Mark Collins – Jedwabne: A Murderous July 1941 Polish Pogrom–and God?

Do consider.  Extensive excerpts from an article at the NY Review of Books (the best general magazine in the anglophone world):


Even Worse Than We Thought

November 19, 2015 Issue

The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne
by Anna Bikont, translated from the Polish by Alissa Valles

There is much slowness in The Crime and the Silence, Anna Bikont’s magisterial investigation into a small massacre of Jews in the town of Jedwabne in northeastern Poland in July 1941. Part of this is authorial: the necessarily slow steps toward as much irrefutable truth as can be possibly found this far after the event…

those who come at the book from a historical and geographical distance will be obliged to pace themselves. It is not just a question of taking in individual spasms of bestial cruelty. It is also a broader question: the rate at which we can stomach the truths of man’s inhumanity to man, and ruminate on their causes.

There is, first, the question of numbers. It is impossible for us to imagine, except in a very general way, the death of six million people. Reading about the Holocaust, and seeing film of those killing factories, fill us with terror and pity in a way that often fogs the mind. So what might be the “perfect” number of dead, one that allows us to feel the magnitude of mass death, but also to individualize it? In modern times, it would perhaps be the death toll of a major airplane crash: an end comparatively easy to imagine, and also individualized for us when those mug shots and brief bio-obits appear in the following days’ newspapers.

At Jedwabne, the death toll is impossible to estimate accurately. It could be as high as 1,500; or it could, as the prosecutor appointed by the Institute of National Remembrance in 2000 conservatively concluded, be “not fewer than 340.” Taking the (extremely cautious) lower figure, the massacre at Jedwabne would be comparable to the crash of a jumbo jet. Except that the parallel is only partial. Even if we imagine the captain deliberately crashing the plane, so that it is murder, not an accident, there is this difference. Imagine that airplane crash, but with a fair number of passengers escaping death. As they wander traumatized from the wreckage, staff from the airline beat them to death with clubs and poles and crowbars, chase them into marshes where they drown, and throw them down wells. That’s more what it would be like…

The first pogrom in the area took place at Wąsosz on July 5, the second (“exceptionally well documented,” according to Bikont) at Radziłów, eleven miles from Jedwabne, on July 7, and the biggest one at Jedwabne itself on July 10. There was no shortage of local “aspirants to self-cleansing.” The Jews were wrenched from their houses and beaten, driven to the marketplace and ordered to weed it with spoons, forced to break up a statue of Lenin and run around the marketplace carrying its pieces while singing “the war’s our fault.”

Several dozen were herded into a barn, shot, and thrown into a pit; then most of the remaining Jews were driven into the barn, which was doused in gasoline and set alight. Those who escaped or had hidden were tracked down and butchered. The Jewish community in Jedwabne ceased to exist on that day. Their homes and shops were first looted, then occupied by ethnic Poles…

Bikont’s book, which began as a journalistic investigation for the Gazeta Wyborcza, is meticulous in its procedures, absolute in its commitment to truth, and-perhaps therefore-powerfully dispiriting. Her book widens out historically to record the disgusting pre-war anti-Semitism in Poland-led by the Catholic Church and the professional elites-and the even more disgusting postwar anti-Semitism (98 percent of the country’s Jews had been killed, but there were still Polish fascists and “patriots” eager to pull returning Jews off the trains and slaughter them).

Yet the essentially narrow focus on this place, in these years, on the massacre by neighbors, means that the mechanisms and lineaments of anti-Semitism are shown the more clearly and bleakly. As elsewhere, the Jews were placed in all sorts of inescapable double binds. If they were forcibly kept apart from society, it meant that they were by nature separate and alien; if they assimilated, it was because they wanted to undermine Poland from within. They were forbidden from buying land in pre-war Poland, then told that-despite centuries of presence-they were “guests” with “no tie to the land.”..

Another reader to whom Bikont showed her manuscript had this response: “For me the hardest thing to bear is not that the Jews were massacred in Jedwabne and the area, but that it was done with such cruelty and that the killing gave so much joy.” This is indeed the hardest part to stomach, the part that quietly urges you to give up on humanity, yielding to a dismay that this is probably what we are all like, or all capable of being like, at some level, underneath. The joy, the mockery, the exultation of slaughter, and then the shamelessness of the killer’s wife turning up at church on Sunday in a looted fur coat only recently worn to synagogue.

It is this relish for killing and the flaunting of spoils that asks us the hardest question. We can identify proximate causes of what happened: the extreme anti-Semitism of public life, the moral trahison of the professional classes, the particular circumstances by which Jedwabne and nearby towns changed hands in wartime, the age-long resentment of those who are different, and so on. These are the small “whys,” which lead us to an overwhelming “why”-one at which language as well as thought often fails. Given that most of those involved, on both sides, had and have religious belief, or at least religious observance, the question looms the greater. “I just don’t know where God was at that moment,” commented a Catholic Pole who saved and subsequently married a Jewish woman…

Bikont does not get drawn into questions about the nature of evil; instead-and rightly-she is too busy delineating and documenting its manifestations. Her eye and ear miss little. Those spoons used for weeding the Jedwabne marketplace turn up decades later during the excavation of the barn: though when found, they are “bent” from the work they once did. Like Lanzmann, she is, almost without exception, tirelessly polite. Here she records the swerving mind and words of a seventy-three-year-old retired seamstress, her mind perverted-or, more likely, endorsed-by the ultra-right-wing Catholic Radio Maryja:

Holy Scripture tells us the Jews are a tribe of vipers, perverts, they’re untrustworthy and faithless. They played tricks on the Lord himself, and He had to send down plagues on them. He made them wander in the wilderness for thirty years. It’s no accident He punished them in the way He did. I’ve known about that from before the war, from religious studies. I remember everything. I’m seventy-three and I’ve still no sclerosis at all, though I don’t eat margarine, only butter, because it’s Jewish companies that make margarine…

Margarine.  Mass murder.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


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