The Road to Jedwabne

By Jonathan Garfinkel | October 25, 2002

The road to Jedwabne is not as I had imagined across the ocean in Canada. People do not travel in carts pulled by horses trudging through gravel and dirt. The road to Jedwabne is paved, surrounded by rolling hills and flat farms, maple and elm trees, modern brick houses. The road is more like a small highway, with SUVs and four door sedans. Who would’ve thought the province of Bialystok, Poland would be so much like the southwestern Ontario landscape I had left behind only two weeks before?

The beauty of the country, however, could only make me temporarily forget what I was there for. When I pulled into Jedwabne, there were five elderly women, seated by a bench in front of the Church. Were they here on July 10, 1941? If so, what did they see? This was the real reason for my journey, nowhere written in the landscape: this is the village, where as many as 1600 Jews had been beaten and humiliated, then led to a barn and burned to death by their Catholic neighbours.

Every religion has its ritual for mourning the dead. The Catholic wake, like the Jewish shiva, brings people together immediately following a funeral to remember the departed, and in remembering, celebrate the life once lived.
The public element of the shiva and wake is important in the honouring of a loved one’s death, but even moreso in the comprehension and acceptance of it. These rituals allow us to discuss, to talk, to laugh, to continue living, after the solemnity of the burial ceremony. We need both the ritual of burial, and the ritual of dialogue, to bring a sense of closure, to let the dead and the living "rest in peace".

With the terrors of World War II, the civil war that followed, and the Soviet-style Communism that emerged, Poland was not afforded any public ritual of mourning for those who perished on its soil. During Communist times, many Polish-Catholics did not truly look at what happened during the war because they were too busy fighting a political situation that had been imposed upon them. Others were so blinded by their own pain they could not see there were others who had suffered as well, let alone that it may have been at the hands of their compatriots. Still others were not told what had happened. Finally, many just simply didn’t want to believe the painful truth. In 1989, the end of Communism was akin to opening up a time capsule and finding the contents unchanged. Stories, events, and feelings started to come out that should have after the War. Thus it was only sixty years later, on July, 10 2001, that some 2000 people gathered to acknowledge what an entire community knew to be true but had never discussed publicly.

Following the war, the Communist government put up a monument in Jedwabne that claimed the Gestapo had killed the Jews of the village. In 1989, the post-Communist government erected a 2nd monument that commemorated the death of 180 Polish-Catholics, not even mentioning the event of the Jewish slaughter. For the townspeople of Jedwabne during the years following the war, the massacre of July 10 was like an alcoholic brother, an event so full of shame and hurt they would rather not talk about it. Marta Kurkowska-Budzan, an Assistant Professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, grew up in Jedwabne. She remembers being seven years old when an older schoolmate came up to her and whispered: "Do you know the secret? What we did to them?" When Marta said, "No," her friend wouldn’t tell her. Nor would her own mother, who judged that Marta wasn’t old enough to hear. But the past has a way of revealing itself, of knocking on the door of the curious. Several years later, Marta found out the story because she wanted to know, demanded to know: her small, farming village, in picturesque Bialystok, near the beautiful Masurian Lakes, is where Polish Catholics killed their Jewish neighbours. She and other academics such as Tomasz Gross have written about Jedwabne in the past two years, exposing its secrets to the world. And though it was not the only shtetl in the area where this happened during the War, Jedwabne has become a symbol of the rupture in Polish-Catholic and Polish-Jewish relations.

Three and a half million Jews lived in Poland before the War. Now, the numbers are estimated to be in the low thousands. Jews were first seen in Poland in the 10th Century. In the 14th-16th centuries, it was the only country in Europe that would take the Jews in almost unconditionally. I say almost, because though it was against state policy to expel Jews, there were particular towns or areas where Jewish settlement was restricted or banned. Kazimierz the Great, the King of Poland in the 14th Century, allowed the Jews to govern their own affairs and hold their own courts. Life for Jews continued to flourish, even during the partitions of Poland in the late 18th and 19th Centuries, though the loyalty of Jews to the Polish cause of independence was often questioned, despite such heroes as Berek Joselowicz. Still, the Hasidic movement was born on Polish soil, as was Klezmer music, and a great literary and theatre culture.

The 20th Century saw a catastrophic turn in this relationship. World War II and the "Final Solution" saw entire communities vanish into smoke. Still, miraculously, over one hundred thousand Jews returned to Poland after the War. What seems almost more painful than the events of the Shoah, was the kick-in-the-teeth-when-you’re-down phenomena that followed: Pogroms, symbolised by Kielce, 1946. The expulsion of many Jews, including the intelligentsia, in 1968.

