she saw her fellow Poles driving their Jewish neighbors into the barn. Schoolboys jeered at their Jewish classmates, hounding them toward death. Mothers wrapped their babies tight as they tried to shield them against the blows. Within minutes nearly all the town’s Jews—hundreds of them, from infants to old people—would be burned alive. The 10-year-old girl at the window watched the townspeople of Jedwabne pour gasoline at the barn’s four corners and set it alight. Then came the scream.

This account comes from Anna Bikont’s book The Crime and the Silence, which appeared in 2004 in Polish and six years later in French (it won the European Book Prize in 2011) but has just now been translated into English by Alissa Valles. In her work as a reporter for the Gazeta Wyborcza, the liberal Polish newspaper, Bikont has done obsessive, heroic work, interviewing witnesses, perpetrators, and survivors of the Jedwabne massacre and similar mass killings of Jews in the nearby towns of Radzilow and Wasosz. She has discovered a bizarre psychological phenomenon: The townspeople of Jedwabne still insist that they are the victims of Jewish slander. The massacre, they say, was perpetrated either by a few thugs, probably people from out of town, or by the Germans.

Bikont uses the townspeople’s own words to demolish their claim to innocence. She shows that virtually all of Jedwabne knows who the leading murderers were, who stayed home that day in July 1941 and who joined the bloodthirsty mob. These truths were passed down for decades in hints and whispers at kitchen tables and over rounds of vodka. What happened in 1941 was, as Polish President Krasniewski bravely called it, not a pogrom but a genocide, Jedwabne’s wholehearted effort to shatter every trace of Jewish life. Minutes after the killings the town went on a massive looting spree, robbing Jewish homes of silverware, furs, and furniture. These were their neighbors, people they had known for years.

How could an atrocity like Jedwabne happen? Looking for an answer, Bikont confronts the troubled depths of the unequal relationship between Poles and Jews. The trouble stems from Poland’s sense of itself as a perpetual victim nation, crushed over and over by greater powers like Russia and Germany. Until the news about Jedwabne spread, 60 years after the killings happened, it was hard for Poles to think of themselves as the doers, rather than the sufferers, of historical evil.

The Jedwabne massacre first invaded Poland’s public consciousness in 1999, when the filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold released a documentary based on her interviews with local residents. Historian Jan T. Gross used the transcript of Arnold’s film as the basis for his book Neighbors, published one year later, which described the long-repressed mass murder in chilling and carefully footnoted detail. Yet many Poles reacted with disbelief. Gross, whose father is Jewish and who teaches at Princeton, wasn’t a real Pole, they said; much of the evidence he cited came from interrogations conducted after the war by the Stalinist secret police, who used physical torture to extract confessions that were later recanted. The Jews, predictably, were digging up falsehoods and lies in order to make money by blackening Poland’s reputation.

Within a year, nearly everyone in Poland knew about the Jedwabne controversy. In Neighbors and its sequel, Fear, about the pogroms that Poles committed against Jews shortly after the war’s end, Gross laid open the dark side of Polish-Jewish relations, which had been covered up for the past 60 years.

On March 15, 2001, workers removed an inscription from the monument in Jedwabne’s town square: The inscription said that the Germans had killed the town’s Jews. That summer, on the 60-year anniversary of the burning, a ceremony was held at the site of the killings. President Kwasniewski told Der Spiegel that the visit to Jedwabne was the “greatest challenge of [his] presidency.” Yet Jedwabne itself boycotted the ceremony; only four or five townspeople came to it. On the road to the site of the long-ago crime, young men shouted about “Yids,” made obscene gestures, and blared loud music to drown out the speeches.


In the Nazi years, which were catastrophic for Poles as well as Jews, Poles often exploited their power over Jewish life and death and even laughed about it. Bikont quotes historian Jerzy Jedlicki, who says that “the destruction of the Jews was watched with amusement by a significant part of the Polish population. That amusement, the laughter that accompanied the holocaust—I remember it, because at that time I was on the other, Aryan side of the wall.” Before Gross’ Neighbors, Jedlicki continued, Poles, “and I include myself in this,” had run from the facts about Polish treatment of Jews during the Holocaust.

Gross’ books changed everything. In the first decade of the 21st century Poles began to confront the fact that some of their parents and grandparents had ransacked Jewish homes during the war, had turned in Jews to the Germans to make money, and in the worst cases, had murdered Jews themselves. As happened in Germany in the 1970s, the country’s sense of guilt has led to renewed appreciation of the Jewish presence that was crucial to its national identity. Young Poles are now studying the lost culture of their Jewish neighbors with a hunger never seen before.

Marek Edelman, the only one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising who chose to stay in Poland after the war, said that he was beaten far more by Poles in the 1930s than he was under the Germans. His case was not unusual. Bikont points out that the anti-Semitic agitation of the 1930s was particularly strong in the Lomza area, where Jedwabne is located. The region had supported the right-wing Polish National Party for over 100 years. In the ’30s the National Party threw itself full force into the battle against the Jews. Lomza’s priests were at the forefront of the anti-Semitic campaigns. The Jews had killed Christ: Virtually every sermon dwelt on this theme. Anti-Semitism was rampant in Polish classrooms in the ’30s, and not just in Lomza. Jews often had to sit at the back of the room and endure the insults of their teachers and fellow students. Poles regularly beat Jews in the streets and smashed the windows of Jewish homes. Most Catholic newspapers proclaimed that Poland needed to get rid of its Jews.

