The Crime and the Silence: Con­fronting the Mas­sacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne

Anna Bikont, Alis­sa Valles, trans.

  • Review
By – January 6, 2016

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.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions