March 17, 2001

Poles and the Jews: How Deep the Guilt?


The Associated Press
A monument at Jedwabne, Poland, that blamed Nazi occupiers for a massacre of local Jews. It was removed on Thursday after public acknowledgment that Poles committed the murders.

The Associated Press
Jan T. Gross, who exposed Polish responsibility for the massacre of Jews at Jedwabne.


n July 10, 1941, 1,600 Jews, nearly the entire Jewish population of the Polish village of Jedwabne, were murdered by their Polish neighbors. Some were hunted down and killed with clubs, axes and knives; most were herded into a barn and then burned alive. Although the slaughter was not a secret, publicly the Nazi occupiers were blamed. A monument in Jedwabne (pronounced yed-VAHB-nay) declared: "Place of martyrdom of the Jewish people. Hitler's Gestapo and gendarmerie burned 1,600 people alive, July 10, 1941." But last May, Jan T. Gross, a historian at New York University, published "Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne" in Poland. The book, which will be issued in the United States in April, documents the massacre by Polish villagers in gruesome detail. In a country whose people think of themselves as wartime victims, not villains, it set off a storm of debate in corner shops, cafes and classrooms, and among the country's political and church leaders. Some Poles have continued to deny Polish responsibility; most have tried to wrestle with the country's history of anti-Semitism and questions of collective guilt. Jozef Cardinal Glemp, the Roman Catholic Primate, and President Aleksander Kwasniewski have publicly asked for forgiveness, and on Thursday the Jedwabne memorial was removed. Adam Michnik is a dissident and historian who spent six years in prison under the postwar Communist regime, served as an adviser to the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and is now editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest daily newspaper. He wrote this article for The New York Times, and it was translated from the Polish by Ewa Zadrzynska.

Do Poles, along with Germans, bear guilt for the Holocaust? It is hard to imagine a more absurd claim.

Not a single Polish family was spared by Hitler and Stalin. The two totalitarian dictatorships obliterated three million Poles and three million Polish citizens classified as Jews by the Nazis.

Poland was the first country to oppose Hitler's demands and the first to stand against his aggression. Poland never had a Quisling. No Polish regiment fought on behalf of the Third Reich. Betrayed by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Poles fought alongside the anti-Nazi forces from the first day until the last. And inside Poland armed resistance to the German occupation was widespread.

The British prime minister paid homage to the Poles for their role in the Battle of Britain and the president of the United States called Poles an "inspiration" to the world. Yet that didn't stop them from delivering Poland into Stalin's clutches at Yalta. Heroes of the Polish resistance — enemies of Stalin's Communism — ended up in Soviet gulags and Polish Communist prisons.

All of these truths contribute to Poland's image of itself as an innocent and noble victim of foreign violence and intrigue. After the war, while the West was able to reflect on what had happened, Stalinist terror stymied public discussion in Poland about the war, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

At the same time, anti-Semitic traditions were deeply rooted in Poland. In the 19th century, when the Polish state didn't exist, the modern nation that was to emerge was shaped by ethnic and religious ties and by opposing antagonistic neighbors often hostile to the dream of Polish independence. Anti-Semitism was the ideological glue of great political nationalistic formations. And yet it was also used at various points as a tool by Russian occupiers in accordance with the principle "divide et impera."

In the 1920's and 30's, anti-Semitism took hold. It became a fixture of radical right- wing nationalists and it could be detected in the utterances of the hierarchy of the Catholic church. Though historically Poland had been a relatively safe haven for them, Jews began to feel increasingly discriminated against and unsafe — and they were, with noisy anti-Semitic groups, segregated seating at universities and calls for pogroms.

During Hitler's occupation, the Polish nationalistic and anti-Semitic right didn't collaborate with the Nazis, as the right wing did elsewhere in Europe, but actively participated in the anti-Hitler undergound. Polish anti-Semites fought against Hitler, and some of them even rescued Jews, though this was punishable by death.

Thus we have a singularly Polish paradox: on occupied Polish soil, a person could be an anti-Semite, a hero of the resistance and a savior of Jews.

