In the little town of Jedwabne, nestled in the heart of Poland, all the Jewish inhabitants- mainly old people, women, and children-were rounded up and burned alive by a group of German policemen and Polish townsfolk on July 10, 1941.No one knows exactly how many Jews were killed, but the best guess is around 300. And no one knows the precise circumstances of the attack. How many local Poles versus Germansecurity forces were involved in the atrocity? Most important, who initiated the massacre, and what were the motivations of the killers?
In 2001, New York University professor Jan Tonlasz Gross, an expatriate Polish Jew, published a book called Neighboru that characterized the massacre as not just another Nazi atrocity but the product of a spontaneous pogrom of innocent ]ews by their Polish Christian neighbors. Though there were widespread reports of cordial relations among Christians and Jews in Jedwabne prior to the Nazi occupation of1939,Gross argued that deep-seated Polish anti-Semitisin lurked just beneath the surface, and proved fierce enough to motivate genocide when the opportunity arose. Western journalists, particularly in the United States, immediately adopted Gross's interpretation unquestioningly, as did most of Poland's intelligentsia.
Not so former University of Virginia historian Marek Chodakiewicz, now academic dean at the Instittrte of World Politics, who decided to investigate the crime for himself. He hunted every available primary source, many previously unpublished, inch,rding recently released communist-era archives in Germany Poland, and Russia (which, scandalously, have hardly been touched by most left -leaning Western scholars).
The evidence fails to support Gross's claim that the massacre in Jedwabne was exclusively the work of Polish Christians, Chodakiewicz concludes. There is no question that many Polish peasants were anti-Semitic. But murder is another story. His research indicates that Polish collaborators did carry out German orders in planning and executing the massacre, but that most of the Polish conscripts were coerced into participating in the crime.
Both Jews and Poles suffered enormously at the hands of German Nazis, and then the Soviet communists. While precise numbers are not available, we know that Poland had 36 million citizens in 1938; eight years later, that number had dwindled to 24 million. Between 6 and 7 million of those missing from the country were dead, including more than 3 million Jews and over 2 million Christians. This horrible suffering helped transform Poles of ali backgrounds, setting the stage for today's democratic Poland. The newly uncovered facts about Jedwabne should bring Poles even closer.
Juliana Geran Pilon is a board member of the Institute for Human Rights based in Auschwitz, Poland.