What remains of Polish Jews today? A few thousand, many of whom don’t even practice Judaism, and the odd American Rabbi or teacher posted there. What remain are ghosts and symbols of the past. Kazimierz, the once thriving Jewish quarter in Krakow, home to over 70 000 Jews, stands physically unharmed. Now there are approximately 160 Jews left in Krakow, most of whom don’t live in Kazimierz. There are restaurants that serve "Jewish-style" food to Poles and tourists. There’s a Jewish Cultural Festival every July, where the musicians and performers are either American or Israeli Jews or Polish-Catholics who have learned how to play Klezmer. Of the seven synagogues that still remain, two are used to pray in, two are museums, and one is a cultural centre. The remaining two are boarded up, though the Kupa synagogue is being restored.

This is the Poland I knew growing up: I attended a Zionist Hebrew School in Toronto from ages 5 to 13, where I studied Hebrew and Yiddish. If Poland was ever mentioned, it was only in the context of it being a cemetery for over three million Jews. Granted, the Poles weren’t Nazis. But in many ways they were depicted by my teachers as more detestable. Perhaps this is because they were more human. While the Nazi war machine was so immense and impossible, Poles were our neighbours, and acted as "accomplices" to the Jewish graveyard. Poles, I was taught, were also the world’s biggest anti-Semites, and this is why Hitler chose Poland to help in his project. Sure, there were those who helped hide Jews, but those were exceptions. I was never taught anything about Polish culture. Nothing about the arts or politics or history of the country. In high school, if Jewish friends went to Poland, it was on the "March of the Living", a whirlwind, week-long tour of the concentration camps Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka.

In 1999, I was writing a play about my grandparents. My baba had grown up in Galicia, and I wanted to know about the world she left behind. Although she never talked fondly about her past, my curiosity got the better of me, and I proceeded by train from Berlin to Warsaw, albeit with slight trepidation. What I expected and what I encountered were two different things. In Warsaw I arrived in the middle of their worst snow storm in twenty years. I had no place to stay, didn’t speak the language, and it was late at night. I met a girl named Anna whose boyfriend let me sleep in his room at the polytechnical school. Not only did he sneak me in and give me as much beer as I could drink, but he even gave me his own bed to sleep in. At one point that night, I remember Anna asking me what I was doing in Poland. I said I was Jewish, and my grandparents once lived here, and I wanted to know about the world they came from. When I mentioned I was Jewish, I expected some sort of reaction. When I saw nothing, I asked her, "Does it bother you I that I’m Jewish?" She merely shrugged her shoulders and said, "I don’t care what you are. You’re just a nice person."

I spent four days in Warsaw, going to the ghetto, the cemetery, and the Warsaw synagogue. But I also wanted to learn about the Polish world, the Polish culture. I saw fantastic plays in a language I could not understand, attended elegant concerts for three dollars a ticket, met poets in bars and exchanged writing, and went to galleries to look at dramatic, meaty canvasses. I indulged in Zubrowka, the bison vodka, and ate perogi and borscht. I found myself, at one and the same time, walking on the burial ground that is Warsaw, that decrepit and sad city, while enjoying the Polish way of life.

Then I went to Krakow. A stunning city, a city for poets: in the main square, a statue of the great 19th Century poet Mickiewicz stands facing St. Mary’s Church. Not to forget that it is the current home for two of Poland’s Nobel winning poets, Miloscz and Szymborska. Krakow is all vodka-dream, a music of spiralling streets, cobblestone and dozens of churches, easy to get lost and enjoy the architecture of that lostness. The Vistula river crawls lazily past a dragon-sculpture that blows fire, the Wawel Castle contains treasures of art and history. While Warsaw was completely destroyed from the War, Krakow was miraculously saved. It as beautiful as Prague, but with half the tourists.

I walked through the city, letting myself be led by the myriad museums and concerts, and made the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the gas chambers one is confronted with the reality of history, one walks through and occasionally stumbles on the ghosts of the past. This is juxtaposed by the fact that Auschwitz is now a museum, with hordes of noisy school-children and camera-wielding tourists. These facts afford one to have the liberty to step back and say, "I wasn’t there."

After I spent the day in Auschwitz I returned to Krakow and attended a concert where I met a man who was to have a great impact on me: Krzystof Warlikowski. It was an odd sense of freedom, to go from Auschwitz in the afternoon to an elegant 16th Century ballroom in the evening. That night I witnessed one of the greatest concerts I have ever seen, "Arbor Cosmica" by Andrezj Panufnik, not even knowing who Panufnik was (I had entered the building on a whim.) Krzystof asked me what I was doing in Poland. I told him I was a poet and playwright, and interested in knowing about my past. He told me he was a theatre director. The next thing I know, I was over at his flat on Grodzka Street, with the actor Jacek Poniedzialek, set designer Malgorzata Szczesniak, Roxanne Panufnik and Lady Panufnik herself (Andrezj having died in 1992).

