Halina Ostas: The public learned of the crime 16 years ago, thanks to a book by Jan Tomasz Gross called “Neighbours”. The scenario of events presented in the book is horrifying. However, many acclaimed historians have pointed out many mistakes, distortions and even false information. Before we focus on these, let’s talk about what we can find in Jan Tomasz Gross’ publication.
Piotr Gontarczyk: In his book, Gross writes that when the Germans came to Jedwabne, they forwarded a proposal to the local authorities in Jedwabne that the Poles kill their Jewish neighbours by burning them alive. They signed an agreement, after which Poles eagerly started to go about the murder of 1,600 people.
[According to Gross] Dantesque scenes were unfolding in the meantime, such as playing football with the victims‘ disembodied heads. Earlier, a delegation of Jews went to a local bishop, Stanisław Łukomski, requesting that he stop the pogrom. Not only did the bishop do nothing, he also took a bribe in the form of candlesticks. This is a somewhat dramatic scenario, which puts the sole blame on Poles, and in a way incriminates the whole of Polish society and the Catholic Church. None of this proved true in the end.
Halina Ostas: No wonder then that the publication sparked great interest and dismantled all that we considered true about Poles’ role in World War II. I’d like to note here that Poles comprise the largest group of people recognised as the Righteous among the Nations, Israel’s highest distinction awarded to civilians. Nearly 7,000 Poles have received the Righteous Medal – the figure accounts for a quarter of the total number of recognised gentiles. And so, Jan Tomasz Gross’ book was shocking.
Piotr Gontarczyk: Of course, especially as there were no contradictory voices or any possibility of verifying what Gross had written. This was a time when the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) was being established, therefore the materials on which Gross based his book, that is records from a trial conducted against the participants in the events, were simply inaccessible to historians. Then the IPN launched its own investigation [...] Meanwhile, Jan Tomasz Gross was having his moment in the media, and was not held accountable for his claims.
Moreover, we need to remember that the book became a political instrument in the hands of certain journalists and ideologues as a way of hitting out at Poles. If these individuals wanted to deal a blow to Poles, Polish patriotism or their sense of national identity, it was easy to bring the book out and say, “This is you, Catholic Poles.” The book became the centre of a fierce debate and was evidently used for political purposes.
Halina Ostas: Many historians were sceptical of the publication. In your article in the wSieci weekly, you write of a misleading description of Polish-Jewish relations under Soviet occupation and the impact thereof on public sentiment following the German invasion. What accusations can be levelled against Gross here?
Piotr Gontarczyk: I believe that in general two criminal ideologies are responsible for the events in Jedwabne. Here I mean communism, which prevailed in the [eastern parts of the] country in the years 1939-1941 and German fascism, which reached the area in 1941.
Thousands of witness accounts by Jews, Ukrainians and also foreign diplomats, who were unlikely to harbour negative sentiments towards Jews or Poles, reveal that in many Jewish towns, Soviet occupiers were welcomed as liberators. Communist paramilitary groups emerge from lumpenproletariat circles from the shtetl [Jewish town]. Events took a dramatic turn. The archives of historian Emanuel Ringelblum provide ample evidence of hateful acts perpetrated by Jews, such as spitting in the faces of Polish soldiers as weapons were taken away from them and acts of retribution for anti-Semitic acts perpetrated by Poles in the 1930s. In general, the years 1939-1941 saw an upsurge in anti-Jewish sentiments. While Poles living further into the eastern borderlands of pre-war Poland saw things differently, here in the more central parts of the country a large part of the Soviet collaborators, who showed anti-Polish and anti-Catholic sentiments, were derived from among local Jewish communities. This had a disastrous effect on the perception of Jews in society after the Nazi Germans invaded Poland. Many of the villages were simply brimming with hate. We need to remember that this does not justify the crimes perpetrated against Jews. The conditions of the Soviet occupation were, however, the breeding ground for many acts of violence that followed.
These facts are often cast aside by many historians such as Jan Tomasz Gross, who is no historian in fact. He’s a sociologist and has a poor academic background. He tries to erase and lie about the period between 1939-1941. For example, he writes that he went to the Anders Collection and says that there is no concrete information on Polish-Jewish relations, nor aggression in the years 1939-1941. Meanwhile, the soldiers of the Anders Army [Polish Army that incorporated Polish POWs imprisoned in the USSR during World War II] list concrete names. In my article, I give an example of the scale of distortions made by Gross. We have plenty of evidence indicating the cheerful welcoming of the Red Army by the poorest Jews. Jan Tomasz Gross ascribed their approach to their living standards or the fact that they had nowhere to live – and this allegedly prompted their behaviour. This is ridiculous.
Halina Ostas: What other theses presented in the book proved contradictory to historical truth once independent historians finally gained access to the archive documents that Jan Tomasz Gross had based his publication on?
Piotr Gontarczyk: [...] Claims of a Polish-German agreement on burning Jews are groundless [...] The most dramatic descriptions of actions perpetrated by Poles, such as rape and murder, were based on [false] testimonies. [...] Also, an incomplete exhumation process showed that not 1,600 Jews but 300 were killed in Jedwabne. The figures and circumstances don’t add up. Gross accused specific people of taking part in the pogrom, but they were later found not guilty in trials. It also turns out that the meeting with the Jewish delegation and Bishop Łukomski, and the bribe, never happened, as he wasn’t there at the time. The book is full of either doubtful or bizarre information, or is completely untrustworthy. In my opinion, we are yet to sum up what we know about what happened on 10 July 1941 in Jedwabne.
Halina Ostas: What actions do you think should be taken to have full insight into the murders in Jedwabne?
Piotr Gontarczyk: It’s difficult to pursue a debate on the topic without a complete exhumation. So far, the earlier exhumation has shown that bullet shells were found [among the bodies] and, as I believe, we are yet to discover their origin.
There is a report written by a member of a group that took part in research into the Jedwabne crime. It presents a very critical approach to the scope of research undertaken and actions that were omitted in the study. Some accounts duplicate information from one another. [...] If we don’t fulfill our duty and take advantage of modern-day forensic medicine and archeology, which are at our disposal, the case cannot be considered closed.
There is no denying that Poles took part in the crime – these are historical facts.
However, a debate on Polish-Jewish relations in the 1930s under Soviet occupation is another thing. If we determine the exact number of victims, and the role played by the Germans and establish the real events, we may have a full understanding of what happened.
[What we have now] is not a debate on historical events, but rather one on religion, mysticism and politics. Facts, figures and historical context must come first, then an analysis of people’s conduct, which also includes the group of people who set the barn in Jedwabne on fire – this goes without saying.