Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan T. Gross.
Illustrated. 261 pp. Princeton, N.J. 2001, Princeton University Press.
LE MONDE | 09.07.01 | 12h02
• MIS A JOUR LE 09.07.01 | 15h53
Le pogrom refoulé de Jedwabne
Il y a soixante ans, la moitié d'un village a exterminé, dans des conditions atroces, l'autre moitié. Les premiers étaient Polonais, les seconds Juifs. Ce drame, révélé par un livre, "Les Voisins", a bouleversé le pays. Mardi 10 juillet, en grande pompe, le président polonais demandera pardon aux victimes. Retour sur les lieux du drame
CE 10 juillet 1941, dans le village polonais de Jedwabne écrasé de chaleur, la chasse aux Juifs a commencé tôt, pour se terminer au crépuscule, dans une âcre odeur de chair brûlée, l'horizon barré par une épaisse colonne de fumée noire. Mille six cents Juifs, soit 60 % de la population du village, ont péri dans d'atroces souffrances. Tout au long de cette journée d'horreur, des hommes et des femmes ont été noyés, poignardés, égorgés ; des adolescents lapidés ; des bébés tués sur la poitrine de leur mère, puis piétinés ; une jeune fille décapitée. Rassemblés sur la place du marché, les survivants, tremblant d'effroi, ont ensuite été poussés jusqu'à la grange du charpentier, promptement arrosée d'essence et transformée en brasier. Devant la porte jouait un petit orchestre improvisé, bien insuffisant pour couvrir les hurlements. Plus tard dans la soirée, des malades et des enfants, découverts dans les maisons abandonnées, seront embrochés à coups de fourche et jetés à leur tour dans le feu.
Soixante ans plus tard, Jedwabne, gros bourg de 2 000 habitants au nord-est de la Pologne, s'apprête à revivre la tragédie. Mardi 10 juillet, jour anniversaire du massacre, le président de la République, Aleksander Kwasniewski, doit conduire une marche silencieuse sur le trajet emprunté par les victimes. Jedwabne se serait bien passé de cette publicité. Ici, les cérémonies commémoratives ne suscitent que malaise et colère. "Certains ont parlé de barrer les routes", dit le curé, Edward Orlowski, qui conseille plutôt à ses paroissiens de rester chez eux, et de bouder ostensiblement la démarche présidentielle.
M. Kwasniewski doit en effet demander pardon, au nom de l'Etat polonais, pour ce crime que la Pologne a longtemps cru, ou feint de croire, l'œuvre des nazis. La stèle, érigée dans les années 1960, qui attribuait la mort des 1 600 Juifs à "la Gestapo et la gendarmerie hitlérienne", a été retirée au mois de mars. Le nouveau monument ne mentionnera pas le nombre des victimes ni ne désignera les coupables, puisqu'une enquête officielle est en cours, mais la participation des villageois polonais à ce pogrom ne fait plus de doute depuis la parution, l'an dernier, d'un livre du sociologue américain Jan Tomasz Gross. Intitulé Les Voisins, l'ouvrage de cet universitaire polonais, émigré aux Etats-Unis lors de la vague antisémite de 1968, montre, témoignages à l'appui, que c'est la population qui a perpétré le massacre des Juifs. Et non quelques marginaux, enrôlés de gré ou de force par les Allemands, comme le voulait la version officielle depuis la fin de la guerre.
"Mensonges !", s'emporte le curé de Jedwabne, scandalisé que "les hommes politiques et le président veuillent faire du business avec ce génocide". Le père Orlowski n'en démord pas : "Ici, il n'y a jamais eu de haine, l'extermination a été planifiée par les Allemands, qui ont utilisé des Polonais." Les habitants de Jedwabne seront les derniers à reconnaître une quelconque responsabilité : "Ils ne vont pas tomber à genoux et avouer ce qu'ils n'ont pas commis", insiste-t-il. Le vieux prêtre est soutenu par son évêque, Stanislaw Stefanek, mais aussi par un politicien d'extrême droite, Leszek Bubel, qui profite de l'aubaine pour instiller son antisémitisme dans la région. Faisant preuve d'un courage politique certain, le maire de Jedwabne, Krzyzstof Godlewski, a une attitude d'ouverture mal comprise de ses administrés. Comme lui, la quasi-totalité des habitants du village est née après la guerre, doivent-ils se sentir coupables ? "Non, reconnaît Jan Tomasz Gross. Ils n'ont pas participé au crime, mais c'est chez eux qu'il s'est produit. Le curé et l'évêque devraient aider la population à y réfléchir au lieu de nier l'évidence."
Cette évidence s'est imposée sans ménagement à l'opinion publique polonaise, qui ne connaissait même pas l'existence de Jedwabne avant la publication des Voisins. Sur l'horrible massacre, le livre de Jan Gross met des noms, ceux des tortionnaires comme ceux des suppliciés. Il raconte comment des groupes de villageois, emmenés par le maire et le conseil municipal, se sont acharnés sur leurs voisins avec des haches, des gourdins, des barres de fer. Il y a eu des langues coupées, des yeux arrachés, des barbes enflammées, des corps mutilés et traînés dans la poussière. Sept Juifs seulement ont pu s'échapper, recueillis et cachés par une famille polonaise d'un hameau voisin. C'est sur le témoignage de l'un d'entre eux, Szmul Waserstajn, que se fonde l'essentiel du travail de M. Gross. Plusieurs autres témoins, ainsi que les archives polonaises, biélorusses ou israéliennes, complètent la documentation du chercheur.
Aujourd'hui, personne ne conteste la réalité du drame. Même l'Eglise polonaise, après plusieurs mois de silence, a fini par l'admettre, exprimant son "repentir" le 27 mai, au cours d'une messe célébrée à Varsovie par le primat de Pologne. "C'était un pas supplémentaire dans notre examen de conscience et dans notre dialogue avec les Juifs que deux totalitarismes, le nazisme et le communisme, ont trop longtemps empoisonné", déclare le père Adam Schulz, porte-parole de l'épiscopat. "Cette cérémonie ne signifie pas que l'Eglise accepte tout ce que dit M. Gross dans son livre", nuance Bogumil Lozinski, journaliste à l'agence catholique d'information (KAI).
La presse catholique de droite et quelques historiens locaux ratiocinent encore sur la méthode et la rigueur de son enquête et s'interrogent sur les intentions réelles du chercheur. Des livres teintés d'antisémitisme fleurissent dans les librairies - Les 100 mensonges de Gross ou Jedwabne Business. Mais le débat fait son chemin, entretenu par la presse. "Entendre des Polonais admettre que des Polonais ont tué des Juifs, c'est extraordinaire, s'étonne encore Jan Gross. Je ne m'attendais pas à un débat d'une telle ampleur, je pensais qu'il se limiterait aux spécialistes."
Les Voisins a eu l'effet d'une déflagration dans ce pays où les relations entre Polonais et Juifs pendant la seconde guerre mondiale sont restées si longtemps taboues. Comment une nation dont le ciment est la victimisation pouvait-elle avoir eu en son sein des bourreaux ? Pourtant, les "révélations" du livre de Jan Gross n'en sont pas vraiment. L'auteur le reconnaît, "la plupart des informations étaient déjà dans le domaine public". En 1949 et 1953, quinze participants au massacre avaient été jugés et condamnés, mais considérés comme de simples comparses. La déposition de Szmul Waserstajn auprès de l'Institut historique juif de Varsovie date de 1945. D'autres témoignages, bouleversants et sans équivoque, figurent dans le livre-mémorial de la communauté juive de Jedwabne, publié en 1980 en anglais et en hébreu. Enfin, en relisant les articles de l'historien juif polonais Shimon Datner, écrits dans les années 1960, on trouve des allusions au drame, mais entre les lignes.
On s'étonne que personne n'ait reconstitué le puzzle plus tôt. Sans doute, le temps de l'introspection nationale, si douloureuse, n'était-il pas venu. Coprésident du Conseil pour le dialogue entre chrétiens et juifs, Stanislaw Krajewski se souvient d'une conversation avec le professeur Datner, dans les années 1970. "Nous étions une douzaine autour de lui dans le cimetière juif de Varsovie ; il avait regretté que des Polonais aient tué des Juifs dans des localités de la région de Byalistok, mais je n'ai pas compris, personne n'a relevé, et il n'a pas insisté." Il y a cinq ans, Jan Tomasz Gross lui-même avait eu sous les yeux la déposition de Szmul Waserstajn : "Je savais que ce texte était important, mais je ne comprenais pas en quoi, avoue-t-il. C'est quand j'ai vu les rushes d'un film que préparait Agniewska Arnold sur cette période que tout est devenu clair."
Depuis la sortie du livre, Mme Arnold a pu réaliser un documentaire entièrement consacré à la tragédie de Jedwabne. Intitulé lui aussi Les Voisins, il a été diffusé par la télévision nationale en avril. Il a bouleversé la Pologne. L'opinion publique voudrait savoir dans quelle proportion les habitants de Jedwabne ont prêté la main à cette barbarie. Les gendarmes allemands - moins d'une douzaine - se sont-ils contentés de prendre des photos, comme l'affirment plusieurs témoins cités par Jan Gross ? Les Polonais font confiance à l'Institut de la mémoire nationale (IPN) pour établir toute la vérité. Cette institution indépendante est chargée d'une enquête, dont les résultats sont attendus pour novembre ou décembre. Une enquête policière doublée d'une enquête d'historien que Leon Kieres, le président de l'IPN, entend mener tambour battant.
