The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne
By Anna Bikont
Translated by Alissa Valles
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
On July 10, 1941, the Jews of Jedwabne, Poland, were herded into a barn. The barn was locked and set on fire. Jan Tomasz Gross told the story in his short book, Neighbors, published in 2000. Gross, a historian, based his book on documentary sources: the recorded testimony of a survivor; court papers from a postwar trial of persons charged with aiding the German occupiers; and the Jedwabne Book of Memory, a Yizkor book created in America by Rabbis Julius and Jacob Baker, who left Jedwabne before the war. Gross’s conclusions are emphatic, and much disputed in Poland: About 1600 people were killed, and the massacre was committed by Poles.
Anna Bikont is a journalist at the Warsaw, Poland, newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. Her approach in The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne – published in Polish in 2004 and this past September in English translation – is that of an investigative reporter. She goes to Jedwabne.
“There must be a memory of the atrocity in the town, there must be some witnesses. I will try to reconstruct the facts, but also what happened to the memory of those events over the last sixty years.”
Jedwabne is north of Warsaw, close to the former East Prussia, in a part of Poland that, before the Second World War, was heavily influenced by the anti-Semitic National Party and reactionary Catholic clergy. During the war, it came under four successive occupations: German, for a few weeks after the Nazi invasion in September 1939; Soviet, after the partition of Poland under the Hitler-Stalin pact; German, again, after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941; and Soviet again, after the Soviets returned in 1944. The massacre in Jedwabne, and in the nearby towns of Radzilow and Wasosz, occurred early in the second German occupation.
Bikont travelled to Jedwabne and nearby towns, and also to Israel, the United States and South and Central America, and talked to everyone she could find with any memory of the events. She also read all the original documents and much background material pertaining to the massacre. The book takes the form of excerpts from her journal, recording her investigations, made between 2000 and 2004, interspersed with chapters devoted to specific people or events. Any of the chapters could be a book by itself. The journal is also, in part, a chronicle of self-discovery. As an adult, Bikont found out her mother was Jewish and had “passed” in Lvov in 1942.
Bikont found witnesses in a number of categories. There are a handful of Jews who survived in the ways that Jews survived – by being deported to Siberia, or hidden by Polish neighbours. There are Polish perpetrators, who say the Germans did it, not the Poles, but it was the fault of the Jews for not defending themselves and for helping the Communists during the first Soviet occupation. There are Poles who were children or teenagers and confirm clearly that the crime was committed by Poles, and describe vividly how the participants, and peasants from surrounding areas, rushed to help themselves to Jewish property.
A chapter is devoted to Krzystof Godlewski. As mayor of Jedwabne, Godlewski promoted a memorial service that was held July 10, 2001, the 60th anniversary of the massacre. It was sparsely attended. The mayor, the Polish president and the Israeli ambassador spoke. Godlewski was soon forced to resign. He moved to Chicago, where he found the Polish community was even more anti-Semitic than in Jedwabne.
The silence in the book’s title takes different forms. What happened was well known in the area, but the people didn’t talk to outsiders. Poles who helped Jews, and their families, didn’t talk about what they had done because it was dangerous. Of the memorial service in Jedwabne, Bikont writes, “I only regret that no one said anything in Yiddish, the language that sounded in this marketplace for centuries.”
The Crime and the Silence received the 2015 National (U.S.) Jewish Book Award in the category of Holocaust literature.