Jedwabne: Collaborators, Denial and Healing

July 19, 2019

This is a topic that I feel I need to revisit. As I said in my first entry about collaboration, it is truly inconceivable. I feel unable to fathom how ordinary people can be riled up into such a frenzy of hate that they are able to kill their neighbors. As an educator I have tried to remember how the Holocaust was presented to me when I was in middle school; the first time I learned about the subject. I do not recall ever discussing anyone but the Germans as perpetrators. It was difficult enough to digest how Jews were treated in Germany and later on in the camps. It took some independent study to find out that 1) Jews were not the only targeted groups and 2) that in each and every Nazi-occupied country there were enough civilians willing to help the Germans in dehumanizing and, eventually, brutally murdering their Jewish neighbors.

What we have seen and heard here in Poland is even more terrifying than I could imagine. Stories of collaboration are now well known. There were witnesses, there is physical evidence, there is an entire community which disappeared from small, intimate towns across Poland. If you follow any news regarding Holocaust history and actions regarding this history today, you will know that the Polish government passed a law in 2018 that would imprison anyone who accuses Poland of complicity with the Nazi persecution of Jews during WWII. Prison time. Up to three years.

As you can imagine this attracted a great amount of international criticism. The Polish government amended the law in the months following, reducing the crime to a civil offense. Given what we now know about Poland’s role during the Holocaust, a law like this is is unfathomable.

One of these small, intimate towns that we visited was Jedwabne. Various accounts of the pogrom which took place here exist, though they all seem to include the same theme: German SS, Gestapo, local Polish farmers and a massacre of the Jewish population. We visited the site of the memorial for the 250-300 Jews who were burned while locked inside a barn in the village. Professor Kassow was there the day the monument was dedicated. Local Poles came to the site of the dedication shouting about the defamation of the Polish people, the slander against their country, that they were victims of German oppression and not more. People have been harassed for bringing this theme of collaboration to the surface.

This kind of violent denial is truly terrifying, regardless of what country it comes from. It feeds into even deeper antisemitism and gives those who deny it permission to continue twisting history. We are now going on 75, 80 years since this chapter of history. Those who live in towns where Jewish neighbors were so cruelly treated and murdered have so little time to begin healing from this history. There can be no healing without acceptance of the actions of their fellow Poles; acceptance of the duality of their ancestors’ roles. Yes, they were victims and yes, they were rescuers but yes, they were perpetrators as well.

We paid our respects at this memorial, a large stone with a piece of wood attached to its facade to represent the barn which stood there. Decorated with wreathes and candles at the foot and covered in small stones of remembrance from those who came before us. Professor Kassow pointed out as we stood there in relative silence that similar massacres happened in 22 different sites in that region alone.

Poland is a beautiful country with a complex history. I do feel, however, that time is running out. Soon we will reach a time where no one, be it the victim, the perpetrator, the rescuer or the bystander, will be able to provide their firsthand account. There will be no one left to say “I was there and it happened.” I truly fear that those who continue to deny their history will never find that place of healing. I dearly hope that they do.