Fin mai, la justice a procédé à des exhumations aux emplacements présumés de deux fosses communes. La trace de deux cent cinquante corps a été retrouvée. Mais ces exhumations partielles ont été arrêtées au bout de cinq jours, faute de savoir où poursuivre les fouilles. De plus, leur "exploitation scientifique", soixante ans après les faits, s'avère difficile. "Les corps étaient tellement enchevêtrés qu'il est quasiment impossible de les distinguer", précise M. Gross, qui maintient son chiffre de 1 600 morts, recoupé par le recensement de 1931. Outre cette comptabilité macabre, les enquêteurs explorent toutes les archives disponibles, notamment allemandes, "pour rassembler le plus d'informations possible". Ils ont déjà entendu une vingtaine de témoins, dont deux à Tel Aviv fin juin.
Il faudra aussi élucider les raisons de cette brusque bouffée de haine, alors que Polonais et Juifs, selon l'expression de Leon Kieres, "cohabitaient depuis mille ans". Le livre de Jan Tomasz Gross n'apporte pas de réponse évidente, sinon l'antisémitisme. La vengeance ? Le massacre est survenu moins de quinze jours après l'arrivée des Allemands dans une région qui était sous occupation soviétique depuis septembre 1939. Or de nombreux témoins soutiennent que les Juifs ont collaboré étroitement avec les autorités russes, au point d'avoir dénoncé des résistants polonais et contribué à leur déportation en Sibérie.
"Je crois que les Juifs étaient plus prosoviétiques que ne l'exprime le livre de Gross", reconnaît Stanislaw Krajewski. Ce porte-parole de la communauté juive soupçonne aussi que "pour certains participants, les raisons matérielles ont été plus importantes que la haine antisémite : la nuit même, toutes les maisons des Juifs étaient occupées". Le professeur Leon Kieres ignore s'il pourra apporter des réponses suffisamment précises à toutes ces questions, mais il est optimiste pour l'avenir : "Ce qui se passe est la preuve que nous sommes une grande nation, dit-il. Le livre de Jan Gross nous a donné l'occasion d'entamer une nouvelle réflexion sur l'histoire de notre pays, y compris sur ses jours les plus sombres. Mais si, de cette enquête, on devait conclure que les Polonais sont responsables de l'holocauste, alors, j'aurais perdu. D'un côté, il y a Jedwabne, certes, mais de l'autre, 6 000 "Justes" polonais qui ont sauvé des Juifs."
L'IPN a aussi commencé une enquête sur le pogrom de Radzilow, près de Jedwabne, où le scénario a été le même, trois jours plus tôt. Il devrait ensuite s'intéresser à celui de Wasosz, le 5 juillet 1941. La Pologne n'en a pas fini avec ce passé enfoui. Mais, se réjouit Jan Gross, "dans les manuels scolaires et à l'université, l'enseignement de l'histoire de la Pologne va changer. Dans dix ans, tout sera différent. Le débat sera douloureux, mais les gens vont finir par l'accepter".
Invités la semaine dernière à Varsovie par l'Institut de la mémoire nationale, des écoliers de Jedwabne ont rencontré des enfants de la communauté juive : "Ils ont découvert que le mot "voisin" ne signifie pas seulement Polonais, mais aussi Juif, Allemand ou Vietnamien", plaide M. Kieres. Pourtant, le village où ils grandissent reste recroquevillé sur sa mauvaise conscience. Une femme qui avait témoigné dans le film d'Agniewska Arnold s'est rétractée sous la pression du "voisinage". Une autre "vedette" du film, Janusz Dziedzic, un solide paysan dont les parents avaient aidé Szmul Waserstajn, a dû fuir le pays avec femme et enfants. Il est parti le 11 juin pour Boston, où son père et ses frères l'avaient précédé de quelques mois. "Il avait peur, il rasait les murs", explique Anna Bikont, une journaliste à qui il a confié son amertume avant de quitter sa ferme : "Aujourd'hui, à Jedwabne, tout pourrait recommencer comme il y a soixante ans. Les gens et le curé sont les mêmes, disait-il. Il ne manque que les Juifs."
• ARTICLE PARU DANS L'EDITION DU 10.07.01
Massacre à la polonaise
Un sociologue américain a ouvert un débat en Pologne avec un livre sur le massacre de 1 600 juifs, perpétré en 1941 par la population d'une petite ville.
Par Olivier WIEVIORKA
Le jeudi 07 mars 2002
Les Voisins. 10 juillet 1941, un massacre de Juifs en Pologne
Traduit de l'américain par Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat, Fayard, 288 pp.
Le 10 juillet 1941, une partie de la population de Jedwabne en Pologne massacrait la quasi totalité des juifs (1600 environ) qui vivaient dans cette bourgade. Pendant comme avant la guerre, la responsabilité de ce meurtre fut pourtant imputée à l'occupant nazi. Une stèle érigée dans les années 1960 accusait ainsi les services hitlériens d'avoir commis ce crime. Au vrai, les habitants de Jedwabne ne tenaient guère à voir leurs méfaits rappelés, d'autant qu'ils joignirent l'odieux à l'abject, pillant sans vergogne les biens de leurs voisins assassinés. Le pouvoir, par ailleurs, ne souhaitait pas affronter la population sur ce terrain sensible, d'autant que les responsables communistes n'étaient pas exempt de tout antisémitisme. Les Polonais dans leur ensemble, enfin, préféraient se présenter comme des victimes, image peu compatible, on le devine, avec la qualité de bourreaux.
La force du livre que Jan Gross, un sociologue américain, consacre à ce drame est de rappeler l'ensemble de ces données. Il souligne que les Allemands parfois accueillis avec joie en 1941 dans l'ex-zone soviétique ne sont guère intervenus dans un massacre collectif qui, loin d'être spontané, fut au contraire préparé par les habitants du village. Les motifs restent mystérieux. A en croire les Polonais, les affinités que les juifs entretenaient avec le bolchevisme, devenues tangibles lors de l'occupation soviétique (1939-1941) auraient en retour attisé la fièvre antisémite d'une population ne pardonnant pas le soutien apporté à l'ennemi russe exécré. Jan Gross brise cette légende, en montrant que ce sont les Polonais, plus que les juifs, qui ont aidé le maître soviétique. Maître qu'ils serviront parfois à nouveau après la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Le regain d'antisémitisme que l'on observe avant comme après 1945 découlerait ainsi de la mauvaise conscience polonaise. Les Polonais auraient projeté sur la communauté juive le comportement pour le moins ambivalent qu'ils suivirent tant à l'égard des nazis que vis-à-vis du grand frère soviétique. Motif auxquelles s'ajoutent, bien sûr, de sordides considérations matérielles, la volonté de déposséder les juifs de leurs biens et d'éviter, après guerre, toute contestation de ces rapines.
L'ouvrage de Jan Gross a provoqué un violent débat en Pologne l'été dernier (voir Libération du 10 juillet 2001). Le président Kwasnieski devait conduire, le jour anniversaire du massacre, une marche silencieuse à Jedwabne, l'Eglise exprimait son repentir, l'Institut de la mémoire polonaise promettant, pour sa part, de faire la lumière sur cet événement tragique. Les Polonais, avec quelque retard, ont donc entrepris, grâce à cet ouvrage salutaire de scruter lucidement leur passé sans systématiquement se poser en victimes. Les conséquences bienvenues de ce livre ne sauraient pour autant dissimuler ses faiblesses. La démonstration de Jan Gross repose en effet sur une base documentaire étriquée (le témoignage de Szmul Wasersztajn, un rescapé de la tuerie, déposé en 1945 auprès de l'Institut d'histoire juive de Varsovie, les pièces utilisées en 1949 lors du procès intenté contre 22 responsables, dont huit furent innocentés). Du coup, certaines hypothèses ne sont absolument pas démontrées. L'idée que les complices des nazis se soient métamorphosés après 1945 en suppôts du régime stalinien ouvre une piste à explorer. Encore faudrait-il qu'elle soit confirmée par des preuves dont l'ouvrage se montre bien avare. Jan Gross a eu le grand mérite d'avoir ouvert un débat en Pologne. Il n'apporte malheureusement pas les réponses définitives aux questions qu'il a posées.
May 7, 2001 Vol. 157 No. 18
Ghosts of a Massacre
Poland comes to grips with the awful truth that ordinary Poles murdered Jews in the Holocaust
For years, the stone tablet
stood on the outskirts of Jedwabne, a memorial to the former Jewish residents of
the small Polish town who were killed by the Nazis in World War II. But the
memorial was a lie. On a July day in 1941, 1,600 Jews were murdered in Jedwabne
in a swift, brutal and barbaric pogrom. Some were clubbed to death, others
drowned; the head of one young Jewish girl was cut off and kicked. Mothers were
beaten to death with their babies in their arms. As darkness fell, 1,500 Jews
were forced into a barn, which was then doused with gasoline and set ablaze.
But the Jews were not murdered by the Nazis. As Jan T. Gross details in his book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton University Press; 261 pages), "We now know beyond a reasonable doubt, and as Jedwabne citizens knew all along, it was their neighbors who killed them."
That single claim — that ordinary Poles participated in the extermination of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust — has proved the most shattering revelation to confront Polish society since the fall of communism. Neighbors, which has just been published in English, first appeared in Poland last spring and began to grab attention at the end of 2000; since then it has become a source of incessant, and painful, public debate. In March alone, the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza ran 70 articles on the subject. Poland's President, Prime Minister and Roman Catholic Primate have all admitted the crime was committed by Poles. Jedwabne's memorial to the slain Jews was removed in March; on July 10, the 60th anniversary of the massacre, a new one will be erected in a ceremony at which President Aleksander Kwasniewski will apologize for the atrocity.
Gross, a Polish émigré and a professor of politics at New York University, says he has been startled by the country's "open willingness to take on this revelation, which runs counter to the traditional Polish narrative of the war and totally undermines the conception that there was no victimization of Jews on the part of the Poles."