Fourteen years ago an essay recalled a well-known appeal to save the Jews that was published by a famous Catholic writer, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, in August 1942. She wrote of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto awaiting death without hope of rescue and how the entire world — England, America, Jews overseas and Poles — was silent. "The dying Jews are surrounded by Pilates washing their hands," she wrote. "This silence cannot be tolerated any longer. No matter what the reasons for it, this silence is a disgrace."

Speaking of Catholic Poles, she continued: "Our feelings toward the Jews haven't changed. We still consider them the political, economic and ideological enemies of Poland. Furthermore, we are aware that they hate us even more than they hate the Germans, that they hold us responsible for their misfortune. . . . The knowledge of these feelings doesn't relieve us of the duty of condemning the crime. We don't want to be Pilates. We have no chance to act against the German crimes, we can't help or save anybody, but we protest from the depths of our hearts, filled with compassion, indignation and awe. . . . The compulsory participation of the Polish nation in this bloody show, which is taking place on Polish soil, can breed indifference to the wrongs, the sadism and above all the sinister conviction that one can kill one's neighbors and go unpunished."

This extraordinary appeal, full of idealism and courage while openly poisoned by anti-Semitic stereotypes, illustrates the paradox of Polish attitudes toward the dying Jews. The anti-Semitic tradition compels the Poles to perceive the Jews as aliens while the Polish heroic tradition compels them to save them.

The same Kossak-Szczucka, in a letter to a friend after the war, described a wartime incident on a Warsaw bridge: "Another time, on the Kierbedz bridge, a German saw a Pole giving alms to a starving Jewish urchin. He pounced and ordered the Pole to throw the child into the river or else he would be shot along with the young beggar. `There is nothing you can to do help him. I will kill him anyway; he is not allowed to be here. You can go free, if you drown him, or I will kill you, too. Drown him or die. I will count . . . 1, 2 —'

"The Pole could not take it. He broke down and threw the child over the rail into the river. The German gave him a pat on the shoulder. `Braver Kerl.' They went their separate ways. Two days later, the Pole hanged himself."

The lives of those Poles who felt the guilt of being helpless witnesses to atrocity were marked by a deep trauma, which surfaces with each new debate about anti-Semitism, Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust. After all, people in Poland know deep inside that they were the ones who moved into the houses vacated by Jews herded into the ghetto. And there were other reasons for guilt. There were some Poles who turned Jews in and others who hid Jews for money.

Polish public opinion is rarely united, but almost all Poles react very sharply when confronted with the charge that Poles get their anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk and with accusations of their complicity in the Shoah. For the anti-Semites, who are plentiful on the margins of Poland's political life, those attacks are proof of the international anti-Polish Jewish conspiracy. To normal people who came of age in the years of falsifications and silence about the Holocaust, these allegations seem unjust.

To these people, Jan Tomasz Gross's book "Neighbors," which revealed the story of the murder by Poles of 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne, was a terrible shock. It is difficult to describe the extent of this shock. Mr. Gross's book has generated a heated response comparable to the Jewish community's reaction to the publication of Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem." Arendt wrote about the collaboration of some of the Jewish communities with the Nazis: "The Jewish Councils of Elders were informed by Eichmann or his men of how many Jews were needed to fill each train, and they made out the list of deportees. The Jews registered, filled out innumerable forms, answered pages and pages of questionnaires regarding their property so that it could be seized the more easily; they then assembled at the collection points and boarded the trains. The few who tried to hide or to escape were rounded up by a special Jewish police force. . . . We know how the Jewish officials felt when they became instruments of murder — like captains `whose ships were about to sink and who succeeded in bringing them safe to port by casting overboard a great part of their precious cargo.' " Soon afterward, her Jewish critics said that Hannah Arendt claimed that Jews themselves implemented their Shoah.

Some of the reactions to the book by Mr. Gross were as emotional. An average Polish reader couldn't believe that something like this could have happened. I must admit that I couldn't believe it either, and I thought that my friend Jan Gross had fallen victim to a a falsification. But the murder in Jedwabne, preceded by a bestial pogrom, did take place and must weigh on the collective consciousness of the Poles — and on my individual consciousness.

