I re-read “Neighbors” by Jan Gross, the story of the massacre of the Jewish population of the Polish town of Jedwabne in 1941. I had read the book a few years ago, but because the play “Our Class” now at Theater J was based on the Jedwabne massacre, I thought it worth re-reading.
First, it is important to know that the play is not a dramatization of the book. The play, which follows the lives of ten villages, five Jewish, five Polish Catholic, and leads them from the time they were, perhaps, five years old in pre-war Poland, through the Nazi and Soviet years, until the old age and deaths of the final two survivors. As I stated a week or more ago, I thought the play, written by Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek, a strong and imaginative staging of how ten residents might have acted and reacted over their traumatic lifetimes.
The book, which was a National Book Award finalist, is worth reading for a number of reasons. First, it tells the story of how 1600 Jews were killed, most on the same day, and many after being herded into a farmer’s barn which was then doused with kerosene and set on fire, following the German occupation of this small village. Jews had lived in Jedwabne for hundreds of years, and formed the majority of the population. The more stories like this that come to light, the more the memory of those who perished will be remembered.
But there are other reasons why “Neighbors” is an important book, and it is one that has caused a lot of controversy and a lot of rethinking of what went on in Poland (and elsewhere) during this period. The post-war myth that arose in so many places is that Eastern Europe was under Nazi occupation and that the Eastern Europeans were either bystanders as the Nazis killed the Jews, or were participants under duress. The evidence surrounding the Jedwabne massacre is that the participants were all Poles, and mainly village residents, who carried out the massacre, with the German occupiers standing by, but without specific Nazi instruction. In fact, it appears that the Germans were somewhat surprised by how eager the Poles were to kill their neighbors.
The book itself is short (under 200 pages), and concentrates on its primary sources, mainly testimony written by the few survivors who managed to escape, some contemporary, some taken during the 1949 criminal trial against some of the perpetrators, some from more recent interviews.
Gross asks many interesting questions, and reaches several interesting conclusions. First, he reminds us that, in spite of what might have been publically said about massacres such as this (and he makes it clear that Jedwabne should not be viewed as an isolated case), those who are still alive (and many of the next generation) remember what has happened here, and that it has certainly affected the remainder of their lives. Secondly, that those Poles who helped hide Jews during the Nazi years (and there were many) were often embarrassed to admit that they had been rescuers, or were taunted because they had rescued the Jews. Thirdly, that the Catholic Church deserves a substantial part of the blame for what happened, as the church doctrine that the Jews killed Jesus was central to Polish Catholic belief, and that Catholic clergy were often involved in perpetuating anti-Semitic feelings and, yes, actions. Fourthly, that while it is obvious that the Germans wanted to eradicate Jewish life, there is no evidence that the Germans ever actually forced Poles to participate in pogroms or murders, although those who did participate might have felt that they were doing the bidding of their occupiers. Fifth, that Jedwabne had been occupied by the Soviets for about two years before the Germans took over during the war, and that many of those Poles who seemed to be doing the Nazis’ bidding were the same Poles who had done what they felt was the Soviet bidding. Sixth, that while there is evidence that the Poles welcomed the German occupation replacing Soviet occupation and actively collaborated with the Germans, and while it is clear that the Jews were very frightened by the German occupation, there is little evidence that the Jews were pro-Soviet, although the myth developed that the Soviet occupation was in fact a Jewish-Soviet occupation. Seventh, that the Polish residents of the town after the massacre, and after the war, knew full well which of their co-residents had been involved in the massacre, and to a large extent, it did not seem to affect adversely their future lives and careers. Eighth, that there were economic considerations involved and the division of Jewish property was a major and time-consuming effort after the massacre.
All of these points are very important, and are not often discussed, making “Neighbors” worthy of all of the attention it has received.