And yet the book has also stung some Poles, who believe it condemns the entire nation as anti-Semitic while ignoring Poland's resistance to the Nazis and the deaths of 3 million ethnic Poles during the war. In Jedwabne, locals now refuse to discuss what took place in their town. "The people to whom one should apologize are all dead," one woman said last week. "And we did nothing to them." The town's mayor, Krzysztof Godlewski, says that "we should behave in a way to scar up wounds. Jews don't expect any apologies from us. They simply want us to recognize that this little town was also shaped by the Jews."
How did the story of Jedwabne go untold for so long? Censorship is one reason. The British historian Norman Davies says that under communism "the entire wartime saga was reduced to a simple story of good and bad — all the evil was done by fascists and the victims were never properly identified." But plenty of people knew the truth: a memorial book of the massacre was published in 1980 and Gross draws from testimony from the 1949 trial of 22 Poles charged with the killing. "An entire Jewish population gets wiped out in one day," Gross says, "and yet somehow it never sank in, perhaps because the reality was so outrageous to contemplate."
Gross's book has been praised by most Western historians of Poland, who say it forces Polish society to acknowledge the virulence of its anti-Semitism during the period. But Neighbors has also been criticized for not corroborating accounts taken from the trial testimony with official documents, and for diminishing the role of the German occupiers, which Gross writes was limited to "taking pictures."
Tomasz Strzembosz, a historian at Warsaw's Catholic Lublin University, says the number of Polish townspeople involved in the massacre was only "several dozen" (Gross contends that at least 90 — half Jedwabne's adult male Polish population — took part); and that German gendarmes organized and inspired the whole thing. Gross acknowledges that "nothing could have happened in this territory without German consent" but while the Nazis may have offered encouragement, "they were not doing it themselves."
Some of the disputes may be resolved by investigators from Poland's National Remembrance Institute, which plans to report on the evidence later this year. But Neighbors may only be the beginning. Gross writes that Jedwabne was closely preceded by similar liquidations in two nearby towns. Norman Naimark, an authority on East European history at Stanford University, says Neighbors will spawn further research into wartime crimes against Jews by their Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian and Ukrainian neighbors. Says he: "The book shows, once again, that man's inhumanity toward man is unending." In that sense, Poles are not the only inheritors of the legacy of Jedwabne.
— With reporting by Tadeusz Kucharski/Jedwabne
Jan T Gross's unflinching account of anti-Semitic atrocities in the war, Neighbors, has awakened a nation to its systematically hidden and falsified past
Sunday April 8, 2001
Neighbors: the Destruction of the Jewish Community at Jewabne, Poland
Jan T Gross
Princeton University Press
Media coverage of this short book has been so extensive as to make any summary almost superfluous. It tells, in unbearable detail, of the humiliation, systematic butchery, torture and burning alive of 1,600 Jewish men, women and children in the Polish town of Jedwabne on 10 July 1941.
This atrocity was perpetrated by their Polish neighbours who had, since June, begun to starve out the Jewish population. It did not involve any German units, though the occupiers and the Waffen SS had made no secret of their own homicidal intentions towards Polish Jews. The joyous, demented sadists of Jedwabne were Poles to a man (and woman).
Jan Gross, who stumbled on the documentary evidence by accident in a Polish archive five years ago, spares us no detail. Jewish men were forced to enact grotesque rituals before being butchered; women were raped and beheaded; babies were trampled to death; finally, more than 1,000 tortured Jews were herded into a barn, drenched with kerosene and torched. The Poles played raucous music in order to muffle their screams. They had surrounded the town to make sure that no Jew could escape (it would appear that there were, in fact, seven survivors).
The massacre at Jedwabne had been preceded by similar atrocities in the surrounding region. At Radzilow, some 1,500 were massacred; 1,200 in nearby Wsosz. In every instance, rituals of humiliation, of slow torture, of unspeakable bestiality accompanied the killings. Though encouraged and sometimes initiated by the Nazi occupiers, the actual mass murders were the work of 'local hooligans'.
In fact, this anodyne phrase masks the involvement, the participation of the vast majority of the local Polish communities, who watched the carnival of Jewish agony with derisive indifference or active approval. When Jewish women strove to drown themselves and their babies in order to escape torture and incineration, there were Poles who stood on the banks cheering them on.
'Around the tortured ones [they included a 90-year-old rabbi] crowds of Polish men, women and children were standing and laughing at the miserable victims who were falling under the blows of the bandits.' The only Polish doctor in the town refused to give any medical assistance to any Jew. During one pogrom which included the burying alive of an eight-year-old boy, it was the arrival of the Germans which saved a handful of survivors.
Gross's chronicle of inhumanity is near to unendurable. As nauseating, though in a different way, is his implacable exposition of the aftermath. After the liberation of Poland, there followed an ice-age of systematic falsehood and amnesia. The hideous pogroms carried out by Poles at Cracow and Kielce in 1946 were either denied or unmentioned, as was the hunting down and murder of the very few Jews who escaped into the forests after an uprising in a death camp.
Before long, German military archives made available films showing Poles in Warsaw cheering and laughing at the spectacle of the last defenders of the ghetto leaping into the flames rather than surrender. These were not shown in Poland. Crimes against the Jews were the doing of the Nazi occupier. This version served the interests both of the communist regime and of Polish nationalism. Of course, there had been heroic Polish men and women who had striven to help Jews. Of course, there were postwar voices seeking to speak the truth. But they were not many and fellow Poles often turned on them in fury. To ask a taxi-driver to take one to the somewhat lamentable ghetto memorial in Warsaw was to risk insult or the assurance that the survival of a Jewish remnant was to be deplored.
Gross tracks down the evidence. An investigation into the Jedwabne horror led to the acquittal of 10 defendants, to the release of another dozen well before the end of their sentences and to the reprieve of the one and only accused actually sentenced to death. Soon, Jedwabne and numerous other names steeped in blood disappeared from the map of permissible remembrance. Professor Gross himself emigrated from Poland in 1969 to escape the vicious anti-Semitic campaigns orchestrated by the government.
After the Middle Ages, Jew-hatred in Germany was sporadic and assimilation seemed plausible. It is in Austria and Poland that anti-Semitism has been visceral, venomous and, it would appear, ineradicable. The Catholic church has played a seminal role in this plague. As Gross points out, it is not only in the benighted Polish countryside that priests and bishops preach Jewish deicide and keep alive the blood-libel whereby Jews kidnap and sacrifice Christian children for ritual purposes.
The current primate of Poland, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, has made no secret whatever of his distaste for Jews. He enacted a policy of peculiar ugliness over the attempt to plant a forest of crosses at the very gates of Auschwitz. To this must be added the Polish conviction, not altogether unjustified, that Jewish intellectuals countenanced and were, though briefly, participant in the coming of Marxist and Soviet despotism. It is a woeful and complex story.
Must it persist? Neighbors has been noted and debated on home ground. If there were those, including allegedly respectable academics, who tried to deny Gross's overwhelming evidence or who simply denounced him as a traitor to Poland's sacred cause, there were those who acknowledged the terrible force and importance of his indictment.
himself allowed that Gross's narrative was 'incontestable'. The President of
Poland has asked his constituents to 'seek forgiveness for what our compatriots
have done'. Gross believes that a genuine shift of sensibility is nascent in
that tormented land. Nothing can make up for the horror. But if the screams of
those burning alive at Jedwabne are heard at last, they may not have been
completely in vain.
April 8, 2001, Sunday
This small book is an important contribution to the literature of human bestiality unleashed by war. ''Neighbors'' tells a story that has long been known in Poland but one that has shocked the rest of the world and even, it seems, the Poles themselves. In great but austere detail, Jan T. Gross, a Polish-born historian who teaches at New York University, describes how ''one day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half.''
On that day residents of Jedwabne, a little village about 85 miles northeast of Warsaw, beat, bludgeoned and knifed 1,600 of their neighbors, Jews with whom until then they had peacefully managed to share their poor existence. The ones who weren't already dead they locked in a barn and burned. Only a handful of the town's Jews escaped the slaughter. This was not a crazed and spontaneous outbreak of rage. As Gross notes, the local people ''knew what was coming ahead of time,'' and some of them tried to warn Jewish friends. While the Germans who had occupied Jedwabne encouraged and agreed to the slaughter, it was planned by Polish officials, among them the mayor and the town council, and carried out by Poles who knew what they intended to do. Still, even the town's butcher couldn't watch.
The man who volunteered his barn for the burning, Bronislaw Sleszynski, was rewarded later by the Germans for his good deed. They built him a new barn. Once the Communists took over again after the war, the new barn was dismantled by the local cooperative, and the lumber was used to renovate a mill -- once owned by one of the village's murdered Jews.
A plaque in Jedwabne blamed the Gestapo and the Nazi occupation police for the massacre, and the people of the town walked by it for decades, knowing that it was a lie. Only recently, after this book was published in Poland, where it caused an uproar of self-examination, soul-searching and resentment, has the plaque been removed -- another family secret no longer tenable.
In fact, the story of the slaughter at Jedwabne was available in the testimony given four years later by one of the survivors, Szmul Wasersztajn, and in the records of a 1949 trial of 22 of Jedwabne's citizens for the murder of the Jews. The story was told again in 1980, in a memorial book compiled by the few other survivors, seven of whom were hidden by a local family. Gross, almost reticent, cites long excerpts from these accounts, which are deeply wrenching.
For many Poles, the story of Jedwabne has come as a revelation. They knew they were victims of the Soviets and the Nazis, but they managed to believe, like many Austrians, that they were only victims and never perpetrators. It should be no great revelation to the rest of the world. There is manifold evidence that the Germans, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians and many others were complicitous in the destruction of their Jewish neighbors. It is no secret that many people participated in the destruction of their fellow human beings, and it is surely no surprise that many of those who did not participate did nothing to stop the slaughter, either because they could not or dared not.
But how widespread was this ultimate collaboration? In one of the book's odder and more chilling notes, Gross cites testimony about other massacres of Jews by Poles that took place in the five days before the Jedwabne killings, in the nearby villages of Radzilow and Wasosz. In those two places, he suggests, as many Jews were killed as in Jedwabne.