“No Pole was ever harassed by Germans for not burning Jews,” one of the Jedwabne townspeople told Bikont. Like most of the handful of people in Jedwabne who are willing to speak the truth about the massacre, the man refused to give his name, knowing his neighbors will hound him for denying their sham version of history. Jedwabne has stuck to its official story: Germans forced Poles to commit murder. The town’s priest goes even further, saying to Bikont that perhaps the Germans, who were known to be clever, dressed as Poles when they herded the Jews to the barn.

Bikont hears over and over from the people of Jedwabne, young and old, that “the Jews” had sent Poles to Siberia under the Soviets, and so it was only inevitable that Poles would take their revenge (though, of course, it was really the Germans who were responsible for the killing). Historian Tomasz Strzembosz, the darling of the Polish right, claims that in 1939 Polish Jews first welcomed the invading Soviet army and then eagerly sent Poles to labor camps. But many Poles embraced the Russians as well. The number of Polish Jews who joined the NKVD was far less than the number of Poles. The Soviets deported Jews just as they deported Poles and confiscated their property equally.

Yet these simple facts, Bikont shows, are even now resisted by a substantial portion of the Polish nation. The story of Polish suffering under the Soviets is still bound up with the strange myth that the Jews joined the Communist enemy en masse in 1939 and that, in effect, the Jews and the Russians ruled Poland together. Was it any wonder that Poland, crushed by Jewish commissars, lashed out against Jews when the Nazis replaced the Soviets a few years later?

“The Church is the black hole,” said Bikont when I talked to her on the phone a few weeks ago. She told me that the Polish Church is “still anti-Semitic, and those who disagree with its anti-Semitism are ostracized.” In her book Bikont highlights the courageous exceptions. She quotes Catholic priests and bishops who speak honestly about Jedwabne and similar massacres and who pray for the Jews murdered in the land of their ancestors by Poles. Father Stanislaw Musial says about the Jedwabne killings, “It’s hard to find a more despicable or cruel crime in human history,” and he marvels at the fact that the Polish Church busies itself trying to find extenuating circumstances for the massacre. But men and women like Musial go against the Church’s message. It’s the Jewish Communists who are guilty, the Church insists; and the leaders of Chicago’s Polish community repeat the same anti-Jewish charges, according to Bikont. Such are the distortions that extreme nationalism requires, all the more disturbing when they don the cloak of religion.

The Crime and the Silence necessarily meditates on the fraught status of Jewishness in contemporary Poland. A friend at the Institute of National Remembrance in Bialystok, without being prompted, swears to Bikont that she will never reveal that Bikont is Jewish (a fact Bikont herself only discovered in her thirties). The friend has implied that Jewishness will be taken as a stain, a sign that one’s words cannot be trusted when it comes to Polish history.


While Bikont told me in our interview that Poland’s stance toward its Jewish past has “changed for the good in the last 10 years,” and that the new museum of Jewish History in Warsaw is a sign of healthy new interest in the country’s Jewish heritage, it is also true that old suspicions linger. After the war Poland became a mono-ethnic and mono-religious nation, and the current right-wing government, refusing to accept Muslim refugees, insists that it must stay this way. Seeing Poland as a land solely of and for Polish Catholics means slighting the Jews’ 800-year presence in that land.

Bikont does not forget to give us the inspiring side of the Jedwabne story, the steadfast heroism of those who resisted then and now the evil around them. She tells us about Stanislaw and Marianna Ramotowski, he a Christian Pole who saved the Jewish Marianna (born Rachela Finkelsztejn), and then married her; when Bikont interviewed them, they remained in Jedwabne, living next to the murderers and those who side with them. Among the later heroes are the town’s mayor, Krzysztof Godlewski, and the few others who saw it as their duty to confront the truth about Jedwabne’s past. Nearly all eventually leave, hounded by late-night phone calls and insulting shouts in the street. Bikont traces their stories with care: Leszek Dziedzic, who ends up in America with his family; and, in an affecting episode, Jan Skrodzki, who with great determination searches for the facts about his father, who turns out to have been a murderer of Jews. Bikont memorably narrates the tales of several Jewish survivors, among them Awigdor Kochaw, who was on the market square that day in 1941, ran and hid in a field of grain, and heard the doomed reciting the Shema; he survived the war by passing as a gentile.

The most moving section of Bikont’s book concerns a Christian Pole, Antonina Wyrzykowska, who saved seven Jews during the war; they lived on her farm, under the pigsty and the chicken house. Wyrzykowska sprinkled gas around the pigsty, so that when the Germans came with their dogs to sniff out Jews, the gas made the dogs lose their sense of smell. Wearing a yellow badge that said Jude, she brought flour and bread to the Lomza ghetto. Just after the war ended, men from the Polish Home Army knocked on her door, entered, and brutally beat her because she had sheltered Jews from the Nazis. (Before Gross’ book, the Polish Home Army’s atrocities against Jews had been another near-forbidden topic in Poland.) In the eyes of Jedwabne, Wyrzykowska’s wartime actions discredited her six decades later. It was a shameful fact that she had rescued seven human beings at the risk of her own life, because those human beings were Jews, and therefore not worth saving.

On July 10, 2001, Antonina Wyrzykowska was too frightened to come to the ceremony for the murdered Jews of Jedwabne: Three of the men who had beaten her up in 1945 were still living nearby.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.