The Polish debate about Jedwabne has been going on for several months. It is a serious debate, full of sadness and sometimes terror — as if the whole society was suddenly forced to carry the weight of this terrible 60-year-old crime; as if all Poles were made to admit their guilt collectively and ask for forgiveness.

I don't believe in collective guilt or collective responsibility or any other responsibility except the moral one. And therefore I ponder what exactly is my individual responsibility and my own guilt. Certainly I cannot be responsible for that crowd of murderers who set the barn in Jedwabne on fire. Similarly, today's citizens of Jedwabne cannot be blamed for that crime. When I hear a call to admit my Polish guilt, I feel hurt the same way the citizens of today's Jedwabne feel when they are interrogated by reporters from around the world.

But when I hear that Mr. Gross's book, which revealed the truth about the crime, is a lie that was concocted by the international Jewish conspiracy against Poland, that is when I feel guilty. Because these false excuses are in fact nothing else but a rationalization of that crime.

As I write this text, I am weighing words carefully and repeating Montesquieu: "I am a man thanks to nature, I am a Frenchman thanks to coincidence." By coincidence I am a Pole with Jewish roots. Almost my whole family was devoured by the Holocaust. My relatives could have perished in Jebwabne. Some of them were Communists or relatives of Communists, some were craftsmen, some merchants, perhaps some rabbis. But all were Jews, according to the Nuremberg laws of the Third Reich. All of them could have been herded into that barn, which was set on fire by Polish criminals.

I do not feel guilty for those murdered, but I do feel responsible. Not that they were murdered — I could not have stopped that. I feel guilty that after they died they were murdered again, denied a decent burial, denied tears, denied truth about this hideous crime, and that for decades a lie was repeated.

This is my fault. For lack of imagination or time, for convenience and spiritual laziness, I did not ask myself certain questions and did not look for answers. Why? After all, I was among those who actively pushed to reveal the truth about the Katyn massacre of Polish soldiers, I worked to tell the truth about the Stalinist trials in Poland, about the victims of the Communist repression. Why then did I not look for the truth about the murdered Jews of Jedwabne? Perhaps because I subconsciously feared the cruel truth about the Jewish fate during that time. After all, the bestial mob in Jedwabne was not unique. In all of the countries conquered by the Soviets after 1939, there were horrible acts of terror against the Jews in the summer and in the autumn of 1941. They died at the hands of their Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Ukrainian, Russian and Belarussian neighbors. I think that the time has come to reveal the truth about these hideous acts. I will try to contribute to this.

Writing these words, I feel a specific schizophrenia: I am a Pole, and my shame about the Jedwabne's murder is a Polish shame. At the same time, I know that if I had been there in Jedwabne, I would have been killed as a Jew.

Who then am I, as I write these words? Thanks to nature, I am a man, and I am responsible to other people for what I do and what I do not do. Thanks to my choice, I am a Pole, and I am responsible to the world for the evil inflicted by my countrymen. I do so out of my free will, by my own choice, and by the deep urging of my conscience.

But I am also a Jew who feels a deep brotherhood with those who were murdered as Jews. From this perspective, I assert that whoever tries to remove the crime in Jedwabne from the context of its epoch, whoever uses this example to generalize that this is how only the Poles and all the Poles behaved, is lying. And this lie is as repulsive as the lie that was told for many years about the crime in Jedwabne.

A Polish neighbor might have saved one of my relatives from the hands of the executioners who pushed him into the barn. And indeed, there were many such Polish neighbors — the forest of Polish trees in the Avenue of the Righteous in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, is dense.

For these people who lost their lives saving Jews, I feel responsible, too. I feel guilty when I read so often in Polish and foreign newspapers about the murderers who killed Jews, and note the deep silence about those who rescued Jews. Do the murderers deserve more recognition than the righteous?

The Polish primate, the Polish president and the Rabbi of Warsaw said almost in one voice that a tribute to the Jedwabne victims should serve the cause of reconciling Poles and Jews in the truth. I desire nothing more. If it doesn't happen, it will be also my fault.

New York Times