Gross has written more an essay than a history, a thoughtful, sometimes oblique meditation on the Jedwabne affair. From time to time, he stretches for meaning, but in general he is cautious and fair to the facts. He is particularly concerned with Jedwabne's meaning for Poland and the already rich history of the Holocaust. He dismisses the notion that somehow the history of the Jews and their fate in Poland can be separated from the larger history of the nation. Citing the important role Jews played in prewar Poland, he asks, ''How can the wiping out of one-third of its urban population be anything other than a central issue of Poland's modern history?'' He calls for ''a new historiography'' in Poland that will acknowledge how ''anti-Semitism polluted whole patches of 20th-century Polish history and turned them into forbidden subjects.''
Gross also ponders the nature of village life, the generally correct if distant prewar relationship between Jedwabne's Catholics and Jews, and the mitigating circumstances of this strange war, when Poles were first subjected to the Soviets and then the Nazis and then the Soviets again. A fascinating aspect of the book, once its main and obvious theme has been absorbed, is the instances of collaboration as armies advanced and retreated and peasants tried to stay alive.
One of the main charges against Jedwabne's Jews was that they had collaborated with the Soviets during their 20 months of rule before the Nazis seized the region. While Gross shows that few in fact did so, the accusation of collaboration became mixed with traditional anti-Semitism and German encouragement to create the fever that led to the massacre. Where Gross may stretch too far, given his evidence, is when he suggests that the Poles who collaborated with the Germans were prime material for collaborating later with the Communists, and consequently that anti-Semites, not Jews, were the ones ''instrumental in establishing the Communist regime in Poland after the war.'' That is a Polish debate about responsibility that goes beyond this little book.
Gross also proposes that those very ''communities where Jews had been murdered by local inhabitants during the war were especially vulnerable to Sovietization.'' Perhaps. But it would be more useful first, given the theme of ''Neighbors,'' to know how many communities there were in Poland where Jews were murdered by local inhabitants during the war. If Polish responsibility during the Holocaust is the issue, then surely that is the question, and this fine, careful book about the awful massacre in Jedwabne is only the beginning of an answer.
Steven Erlanger is Prague bureau chief for The Times.
The New Republic
By Jaroslaw Anders
Issue Date: 04.09.01
Post Date: 03.30.01
Poles of my generation, born around 1950, usually remember the moment when they learned of the existence of Jews. In my case, the moment occurred in March 1968, two months before my high school graduation. Students in Warsaw were demonstrating at the universities against censorship and for something that they called "pluralism" (democracy still did not dare to speak its name). The official press described the demonstrations as a "Zionist conspiracy," and it treated its readers daily to the "real"--that is, Jewish-sounding--names of some of the protest leaders, as well as the names of professors and intellectuals who had the temerity to defend them. It was then, during those exhilarating and surreal days, that I discovered that some of my best friends were, indeed, Jews.
Before this, there were no Jews, and certainly no "Zionists," in Poland. There were "people of Jewish origin," or (rather oddly) "Poles of Mosaic faith." The word Jew (Zyd) was usually written in lower case, which in Polish suggests a religion, not a nationality. But now Jews were everywhere, mostly in prominent and influential positions--in politics, academia, the arts, and of course the media. And not long afterwards I discovered--along with my friends, including those newly revealed as Jewish--that anti-Semitic sentiments were still running strong in Polish society. Not all the slogans painted on the walls, and not all the insults chalked on the doors of our neighbors, were the work of the secret police.
People who were usually disdainful of the diatribes printed in the official press seemed strangely inclined to believe that communist Poland really was ruled by a "Zionist" cabal, and they even started to express genuine satisfaction that the members of this cabal were being exposed, and removed from their positions, and loudly encouraged to leave Poland and "go to Zion"--all this despite the palpable admiration of Israel's victory over the Soviet-armed Arabs. In the matter of the Jews, the official communist propaganda, usually so ineffective, seemed to have struck a responsive chord.
I discovered also the existence of a peculiar zone of silence surrounding everything that touched upon Polish-Jewish relations, especially during World War II. There were no books on the subject, no serious historical studies, no archives open to researchers. The issue barely existed in postwar Polish literature and art. Of course, there were many other blank spots in the official version of Polish history, but this one seemed different. It encompassed not only officially sanctioned speech, but also private conversations with parents, neighbors, and trusted older friends. Even people known for their intellectual honesty and moral courage seemed to speak about these matters reluctantly; and their awkwardness suggested that they lacked the proper language to express things that they must have known from their own experience.
At school the subject was treated with a peculiar hastiness, without the usual discussion points and extra-curricular reading lists. We knew only that during the war Poles often helped Jews, despite the fact that such acts were punishable by death--not only for the person directly involved, but also often for that person's entire family, household, or village. We were taken on school trips to Auschwitz, where we were shown the nightmarish heaps of clothes, shoes, eyeglasses, and hair--the tokens of Nazi crimes "against humanity." Yet the list of nationalities that perished in the ovens did not include "Jews," and "Poland" had the largest number printed next to its name. Some of those Poles, we were told, were probably Jews. Did we really need to know how many? It was all in the past. Why stir up unpleasant memories or bother oneself with such details?
Since that time, much has changed in Poland's approach to its Jewish past. There is genuine interest, especially among the younger generations, in Jewish culture, Jewish religion, and Jewish thought. There are Judaica sections in Polish bookstores, and films and cultural events featuring Jewish subjects are followed with considerable interest, and it is almost a point of honor to be invited by one's Jewish friends to a Hanukkah meal or a "real" Jewish wedding. And yet there are still precincts of Polish collective memory in which facts are distorted, hushed up, or simply repressed. The achievement of this powerful new book by Jan T. Gross--a veteran of the 1968 student demonstrations in Poland--is that it makes it impossible any longer to avoid looking into the forbidden zone.
Neighbors describes an atrocity committed sixty years ago that at first shocks with its familiarity. On July 10, 1941, soon after the German invasion, Jews from a little town in eastern Poland, all 1,600 of them, were dragged from their homes, humiliated, tortured, and then executed--burned alive in the barn of a local peasant. A horrifying crime, no doubt; and yet a mere footnote to what we know today about the Holocaust. But not quite a footnote, perhaps. For this particular anti-Jewish atrocity in wartime Poland was different: these murders were perpetrated not by a German Einsatzgruppe, but by a mob of Polish civilians.
The Jews of Jedwabne, a village some 40 miles west of Bialystok, were murdered by their Polish neighbors. Those neighbors turned almost overnight into very willing, and unspeakably brutal, executioners. And until now the participation of Poles in this massacre has been denied: even a memorial plaque erected in Jedwabne in 1962 blamed the destruction of the town's Jewish population on the Gestapo and German police units. (During the furor that followed the publication of Neighbors in Poland about a year ago, the plaque was removed.)
What really happened in Jedwabne, as indicated by the documents unearthed by Gross, has deep and tangled roots that, like almost everything that touches upon Polish-Jewish relations, reach centuries back. For practical reasons, one may begin the historical explanation with the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, signed on the eve of World War II, which divided Poland into German and Russian spheres of occupation. The Soviet zone covered much of the territory that Moscow had long considered its legitimate buffer zone. It also happened to include most of the old Jewish settlements in Poland. For Polish Jews, the pact was a lucky development. Though they were subjected to property confiscations, deportations, and other forms of Soviet political harassment, they were spared--for the time being--the fate of their friends and their relatives in the German zone.
The Germans occupied Jedwabne briefly in 1939, burning a synagogue in the process, but they withdrew three weeks later and yielded the town to "friendly" Soviet troops. The Polish population quickly organized an anti-Soviet resistance, which consisted of several partisan units operating from the neighboring marshlands. The Soviet security forces quickly crushed them. The traitor who led the Soviet enemy to his fellow fighters seems to have been a Pole, but the Poles nevertheless blamed the Jews. Arrests, executions, and deportations followed.
It is quite possible, though documents and testimonies are scarce, that in carrying out those repressions the Soviets used local collaborators--mostly communists or communist sympathizers--and that some of them were Jews. Although communists were a small minority among Polish Jewry, and traditional Jewish communities looked on the materialist and messianic heresy with abhorrence, Jews had a higher proportional representation in communist organizations, and in the leadership of those organizations, than their Polish neighbors. Before the war, the dominant political force among local Poles was the National Democratic Party, which openly called for the removal of Jews from Polish lands.
When, in 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and the Germans started pushing eastward, the unprepared Soviets quickly packed up and ran, probably taking with them most of the collaborators. Gross's story begins shortly after June 25, 1941, the day German units occupied Jedwabne. During this tense, chaotic time of transition, the first attacks on Jews took place. It did not take the Germans long to notice that, unlike in the Polish territories taken in 1939, Poles from the former Soviet zone greeted them without much hostility. Sometimes they were even welcomed as "liberators," releasing the Poles from the hands of the Soviet commissars. As indicated in several dispatches from the front, the Germans likewise observed that Poles seemed to share their enmity towards Jews, and quite easily absorbed Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. The occupying forces grasped that anti-Semitism was useful for their purposes.
On July 10, 1941, the Germans called a meeting with the Jedwabne authorities. The Poles apparently agreed to help the Germans round up Jews, and to guard them in the town's marketplace. It seems that the locals who reported for the job did so willingly. There were also volunteers from neighboring villages, who came to town in their horse-drawn carts. Then things got out of hand. During the round-up Jews were beaten and humiliated, then savagely tortured, and finally killed with knives, stakes, iron pipes, and stones. (The Germans refused to supply the Poles with firearms.) Those who tried to escape were chased on horseback and dragged back. Some victims were mutilated and dismembered, or buried alive. There was at least one reported rape. A witness testified that a group of men played ball with the severed head of a girl. A rabbi was ordered to march around with a red flag. At some point during the pandemonium, a musical ensemble was rustled up to drown out the screams of the victims. Finally those who were still able to walk were marched through the town, packed into a barn, and burned alive.
