Poland faces up to the horror of its own role in the Holocaust
Thursday December 19, 2002
In May 2000 Polish historians were staggered by revelations in a book, Neighbours: The Destruction Of The Jewish Community In Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton), written by Jan Gross, a Polish academic who had emigrated to the United States.
In the book he demonstrated, with evidence to prove it, that in July 1941 the Jewish population of Jedwabne, a village in northern Poland, had not died at German hands, as the official version would have it, but had been slaughtered by fellow villagers.
The revelations had the effect of a time bomb. The facts, confirmed by investigative reporters on the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita, took months to sink into the Polish subconscious. This was partly because the capital's other leading daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, decided to join the fray only six months later, after initially dragging its feet at the behest of its editor, Adam Michnik, a man torn between his double identity as both a Jew and a Pole.
Once it had gathered momentum, the controversy came to dominate the Poles' social and political life, upset their received ideas, forced them to face up to their history of anti-semitism, drove the Catholic church into a corner and prompted President Aleksander Kwasniewski to apologise to the Jewish community during an official ceremony in Jedwabne.
The US-educated Polish historian Pawel Machcewicz believes it to have been "the most important debate about contemporary history" since the fall of Poland's communist regime in 1989. The controversy has been given a new lease of life by the publication of a 1,500-page report, Wokol Jedwabne (On Jedwabne), drawn up by historians and researchers headed by Machcewicz.
The report is remarkable, not least because the idea of commissioning it came from the National Remembrance Institute (IPN), an independent body set up by the Polish parliament in 2000 to succeed the Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland. That this newly fledged historical institute should have been given as its first task the job of investigating Gross's research in a climate verging at times on hysteria is a sign there has been a sea change in Polish attitudes.
"It's a courageous piece of work," says the political pundit Aleksander Smolar, who in June 1987 contributed an important article on the Jewish-Polish question to the French magazine Esprit. "For many intellectuals here it was an opportunity to reassess the image of Polish history," says Machcewicz, "an image which we ourselves created, and a martyrology that had been questioned in some quarters."
The second remarkable aspect of the IPN report is that it shows that the scale of the pogroms committed by Poles was much greater than was thought: on top of those in Jedwabne and Radzilow, which occurred within three days of each other and resulted in the greatest number of deaths, the report reveals a score of other villages in the region where Poles attacked their Jewish neighbours between June and August 1941.
Konstanty Gebert, editor of Midrasz, a Jewish monthly, says: "Jedwabne is no longer the aberrant exception that people have tried to forget. The IPN closes the debate on one essential point: from now on, denial will be impossible. And it will also be impossible to accuse the Poles of not facing the facts."
But the IPN investigators did more than give a description of events; they put them in historical context. The IPN historians discovered that in several cases German army commandos had actively encouraged the Polish population to attack the Jews; that the region of Lomza, where the pogroms took place, was an area where the rightwing nationalistic movement Endejca had been active in the 30s, thus preparing the ground for anti-semitism; and, above all, that the two very difficult years of Soviet occupation just endured by the region had aggravated relations between Jews and Poles because the latter often regarded the former as having collaborated with the Soviet occupying forces.
Another revelation comes from documents relating to about 60 trials held in northeastern Poland from the end of the 40s to the beginning of the 50s, previously unknown to historians. It is a mystery why the trials, which were mounted with the backing of the communist regime, were covered up. "It was the Stalinist period," Machcewicz points out, "and the trials were organised locally against people who had collaborated with the Germans. But neither the communists nor the local authorities had any interest in publicising them. Everyone wanted to forget."
The controversy has had a spectacular effect, not only on Poland's collective conscience and post-communist left, but on the Catholic church, whose attitude remains "very complex", according to Smolar, or "at best, highly ambiguous", in Gebert's words.
Work by historians on what happened during and just after the war has not yet been completed. Anna Bikont, a journalist who has just finished a book on Jedwabne, predicts there will be other grim revelations that will even taint "our great national hero, the symbol of all that is good about Poland, Armia Krajowa" - the famous army of the interior that resisted the Soviet invader, but which, according to Bikont's researches, "killed Jews in the northeast at the end of the war".
"In any country the debate about the collective memory is part of democratic culture," says Smolar. "The IPN's report was attacked by virtually no one - the right has run out of arguments."
Machcewicz, who points out that more than 2 million non-Jewish Poles died during the second world war, is not afflicted by doubt: "As a historian, I reject the way the German press has interpreted this debate: it has claimed that we somehow share responsibility for what happened. No, the Poles were indisputably victims of the second world war. But that shouldn't stop us recognising the horrible truth of the pogroms."
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