In 2000 the American historian Jan T. Gross sparked a maelstrom of controversy in Poland when his book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community of Jedwabne Poland revealed that on July 10, 1941 the town’s local Polish-Catholic citizens, not the Germans, murdered most of their Jewish neighbors. Estimates range to as many as 1600 victims; some were killed with axes and clubs, but most of the Jews — men, women, and children, including infants — were burned alive in a wooden barn on the outskirts of town. The Polish journalist Anna Bikont’s beautifully written and meticulously researched book, The Crime and the Silence, a courageous masterpiece of historical journalism published in Poland in 2004 and now expertly translated by Alissa Valles details her painstaking efforts to research what actually occurred, and the efforts by politicians, the Catholic Church, scholars, and descendants of the perpetrators to cover up the truth of the heinous crime, revealing the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Poland still fueled by the Catholic Church.
This is a stunning and compelling book. Based on extensive archival research, countless interviews with eyewitnesses, investigators, even convicted perpetrators, she manages to reconstruct the context of the massacre and develop a coherent theory of how and why it occurred: a deep hatred and suspicion of Jews inculcated in the population for decades by the Church and nationalists politicians and intellectuals; the notion that Jews collaborated with the Soviet occupiers from 1939 – 1941 against Polish interests; and an insatiable greed for Jewish prosperity. Part travel log and memoir, the book includes the journal she kept during her investigations as she traveled across the Lomza district searching for survivors, witnesses and perpetrators who might talk to her. Her portraits of these people are evocative and often disturbing, and demonstrates that Bikont is an investigative journalist and writer of great sensibility, empathy, honesty and insight. Particularly moving are her descriptions of people like Antonia Wyrzykowska, a simple peasant woman, who saved seven Jedwabne Jews and protected them until the end of the war and several other heroes who saved Jews or who helped her unravel the truth of that orgy of death and denial. She also dispels the notion that the killers were from the lower rungs of the social hierarchy, the poor, marginalized and the criminal. Some probably were but the organizers came from the nationalistic elite and were certainly encouraged by Catholic anti-Semitism. Bikont explores what can happen when myths go unchallenged, when fears are exploited and when a society refuses to accept a horrific truth. Because of the trauma of Jedwabne and the light shed on the controversy in the last fifteen years by Bikont, Gross and others, Polish-Jewish relations have come to occupy a significant public space and few countries can match the Polish reckoning with the ghosts of the past. There continues to be a battle over memory, but at least now the darker sides of Polish-Jewish relations can be retrieved, reconstructed, and openly discussed.