Who did all this? The answer, writes Gross, is that "half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half--some 1,600 men, women, and children." In various sources ninety-two participants were identified by name, and according to Gross's calculations, they constituted roughly 50 percent of the adult male Polish population of Jedwabne. Most of them must have been average citizens of this poor, deeply provincial part of Poland:
In Jedwabne ordinary Poles slaughtered the Jews, very much as ordinary Germans from the Ordnungspolizei Battalion no. 101 did in Jozefow, as documented in Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men. They were men of all ages and of different professions; entire families on occasion, fathers and sons acting in concert; good citizens, one is tempted to say (if sarcasm were not out of place, given the hideousness of their deeds), who heeded the call of municipal authorities. And what the Jews saw, to their horror and, I dare say, incomprehension, were familiar faces. Not anonymous men in uniform, cogs in a war machine, agents carrying out orders, but their own neighbors, who chose to kill and were engaged in a bloody pogrom--willing executioners.
Germans were present, too, but as amused witnesses, not as active participants. They mixed with the crowd, or stood on the sidelines taking photographs and shooting films. Nobody has discovered those obscene materials, but Gross believes that they may still exist, and so one day we may view the horror with our own eyes.
But there is no dearth of other documentation, and much of it must have been known of for years. The story of Jedwabne was told immediately after the war by Szmul Wasersztajn, one of several Jews saved by Antonina Wyrzykowska, a Polish woman who was one of the very few "righteous gentiles" from this area. Wasersztajn's testimony was deposited in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and it was later used in a criminal case brought against some of the perpetrators in 1949. Twenty-one people were tried, and nine were convicted and given sentences of anywhere from eight to fifteen years in prison. One person was sentenced to death, though in Gross's view his culpability was less than certain. Testimonies of the accused and of witnesses, which mostly corroborated Wasersztajn's version, were preserved in legal archives. In 1980, a Jedwabne memorial volume was published in Israel and the United States, and it is today available on the Internet.
Of course, the memory of the horrible incident persisted in Jedwabne--among eyewitnesses, and their children, and even their grandchildren. Several Polish historians who took part in the passionate and often vitriolic debate that surrounded the publication of Gross's book in Poland displayed a surprising familiarity with the details of the crime. And yet for all those years, not only under communism but also after its fall, an event of this magnitude was never considered worthy of scholarly inquiry. It remained buried deep within the "silent zone" of the Polish mind.
This may have been because the word "pogrom" is almost unutterable in Poland. Pogroms belong to the threatening, cruel domain of the East, to Russia and Ukraine and Belarus. Poland, in the mind of the Poles, is squarely rooted in the West; it is the bulwark of the West, the first and last line of defense of true civilization. Even the notion of anti-Semitism occupies a curious blind spot in the Poles' otherwise sharp historical vision. Poland had powerful political parties that openly preached the hatred of Jews; and the Catholic Church in Poland perpetuated anti-Jewish prejudices; and the antiJewish rants sometimes reached even the highest strata of Polish culture; and during the interwar period of independence there existed written and unwritten anti-Jewish laws; and violence against Jews was practiced brazenly and often with impunity: all this may be admissible. But there was no anti-Semitism! The very mention of the term still provokes indignant denials, and charges that one is trafficking in accusations of collective guilt.
Gross seems aware of how volatile and sensitive his compatriots' feelings on this subject can be. He stresses that probably none of what happened in Jedwabne would have taken place without the German presence in the town. Throughout the massacre, the Germans remained firmly in control. They likely set the events in motion, and they could have stopped them: "the tragedy of Jedwabne Jewry is but an episode in the murderous war that Hitler waged against all Jews." Elsewhere Gross writes of the moral chaos, the "institutionalization of resentment" into which both totalitarian systems plunged eastern Poland; and the ghosts of Hitler and Stalin do indeed hover over the Jedwabne massacre.
But Gross is right to note the presence also of Polish demons. Pogroms do not just happen. They are paroxysms of hate that has simmered for a long time, long enough to engulf considerable sections of a society; and they must be organized. "We must be clearheaded enough to remember," Gross observes, "that for each killing only a specific murderer or group of murderers is responsible. But we nevertheless might be compelled to investigate what makes a nation (as in `the Germans') capable of carrying out such deeds." What would be worth investigating, for example, is the history of Polish nationalism and its gradual (and to Poles all but imperceptible) contamination with hatred. It would be useful to have a critical look at the weak points of the Polish concept of nationhood, which is understood as a community of language, culture, and faith. And a thing or two could be said about the spiritual model of Polish Catholicism, and about the chasm that was allowed to grow between Poles and Jews until it was possible for the former to understand the latter as being beyond the pale of human commonality.
That many Poles are still steering clear of such reflections was made plain during the public debate that ensued upon the publication of Gross's book in Poland. Some people received it without objection. Some people, mostly on the extreme right, rejected it as yet another instance of Jews slandering Poles, or accused the author of having ulterior motives. ("It must have something to do with Jewish property claims," suggested one of the readers.) One of the most startling statements of this kind came from former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. In a radio interview, Walesa called Gross a "mediocre writer," a "loser," and a "Jew who tries to make money" by sowing discord between Poles and Jews. The majority accepted the basic facts, but clearly hoped that under scrutiny the whole event would eventually prove to be less rooted in irrational anti-Jewish resentments than it seemed.
Some proposed, for example, that robbery was the real motive for the massacre, because "Jews controlled all stores and warehouses." Others suggested that the role of Germans must have been larger than Gross admits, or that a gang of bandits had terrorized the rest of the Poles. (Apparently a few Poles in Jedwabne pleaded for mercy for the Jews, but there are no indications of any attempts at forceful resistance.) Still others obsessively dwelled on minute details, as if expecting that some small discrepancy in the testimonies would magically undo Gross's whole case. Thus one polemicist, Slawomir Radon of the National Remembrance Institute, was perplexed that Gross did not account for the presence of the gasoline used to set the barn on fire. How was it obtained, when there were fuel shortages? Was it sold to the rioters, and if so, by whom? Other historians, such as Tomasz Szarota of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, questioned the reliability of eyewitnesses due to the "emotionally disturbing character of the related events," or hinted that the massacre was able to take place only because of the victims' passivity. (As proof of this alleged submissiveness, Szarota quotes the words of one Jedwabne Jew, whom the killers wanted to spare but who chose to remain in the barn, saying, "Wherever my rabbi goes, I shall go.")
Probably the most prominent of the Polish historians to take part in the debate, Tomasz Strembosz of Lublin's Catholic University, published an essay in Rzeczpospolita, one of Poland's largest daily newspapers, in which, while averring that nothing could justify the savagery of the crime, he insisted that the widespread collaboration of the Jews with the Soviets--that was the way he put it--was a necessary context in which to understand the events. Strembosz, an expert on the wartime history of eastern Poland, suggested that what happened in Jedwabne was not an eruption of anti-Jewish hatred, but an understandable, though unjustifiable, act of political retribution. It is worth remembering that a similar argument was often evoked to explain Polish hostility toward Jews after the war: Jews were supposed to enjoy a privileged relationship with the communist authorities. After all, communism itself was a "Jewish thing." Indeed, this was what the National Democrats preached before the war--that communism was nothing but a Jewish plot, a "Judeo-Commune," the greatest threat to Polish independence and Polish identity.
It is a fact that during the worst years of Stalinism in Poland the dreaded Ministry of Public Security was run by several Jews. One can speculate about the elaborate games that Stalin played in his Polish province. It is quite possible that he was planting those individuals in such prominent and universally hated positions so as to position them as future lightning rods that could be used, in case of emergency, to channel popular resentment into mere anti-Semitic outbursts, which would be less threatening to the communist structure of power. And there must also have been Jews among the Soviet collaborators in Jedwabne.
But if this was what incited Poles to slaughter the town's entire Jewish population, then the spark must have fallen on very combustible ground. It takes an anti-Semite to see a Jewish communist or a Jewish collaborator as acting on behalf of all Jews. Documents quoted by Strembosz clearly indicate that the Soviets recruited both Jewish and Polish sympathizers, who worked in concert implementing the new order, formed auxiliary police units and "proletarian guards," and occasionally meted out summary justice against the "enemies of the people"--and yet he speaks consistently about "Jewish collaboration." But when the Polish population starts looting property after the Soviet withdrawal, they are plundering "Soviet stores and depots," not Jewish stores and depots. Thus the bad things that Jews do, they do as Jews; but they suffer always as somebody else. If this kind of logic can surface in the writing of a prominent Polish scholar, what must the semi-literate nationalists from Jedwabne have thought?
Gross advances an interesting and plausible theory about Jewish collaboration with the Soviets and the Germans during the war, and later with the Stalinist regime. He proposes that "communities where Jews had been murdered by local inhabitants during the war were especially vulnerable to sovietization." For totalitarianism always needs a degree of social atomization, the breakdown of basic human bonds of solidarity and trust. Towns and villages where anti-Semitism was rampant, and where some people had blood on their hands, were already in a state of moral disintegration. Members of such communities were easily blackmailed, controlled, set against their kin. Should this hypothesis be correct, Gross says, one could posit that, contrary to Polish conventional wisdom, "anti-Semites rather than Jews were instrumental in establishing the Communist regime in Poland after the war."
