Book Review: Neighbors - The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland
American University, Bulgaria.
Gross, Jan. Neighbors - The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
As a challenge to standard historiography of the painful and controversial subject of the Holocaust, with a focus on the fate of East Central European Jewry in WWII, Gross's research study introduces a number of innovative intellectual frameworks for understanding the 1939-1945 period of Nazi-directed atrocities and local collaborationism in occupied Europe (7). Although it spotlights a very particular, spatially and temporally limited event in the context of WWII Poland, namely the July 1941 murder of roughly 1,600 Jewish inhabitants of the town of Jedwabne by their ethnically Polish neighbors, the book offers solid and universally applicable conclusions, attempting to explain a phenomenon that seems to be utterly inexplicable and unacceptable.
Gross's approach is original in several respects. First of all, he challenges the well-established traditional argument that historical research centering upon the Jewish population in the years of 1939-1945 should be conducted separately from similar scholarly investigations into the WWII occurrences regarding non-Jewish peoples. By demonstrating how the terrifying episode at Jedwabne was the result precisely of the interaction between the Jewish and Polish elements, and thus cannot be studied outside of the context of Polish-Jewish relations, Gross goes on to claim that Poland's history must be approached as inextricably connected to the particular context of the Holocaust of the Polish Jewry (7-9).
In addition, Gross refutes the dominant thesis of Polish national historiography that all major aspects of the Polish-Jewish relations, as well as the atrocities of the Polish Holocaust, are to be viewed exclusively within the context of the rigid Soviet and Nazi occupation regimes. According to the traditional interpretation, then, almost every Polish moral or historical responsibility for Holocaust crimes that occurred in occupied Poland is not recognized as viable, and is simply attributed to the omnipotent totalitarian regime which controlled each and every aspect of life and the state's ethnic policies in the early 1940s.
Citing and interpreting a number of relevant research sources, Gross maintains that largely autonomous, individual, locally directed decisions of a number of Polish actors played the most prominent role in the Jedwabne pogrom. The murder occurred in the context of a violent German campaign of anti-Semitism (which encouraged and justified harassment, plundering and killing of Jews), and was beyond any doubt agreed to by the Nazi occupation authorities. However, Gross makes it rather clear that most of what happened to the Jedwabne Jewish population two weeks after the Soviet departure was enthusiastically planned, organized and willingly conducted by the ethnically Polish town authorities and local hooligans. Gross highlights that there is no evidence proving that Germans led or actively participated in the maltreatment and subsequent burning of many hundreds of Jewish civilians, or that the Nazi occupiers forced the allegedly reluctant Jedwabne Poles to commit such a despicable crime (79-87; 169-170).
Attempting to start a learned and balanced debate on what can possibly account for the fact that, in the summer of 1941, many of Jedwabne's hitherto ordinary and most hardworking Polish men and boys suddenly agreed to participate in the orchestrated campaign of annihilation of over a thousand of their own neighbors, colleagues and school friends, Gross was faced with an extremely complex task. However, providing a full and finite solution to any debate of the Jedwabne type was certainly not the author's aim. Gross accomplishes what he wants. He provides a meticulous examination and interpretation of the most relevant accessible evidence on the matter, places the incident in a wider historical and political context of the Second World War and Poland's loss of sovereignty, offering a sketchy social analysis of inter-ethnic relations in Jedwabne in the pre-1941 period (claiming that Polish-Jewish relations there, at the beginning of the German occupation, were in no respect more tense or explosive than in any other part of Poland in 1940 - 40). He eventually engages in a concise and straightforward discussion of (philosophical, political, sociological and psychological) theoretical explanations of the atrocity.
Gross's study realizes a difficult task of pioneering a novel and brave approach to historical research of this sort: it poses an exceptionally compelling moral question, offers a model and tools for its examination, encourages further debate, and challenges the established and fiercely defended myths, refutations and falsifications. Gross uses very convincing methods to clarify the way some of the myths and historical forgeries regarding the Jedwabne massacre were constructed, justified and promoted, both at the time of the atrocity and in the Polish post-WWII (and post-socialist) historiography. This is precisely why this book is precious, and why its conclusions and recommendations are universally applicable.
Wider theoretical framework in which Gross situates his analysis of the specific Polish atrocity is that of effects and methodological techniques of totalitarian regimes (both Fascist and Communist). According to his interpretation, the atmosphere of disintegration of the fundamental social, ethical and political value systems was the primary precondition for what remained one of the most horrifying episodes of Poland's wartime experience. This disintegration was in turn brought about by the advance of two consecutive totalitarian occupation regimes in the Polish territory in the period of 1939-1945: the Soviet and the German. Therefore, in this very significant sense, Gross holds the morally questionable practices of the Soviet wartime occupation almost as responsible as the subsequent Nazi anti-Semitic campaign for such brutalization of interpersonal relations, demoralization, and a general license to use violence, in a word - for an all-encompassing dissolution of all the hitherto known and respected social institutions, limitations and consensual agreements, which made it possible for the ordinary Polish folk of Jedwabne to murder over a thousand of its Jewish neighbors (162-163).
Gross does not pay much attention to the possibly crucial fact that the pre-war Jewish-Polish relations in Jedwabne did have a serious volatile dimension to them, and this might be one of the rare major flaws of his study. He maintains that the inter-ethnic tensions and anti-Semitic outbursts in the town in the interwar period were by no means more menacing than those in other regions and cities of the state. However, his brief account on this matter does contain certain indicative instances of vigorous and repressed feelings of anti-Jewish hostility on the part of the ethnically Polish populace (including realized or latent violent physical conflict, lynch and murders), which had regularly occurred as a result of various crisis situations. Moreover, the entire area had been politically oriented towards a fiercely nationalist Polish party. All this said, Gross still does not seem to find any of these pieces of information relevant enough to be able to challenge his thesis on the generally idyllic, peaceful and relaxed spirit of good neighborliness and helpfulness in the pre-WWII Jedwabne (37-40).
Nonetheless, it seems legitimate to assume, on the basis of such data, that the extremist Catholic priests' preaching or Polish nationalist propaganda regarding the Jewish responsibility for the Biblical betrayal of Jesus Christ, or their alleged tendency to murder Christian children in order to use their blood for ritual religious purposes, created a powerful pool of potent stereotypes, and ethnic and religious cleavages. These were then efficiently exploited by the genocidal German wartime regime. Certainly, the idea that the Jedwabne Poles killed their neighbors because they believed the latter would actually harm Polish children sounds incredibly foolish and irrational. However, various scholarly studies done on the causes and effects of the 1990s wars of Yugoslav succession persuasively demonstrated that inhabitants of ethnically and religiously mixed areas were prone to having two parallel and radically dissimilar mental frameworks for dealing with the issues of national diversity. One was rational, calm, considerate and cooperative - for periods of peace and progress, while the other tended to be highly unreasonable, potentially violent and paranoid - increasingly adhered to in wartime and crisis situations (e.g. Anthony Obershall's Manipulation of Ethnicity). Under specifically brutal and intense circumstances, these double frameworks then make it possible for some people to honestly believe in the most outrageous and unfounded claims concerning a certain ethnic/religious/social group, regardless of their previous positive or even affectionate experiences with the targeted community.
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