Such truths are especially difficult to accept for a nation in transition such as Poland today, struggling to achieve the status of equal partner in the global community. Perhaps that is why so many people, even those who accepted not only Gross's historical account of events but also its moral meaning, expressed regret that Neighbors is being published in the West, where it could irreparably damage Poland's image. It could even provoke an anti-Polish campaign, they warned, or a new brand of historical revisionism, in which Poles would be presented together with Germans as jointly responsible for the Holocaust. This camp included Jan Nowak-Jeziora*nski, former director of the Polish service of Radio Free Europe and one of the most respected leaders of the Polish community in America. While stating that Poles should face the horror of Jedwabne squarely and should resist the temptation to look for moral loopholes, Nowak-Jeziora*nski warned nevertheless that there exist among Western Jews, especially American Jews, "extreme chauvinists and sworn enemies of Poland, who equal in their rancor Polish militant anti-Semites." Such Jews, Nowak-Jeziora*nski and many others argued, may use Gross's book as proof that Poles are even more anti-Semitic than Germans or Russians.
So even the apologies and the public gestures of contrition that surfaced in Polish society were mixed with old stereotypes of hate-filled Jews waiting for the opportunity to exonerate the Germans and to blame the Holocaust on the Poles. But this endless obsession about "image" disguises the true problem that Gross's book poses for Poles. What really matters is not how others view them, but how they must view themselves. Gross is right to suggest that the whole sphere of PolishJewish relations simply did not fit into the established Polish narrative of innocent, heroic suffering. "The memory, indeed the symbolism, of collective, national martyrology during the Second World War," he writes, "is paramount for the self-understanding of Polish society in the twentieth century." Poles want to regard their experience during the war as a direct continuation of a centuries-old pattern of noble resistance to foreign oppression--as the romantic epic of a noble nation struggling against barbarian hordes.
It is a rather simple narrative, with the roles of villains and heroes neatly defined and quickly recognizable. Conflicts are easily divided into "us" and "them," the forces of good and the forces of evil. And there are no third parties or other complicating factors: whatever is not "us" and not "them" is incidental, a footnote at best. But the narrative proved too simple to flourish unchallenged by reality. While re-living this mythic drama during World War II and the German occupation, the Poles encountered something both unexpected and deeply disorienting--something that certainly did not fit the pattern. Simultaneous with their own immense suffering, they beheld the annihilation of another people.
It is as if two wars were taking place in the same geographical area: a war against the Poles and a war against the Jews. They were separate wars, and yet they became entangled in an uncanny tapestry of human fates. And to complicate things even further, the "other" victims were a people about whom the Poles had always had ambiguous feelings. Indeed, they were a people whose disappearance--though certainly not in such a brutal and horrifying way--many Poles openly desired.
We do not know, of course, how this complication imprinted itself on the minds of average Poles. From what we do know, it is possible to conclude that between the heroism of some and the wickedness of others there stretched a vast sea of moral and emotional opacity, of dim and contradictory feelings, of callousness, contempt, compassion, denial, guilt; of actions and inactions whose motives were equally obscure and unnamable. Testimonies of Jewish survivors in Poland--and those who survived in Poland owed their survival to the assistance of Poles--often mention the hesitation with which they approached even those Poles whom they considered their friends before the war, and the strange misgivings that they felt about those who risked their lives for them. Poles sometimes call it a lack of gratitude, or "Jewish over-sensitivity"; but in those days everything must have looked twisted, clouded, unintelligible. Perhaps even Poles saw themselves as strange, mysterious, unknowable--not at all like the bright and simple nation that they knew from their prayer books and their national legends.
The old narrative was broken; and this should have marked the end of innocence, and the beginning of maturity. But the romantic legend of Poland was revived after the war. After all, Poland was once again in bondage, and once again there was a demand for myths about a nation that, by the strength of its own purity, would triumph at last. We can never know this with any certainty, but it is at least possible that the zone of silence about Poles and Jews and all that had happened and was happening between them was conceived and constructed as a dam against the dimension of Polish experience that could undermine the cherished and protective myth.
But now the time of maturity has truly come. We are three generations away from the war, and the Polish nation really has survived. Political freedom begets the moral obligation of intellectual freedom. Today's Poles have no need to feel that they are guilty of the sins of their grandfathers. And collective apologies, which some have suggested, seem rather meaningless. We know that Polish history was not only about anti-Semitism, and that even the history of Polish-Jewish cohabitation in Poland cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional chronicle of unhappiness. But the obstacle has to be surmounted, somehow.
Gross's book has proved, among other things, that the existence of the silent zone is more troubling to Poles than to anyone else. It is a constant moral and social irritant, a cause of pointless recriminations and irrational fears. As Gross writes at the end of his book, the history of a nation is a biography in which everything connects with everything else:
And if at some point in this collective biography a big lie is situated, then everything that comes afterward will be devoid of authenticity and laced with fear of discovery. And instead of living their own lives, members of such a community will be suspiciously glancing over their shoulders, trying to guess what others think about what they are doing. They will keep diverting attention from shameful episodes buried in the past and go on "defending Poland's good name," no matter what. They will take all setbacks and difficulties to be a consequence of deliberate enemy conspiracies. Poland is not an exception in this respect among European countries. And like several other nations, in order to reclaim its own past, Poland will have to tell its past to itself anew.
With the appearance of this extraordinary book, the telling has finally begun.
JAROSLAW ANDERS is a Polish writer living in Washington, D.C. He writes frequently on Eastern European subjects.
Extract from the book
The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland
By JAN T. GROSS
Princeton University Press
OUTLINE OF THE STORY
On January 8, 1949, in the small town of Jedwabne, some nineteen kilometers from Lomza in Poland's historical province of Mazowsze, security police detained fifteen men. We find their names in a memorandum ominously called Raport likwidacyjny (A liquidation report) among the so-called control-investigative files (akta kontrolno-sledcze) kept by the security police to monitor their own progress in each investigation. Among the arrested, mostly small farmers and seasonal workers, there were two shoemakers, a mason, a carpenter, two locksmiths, a letter carrier, and a former town-hall receptionist. Some were family men (one a father of six children, another of four), some still unattached. The youngest was twenty-seven years old, the oldest sixty-four. They were, to put it simply, a bunch of ordinary men.
Jedwabne's inhabitants, at the time totaling about two thousand, must have been shocked by the simultaneous arrests of so many local residents. The wider public got a glimpse of the whole affair four months later, when, on May 16 and 17 in the District Court of Lomza, Bolestaw Ramotowski and twenty-one codefendants were put on trial. The opening sentence of the indictment reads, "Jewish Historical Institute in Poland sent materials to the Ministry of Justice describing criminal activities of the inhabitants of Jedwabne who engaged in the murder of Jewish people, as stated in the testimony of Szmul Wasersztajn who witnessed the pogrom of the Jews."
There are no records at the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI) telling us how or when Wasersztajn's deposition was communicated to the prosecutor's office. On the basis of the court files, likewise, it is impossible to know, for example, when the prosecution was informed about what had happened in Jedwabne, and why the indictment was so long delayed. The control-investigative files from the Lomza Security Office shed some light on the matter, but they are also inconclusive. In any case, Wasersztajn gave his testimony before the Jewish Historical Commission in Biatystok on April 5, 1945. And this is what he said:
Before the war broke out, 1,600 Jews lived in Jedwabne, and only seven survived, saved by a Polish woman, Wyrzykowska, who lived in the vicinity.
On Monday evening, June 23, 1941, Germans entered the town. And as early as the 25th local bandits, from the Polish population, started an anti-Jewish pogrom. Two of those bandits, Borowski (Borowiuk?) Wacek with his brother Mietek, walked from one Jewish dwelling to another together with other bandits playing accordion and flute to drown the screams of Jewish women and children. I saw with my own eyes how those murderers killed Chajcia Wasersztajn, Jakub Kac, seventy-three years old, and Eliasz Krawiecki.
Jakub Kac they stoned to death with bricks. Krawiecki they knifed and then plucked his eyes and cut off his tongue. He suffered terribly for twelve hours before he gave up his soul.
On the same day I observed a horrible scene. Chaja Kubrzanska, twenty-eight years old, and Basia Binsztajn, twenty-six years old, both holding newborn babies, when they saw what was going on, they ran to a pond, in order to drown themselves with the children rather than fall into the hands of bandits. They put their children in the water and drowned them with their own hands: then Baska Binsztajn jumped in and immediately went to the bottom, while Chaja Kubrzanska suffered for a couple of hours. Assembled hooligans made a spectacle of this. They advised her to lie face down in the water, so that she would drown faster. Finally, seeing that the children were already dead, she threw herself more energetically into the water and found her death too.
The next day a local priest intervened, explaining that they should stop the pogrom, and that German authorities would take care of things by themselves. This worked, and the pogrom was stopped. From this day on the local population no longer sold foodstuffs to Jews, which made their circumstances all the more difficult. In the meantime rumors spread that the Germans would issue an order that all the Jews be destroyed.
Such an order was issued by the Germans on July 10, 1941.
Even though the Germans gave the order, it was Polish hooligans who took it up and carried it out, using the most horrible methods. After various tortures and humiliations, they burned all the Jews in a barn. During the first pogrom and the later bloodbath the following outcasts distinguished themselves by their brutality: Szlezinski, Karolak, Borowiuk (Borowski?) Mietek, Borowiuk (Borowski?) Waclaw, Jermalowski, Ramutowski Bolek, Rogalski Bolek, Szelawa Stanislaw, Szelawa Franciszek, Kozlowski Geniek, Trzaska, Tarnoczek Jerzyk, Ludanski Jurek, Laciecz Czeslaw.
On the morning of July 10, 1941, eight gestapo men came to town and had a meeting with representatives of the town authorities. When the gestapo asked what their plans were with respect to the Jews, they said, unanimously, that all Jews must be killed. When the Germans proposed to leave one Jewish family from each profession, local carpenter Bronislaw Szlezinski, who was present, answered: We have enough of our own craftsmen, we have to destroy all the Jews, none should stay alive. Mayor Karolak and everybody else agreed with his words. For this purpose Szlezinski gave his own barn, which stood nearby. After this meeting the bloodbath began.
Local hooligans armed themselves with axes, special clubs studded with nails, and other instruments of torture and destruction and chased all the Jews into the street. As the first victims of their devilish instincts they selected seventy-five of the youngest and healthiest Jews, whom they ordered to pick up a huge monument of Lenin that the Russians had erected in the center of town. It was impossibly heavy, but under a rain of horrible blows the Jews had to do it. While carrying the monument, they also had to sing until they brought it to the designated place. There, they were ordered to dig a hole and throw the monument in. Then these Jews were butchered to death and thrown into the same hole.
The other brutality was when the murderers ordered every Jew to dig a hole and bury all previously murdered Jews, and then those were killed and in turn buried by others. It is impossible to represent all the brutalities of the hooligans, and it is difficult to find in our history of suffering something similar.
Beards of old Jews were burned, newborn babies were killed at their mothers' breasts, people were beaten murderously and forced to sing and dance. In the end they proceeded to the main action—the burning. The entire town was surrounded by guards so that nobody could escape; then Jews were ordered to line up in a column, four in a row, and the ninety-year-old rabbi and the shochet [Kosher butcher] were put in front, they were given a red banner, and all were ordered to sing and were chased into the barn. Hooligans bestially beat them up on the way. Near the gate a few hooligans were standing, playing various instruments in order to drown the screams of horrified victims. Some tried to defend themselves, but they were defenseless. Bloodied and wounded, they were pushed into the barn. Then the barn was doused with kerosene and lit, and the bandits went around to search Jewish homes, to look for the remaining sick and children. The sick people they found they carried to the barn themselves, and as for the little children, they roped a few together by their legs and carried them on their backs, then put them on pitchforks and threw them onto smoldering coals.
After the fire they used axes to knock golden teeth from still not entirely decomposed bodies and in other ways violated the corpses of holy martyrs.
While it is clear to a reader of Wasersztajn's deposition that Jews were annihilated in Jedwabne with particular cruelty, it is difficult at first to fully absorb the meaning of his testimony. And, in a way, I am not at all surprised that four years had elapsed between the time when he made his statement and the beginning of the Lomza trial. This is, more or less, the amount of time that elapsed between my discovery of Wasersztajn's testimony in JHI's archives and my grasp of its factuality. When in the autumn of 1998 I was asked to contribute an article to a Festschrift prepared for Professor Tomasz Strzembosz—a well-known historian who specialized in wartime history of the Bialystok region—I decided to use the example of Jedwabne to describe how Polish neighbors mistreated their Jewish cocitizens. But I did not fully register then that after the series of killings and cruelties described by Wasersztajn, at the end of the day all the remaining Jews were actually burned alive in a barn (I must have read this as a hyperbolic trope, concluding that only some had been killed that way). A few months after I submitted my essay, I watched raw footage for the documentary film Where Is My Older Brother Cain? made by Agnieszka Arnold, who, among other interlocutors, spoke with the daughter of Bronislaw Sleszynski, and I realized that Wasersztajn has to be taken literally.
As the book had not yet been published, I wondered whether I should withdraw my chapter. However, I decided to leave the chapter unchanged, because one important aspect of the Jedwabne story concerns the slow dawning of Polish awareness of this horrendous crime. How did this event figure (or, rather, fail to figure) in the consciousness of historians of the war period—myself included? How did the population of Jedwabne live for three generations with the knowledge of these murders? How will the Polish citizenry process the revelation when it becomes public knowledge?
In any case, once we realize that what seems inconceivable is precisely what happened, a historian soon discovers that the whole story is very well documented, that witnesses are still alive, and that the memory of this crime has been preserved in Jedwabne through the generations.
The best sources for a historian are those that provide a contemporaneous account of the events under scrutiny. My first step, therefore, was to seek German documentation of the destruction of Jews in this territory. Such documentation may exist somewhere, but I was not able to find it. Various scholars of the period whom I queried were unfamiliar with the place-name Jedwabne. In the daily summary reports of the Einsatzgruppen's activities from the Eastern Front, where such information would have been included, Jedwabne is not mentioned. This is not surprising, since Einsatzgruppe B, which would earlier have been active in the Lomza area, on July 10 was already in the vicinity of Minsk. But, with luck, we may yet be able to find German documentary footage shot at the time of the pogrom.
As things stand, the first and the most comprehensive report about the Jedwabne massacre was filed by Szmul Wasersztajn in 1945. Then, we have evidence that was recorded during the Lomza trials in May 1949 and November 1953. In 1980 a memorial book of Jedwabne Jews was published, and in it several eyewitnesses described the tragedy of their hometown. In 1998 the filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold interviewed several town inhabitants on the subject. And later still, I had an opportunity to talk about these events with several former residents. These are the main sources for this study, and before we grapple with the subject, a few observations on the proper use of these sources are in order.
First, we need a reminder that Jewish testimonies about the Shoah have been deliberately written down in order to provide an exact and comprehensive account of the catastrophe. This is evidenced in the numerous memoirs and journals kept by Jews at the time, as if the apocryphal exhortation of the great historian Simon Dubnow, before his deportation from Riga, calling on his fellow Jews "to write it all down" truly resounded in the hearts and minds of Jewish memoirists. The same intention informed collective efforts, which we know very well and revere for their scrupulous and ingenious attempt at recording and generating evidence—I have in mind the Oneg Shabbat initiative by Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw ghetto, or the daunting work of archivists from the ghetto in Kovno. Since it appeared impossible to save the Jewish people who were being methodically annihilated by the Nazi-organized killing process, a sense of obligation grew among Jewish record-keepers (they say so explicitly and repeatedly) that they must at least preserve the evidence of the very process of destruction.
We should read in these efforts an intuition that one could effectively oppose, indeed frustrate, the Nazis' plan of annihilation of the Jews if only a record of the Nazis' evil deeds was preserved. Victims of Nazi crimes apparently believed that engraving the whole story in memory and preserving it for posterity effectively cancelled the very essence of the Nazi project. And there were no reasons whatsoever for Jews, in their recollection of Shoah episodes they experienced and witnessed, to attribute to Poles those crimes that were in reality perpetrated by the Germans. Every witness, of course, can make mistakes; and every story needs to be checked, if at all possible, against other stories. But Jewish witnesses to the Jedwabne massacre would not have falsified their accounts out of ill will vis-à-vis their Polish neighbors.
The bulk of documentation for this study comes not from Jewish victims, however, but from the perpetrators and was produced during a court trial. Dealing with such materials, we ought to appreciate in the first place that people suspected of wrongdoing might wish, as far as possible, to play down their own role in the events under scrutiny. They might also wish to trivialize the events themselves. We must keep in mind that the accused are not obliged, under the law, to reveal the truth in their depositions; while witnesses, even though sworn to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, can be selective in what they remember and terse in answering questions. Furthermore, between the source of evidence (a witness or an accused) and what is compiled in a document that a historian takes in hand, there is a mediating person (and in that sense a protocol of investigation is unlike a diary or a memoir, which puts the reader in direct communication with the source)—an investigator, a judge, a defense attorney, or a prosecutor, who structured and produced the document—who may be more or less intelligent, informed, or committed to finding the truth. Therefore, the quality of evidence garnered from trial materials will, for a historian, very much depend on the intentions and thoroughness of the investigation and the manner in which the trial itself was conducted.
Even a quick perusal of the court case against Ramotowski and his accomplices reveals that their trial was hastily organized. This may even be too kind a characterization, given that court proceedings against the twenty-two accused were completed within one day: the trial opened on May 16th, 1949, in the Lomza District Court, and on the next day sentences were handed down. Eight of the accused were found not guilty. Józef Sobuta, who was put on trial in 1953, was also set free.
Critical appraisal of the sources depends on an awareness of such details, because both 1949 and 1953 were years of deep Stalinism in Poland. The judiciary as well as the investigative authorities (the so-called Security Office, Urzad Bezpieczenstwa [UB]) acquired in those years a well-deserved notoriety. Furthermore, in the courtroom defendants revealed that they were beaten during interrogation and thus compelled to make depositions—a very plausible complaint, given the methods that were employed at the time by the UB.
My supposition—given the way this entire investigation was handled—is that such treatment was bestowed on pretty much everyone brought during those years to the Lomza Security Office. In any case, there is no trace in this trial of efforts to elicit from the accused any specific information or to establish the existence of some conspiracy or clandestine organization linking them all together. A sudden amnesia during the trial, when the accused could not recall many of the fine points that they had revealed during interrogation, seems much less persuasive than their earlier ability to speak in considerable detail about the events of July 10. We know, after all, that the circumstances of the July murders of Jedwabne Jews were a recurrent topic of conversation in town for years after the killing.
Reviewing all the materials assembled during the investigation for the Ramotowski trial, one soon realizes that the twenty-two accused were, with only a few exceptions, each deposed once. Protocols of depositions are brief and are framed around the same three questions: Where did you live in July 1941? Did you participate in the murder of Jews in the month of July? Who else participated in murdering and rounding up the Jews of Jedwabne? The bulk of these depositions is recorded in the same handwriting and signed by the same investigating official, Grzegorz Matujewicz. Except for a few supplementary protocols, they were mostly produced between the 8th and the 22d of January. In other words, the entire investigation was, in effect, carried out within a period of two weeks. We can conclude on this basis, it seems to me, that this was not a high-priority case for the Lomza Security Office, and that relatively little effort was put into it.
Quite indicative of the perfunctoriness with which the case was handled is the very phrasing of the act of accusation against Ramotowski and his accomplices. They were accused, we learn from the document, of having "acted in a manner that fostered the interests of the German state, by participating in the apprehension of some 1,200 people of Jewish nationality on June 25, 1941, in the town of Jedwabne in Lomza County, where the said people were burned by the Germans in a barn belonging to Bronislaw Sleszynski." Now, the Jedwabne mass murder of Jews took place on July 10th, and this fact is reflected in numerous depositions assembled during the investigation. But, clearly, what stuck in the prosecutor's mind was the first date, June 25th, mentioned in Wasersztajn's testimony. And for many months neither the prosecutor's office nor the court bothered to correct the mistake. Only in the judgment passed after the final appeal was filed before the Supreme Court do we find a clarification that "the Jedwabne murder took place a few days later than recognized by the District Court"—in fact, over two weeks later!
I present all this information, peripheral to the substance of the case, in order to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that this was not a political trial. Indeed, the content of the control-investigative files, which reflect the thinking and plans of the Security Office, confirms this assessment. In the "Liquidation Report" of January 24, 1949, previously quoted, rubric no. 5 reads, "Plan of Future Operational Activities." Nothing of special significance is noted therein. From this document, as well as from all the rest of the control-investigative files, it is evident that the matter was handled as a routine case. The late forties and early fifties, after all, were a time when Stalin's anti-Jewish phobia was at its peak and already serving as a driving force for political persecution throughout the entire camp of the so-called people's democracies. Evidently, it was in no one's interest in Stalinist Poland to underscore Jewish wartime suffering at the hands of the Poles.
The case against Ramotowski had to be brought, I gather, because a complaint had been filed and had worked its way through the administrative machinery of the judicial system. But the matter was given short shrift in every respect and was disposed of as quickly as possible. And, for the very reason that this was by no means a political trial, materials produced during the investigation can serve us well in our reconstruction of what actually took place, though we must not lose sight of the fact that the accused are likely to have tried to minimize both the events themselves and the extent of their own involvement.
LE MONDE DES LIVRES | 04.04.02 | 20h09
MIS A JOUR LE 04.04.02 | 21h05
Tandis que Dominique Vidal rend compte avec probité de la vitalité de la recherche des jeunes historiens allemands sur la Shoah, Jan T. Gross et Marian Apfelbaum retracent divers épisodes des rapports entre juifs et Polonais.
LES HISTORIENS ALLEMANDS RELISENT
LA SHOAH de
Dominique Vidal. Ed. Complexe, 280 p., 18,89 €.
LES VOISINS. 10 JUILLET 1941. UN MASSACRE DE JUIFS EN POLOGNE. (Neighbours) de Jan T. Gross. Traduit de l'anglais (Etats-Unis) par Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat, Fayard, 288 p., 19,50 €.
RETOUR SUR LE GHETTO DE VARSOVIE de Marian Apfelbaum. Ed. Odile Jacob, 238 p., 25 €.
Chaque semaine apporte du neuf sur la destruction des juifs d'Europe. Ici ou ailleurs, les historiens n'en finissent pas d'interroger l'événement, de le relire, de mettre au jour de nouvelles sources, de corriger le récit, d'apporter une touche à un tableau jamais achevé.
Le nouveau vient d'abord d'outre-Rhin, où les études sur la persécution des juifs pendant la période nazie se sont multipliées, envisageant celle-ci sous toutes ses formes et de toutes les manières possibles. L'ouvrage de Dominique Vidal, Les Historiens allemands relisent la Shoahrend compte avec probité de cette vitalité comme de la diversité de la jeune recherche allemande. Tous les historiens, les Christian Gerlach, Götz Aly, Susanne Heim, Peter Longerich, Dieter Pohl... dont les travaux ne sont connus en France que d'une poignée de spécialistes, sont nés après la guerre. L'ouverture de nouvelles archives à l'est de l'Europe, en Allemagne, celles pillées par les Soviétiques, transférées dans le plus grand secret à Moscou, s'accompagne de questionnements novateurs. Des monographies, mettant l'accent sur les mécanismes de spoliation des biens des juifs, sujet jusque-là peu exploré, sont consacrées à de petites communautés juives comme celle de Göttingen, ou à des régions entières, la Galicie orientale par exemple. Les grandes questions sont inlassablement revisitées : chronologie de la ou des prises de décisions, rôles respectifs des divers acteurs aux divers échelons de la hiérarchie nazie, attitude des Allemands "ordinaires", inscription de la destruction des juifs dans le projet d'une nouvelle Europe ethniquement remaniée. Dominique Vidal consacre un passionnant chapitre aux victimes non juives du nazisme, les handicapés et "malades mentaux", les Tsiganes, les prisonniers de guerre soviétiques, les homosexuels dont il rappelle que, s'ils furent durement persécutés après l'assassinat de Röhm, homosexuel notoire, et de ses SA lors de la Nuit des longs couteaux (juin 1934), ils ne furent nulle part voués à l'extermination.
Dieter Pohl note l'extrême isolement des juifs de Galicie orientale, dû notamment à leur image de collaborateurs des Soviétiques. L'histoire des territoires annexés par l'Union soviétique comme le prévoyait le pacte germano-soviétique, puis occupés, après Barbarossa, par les nazis est en effet complexe et controversée, comme celle de la région de Bialystock, où se trouve la petite ville de Jedwabne, 2 167 habitants dont 60 % de juifs au recensement de 1931. Le 10 juillet 1941, selon le politologue polono-américain Jan T. Gros, 1 600 juifs y auraient été massacrés, non par l'Einsatzgruppe B, le kommando mobile nazi chargé des massacres qui intervint dans la région de Lomza, mais par "les voisins", les Polonais.
C'est l'histoire de ce massacre - juifs noyés portant leurs livres sacrés ou brûlés vifs dans une grange, que raconte Gross, se fondant pour l'essentiel sur la déposition faite en 1945 par un survivant, Zsmuel Wasersztajn, mais aussi sur des pièces des procès qui se déroulèrent à Lomza en 1949 et 1953. Gross montre que, contrairement à la vulgate, les juifs de Jedwabne n'avaient pas fait particulièrement bon accueil aux occupants soviétiques, que ce massacre n'est donc pas une réponse "compréhensible" des Polonais à une supposée collaboration judéo-bolchevique. Pis, les plus zélés auxiliaires des nazis auraient été les plus zélés auxiliaires de la soviétisation. Et de suggérer cette hypothèse hautement dérangeante : "Ce sont les antisémites plutôt que les juifs qui ont contribué à asseoir le régime communiste après la guerre." L'ouvrage de Gross, par les approximations qu'il comporte, par son ambition de remise en cause de toute l'historiographie polonaise de la deuxième guerre mondiale qui sépare le sort des juifs de celui des Polonais, par sa volonté de montrer que des victimes - les Polonais - ont aussi été bourreaux, a soulevé en Pologne une émotion considérable. La controverse n'est pas close : au mois de juin devraient être remis les trois volumes de l'enquête historique commanditée par le tout nouvel Institut de la mémoire nationale.
C'est à un réexamen autre des rapports polono-juifs qu'est consacré l'ouvrage de Marian Apfelbaum. S'il ne contait une histoire de violence difficilement imaginable, une histoire de mort, de chasse à l'homme réduit à l'impuissance, de destruction radicale de la plus nombreuse population juive de Pologne, Retour sur le ghetto de Varsovie, serait jubilatoire. Au centre, deux drapeaux, le juif, blanc et bleu, et le polonais, blanc et rouge, dressés sur le toit d'un immeuble de la rue Muranowska, tous deux bien visibles hors des murs du ghetto de Varsovie ce 19 avril 1943, début de l'insurrection, mentionnés dans tous les témoignages, ceux des nazis, des Polonais, des juifs enfermés dans un ghetto rétréci depuis la grande déportation de l'été 1942. Ces deux drapeaux déclenchent une "véritable fureur teutonique", de la part d'Himmler. "L'Affaire des drapeaux, dira le général SS Jürgen Stroop dans une conversation de cellule, lors de son procès, avait pour nous une grande importance politique et morale. Elle rappelait à ces centaines de milliers de gens le problème polonais, elle les inspirait, elle était un liant pour la population - en particulier les juifs et les Polonais. Le drapeau et les couleurs nationales sont un instrument de combat de même importance qu'un canon rapide, qu'un millier de canons même." Or ces drapeaux, le long combat que nécessita leur enlèvement, qu'analyse Marian Apfelbaum, renvoie à l'organisation qui les hissa, le ZZW, l'Union militaire juive, que les historiens du ghetto mentionnent tout en affirmant que l'on ne sait rien d'elle. L'ouvrage montre que l'écriture de son histoire est possible, que les sources existent, que des raisons idéologiques ont présidé à sa totale occultation. Car parallèlement au ZOB, l'Organisation juive de combat de Marek Edelman, le bundiste qui survécut, ou Mordechai Anielewicz, le sioniste qui périt lors de l'insurrection, dont l'histoire a été écrite et les héros célébrés par la statuaire ou la commémoration, exista dès décembre 1939 une organisation dont les fins étaient purement militaires, composée d'anciens officiers juifs de l'armée polonaise, de membres du Betar, organisation sioniste de droite, constamment en contact avec l'AK, l'armée de l'intérieur, qui fournit armes et instructeurs. Marian Apfelbaum, enfant dans le ghetto, doit la vie à Zegota, organisation judéo-polonaise qui sauva quelques milliers de juifs. Il avait témoigné sa gratitude en contribuant à l'ouvrage de Téresa Prekerowa (éd. du Rocher, "Le Monde des livres" du 9 juillet 1999). L'éminent nutritionniste, dont le père, Emil, dirigea dans le ghetto l'enquête publiée en 1946, Maladie de famine. Recherches sur la famine exécutées dans le Ghetto de Varsovie en 1942, fait ici œuvre de démiurge en redonnant vie à des acteurs oubliés de l'histoire.
Signalons également le livre de Didier Epelbaum, Les Enfants de papier, qui, en courts chapitres très vivants, étayés sur une vaste documentation, raconte l'histoire des juifs de Pologne immigrés en France jusqu'en 1940 (Grasset, 380 p., 20 €).
• ARTICLE PARU DANS L'EDITION DU 05.04.02