That night was to be the first of many nights of drinking, eating Malgorzata’s fabulous home-cooked meals, and talking about art and history and Polish-Jewish relations. Krzystof, Malgorzata and Jacek proved to be amazing sources of Jewish literature and art in Poland, which amazed me considering none of them were Jewish. But what they told me, and I heard from other Poles in my travels, was that the loss of the Jews in Poland meant the loss of an important aspect of Polish culture, one they sought to recover by remaining connected to it. Malgorzata, a set designer at the Teatr Rozmaitosci in Warsaw, had a book on 14th and 15th century wooden synagogues of Poland. She was obsessed with the designs of these buildings, and used it in her art. "There is a spirit here I want to connect to, a passion, a unique and ancient architecture," she explained. Krzystof was directing Hamlet in Warsaw, and she had made the set out of old barn boards, painting faint images of the synagogue interiors into the wood. The set for Hamlet was an echo of the great spirit that once existed, was murdered, and only now exists in a faded impression of its former self.

While Krzystof, Jacek and Margosia were very interested in my perspectives as a Jew, and how I fit into their perception of Canada as a great place for lumberjacks and maple syrup, I became fascinated by their Polish past. Every day I’d go to their flat for breakfast. There we would "talk" about art and the power of creativity. I put "talk" in quotations because it was never talking, it was always a passionate argument. Krzystof would grasp at the air, trying to explain a particular point he was trying to make: "You have to not second-guess yourself," or "Give it to me hot, I want the passion, the poetry, right away." At night we’d go to a play or a film, always seeking the unusual, the heightened, the exceptional. I was introduced to Polish literature: Bruno Schulz and Adam Mickiewicz, Tadeusz Kantor and Wyspianski. I learned from Krzystoff about theatre, and it was in the world of theatre that we walked through walls, and transcended linguistic and cultural boundaries. For theatre was not only about culture and art, but the importance of obsession, the need to not back down from a vision, to follow it through completely.

I saw more of Poland, including the Tatra mountains and the village of Kazimierz Dolny. Eventually I made my way back to Canada. In the two years before I would return to Poland, it became a question of when I would return, not if. Jewish friends of mine thought it bizarre to actually miss that country and want to spend time there. But the feelings did not pass, and I kept in touch with Krzystof. In the meantime, I became preoccupied with the relations between Polish Catholics and Polish Jews. And the more I read, the more I realized the relations were complex and very different from anything I’d learned in school as a boy.

The shtetl was not a black and white division between Jews and Catholics. In many ways, it was one of the first places where multiculturalism existed, before there was even such a word. Jews and Poles went to elementary school together. Certainly there was day-to-day social interaction, and some were friends. What remained separate were their customs and religious beliefs. In an oddly modern way, each group lived their own lives, while coexisting within a larger community. Yes, there was anti-Semitism, and pogroms. But Dr. Orla-Bukowska of Jagiellonian University, who studies Polish-Catholic and Polish-Jewish relations in the time of the shtetl, points out that looking at the shtetl solely through city archives is limiting, because it becomes only about wars and pogroms. Do historians write about the day Yankel gave Anna a piece of white bread with butter because she didn’t have enough food?

A favourite story of Dr. Bukowska is when interviewing a number of Polish-Catholic women, she asked if Jews ever gave them baked goods. "Yes, of course, and I loved their matzos the most." "Did you really?" asked Dr. Orla-Bukowska. "Of course. They were made with the best white flour, with spring water, and could only use the crop from before the first rain fall. Those matzos they make now don’t have anything on the old ones." To which Orla-Bukowska asked: "But what about this story that Jews use the blood of Christians to bake their matzos?" One woman replied: "Don’t you know? That’s a fairy tale." Another answered: "Well, if they use Christian blood, it’s only in the matzo of the Rabbi, not the ones I ate." Yet another said: "Well, there was that one girl who went missing, but I think they might only have used a drop." The point is that Catholics and Jews shared in each other’s lives, to the extent they were aware of their different rituals and customs. There was a mutual interest in each other. It is interesting to note that for those who love matzo and still believe that Jews used Christian blood, they had found a way to believe the stories they’d been taught, while maintaining the truth of their personal experience. That it is possible to have ethnic prejudice against an entire group, while having a respectful and friendly relationship with an individual neighbour.

The problem of Polish-Catholic/Polish-Jewish relations now is largely a problem of memory. The memory of Poland by Polish-Catholics and by Polish and American Jews is exaggerated by the effects of the Shoah and the War, and often ends up in a sort of "victim competition". For Jews, The Shoah meant the abrupt and violent end to one thousand years of life and culture that had flourished in Poland . For the Poles, the War meant the loss of their independence which they had only recently obtained after two centuries of partitions. No less significant was the great loss of those who died fighting, and the hundreds of thousands who perished in German and Soviet concentration camps. Three million Polish Jews were killed in the war, and three million more Poles were killed. As a nation, the Poles see themselves as historical martyrs, much like Jews often understand themselves through their suffering. This in itself has created conflict and tension in claims for memory and rites of mourning in places like Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, for the Polish- Catholic, Jedwabne threatens to destroy its self-image by raising the uncomfortable question: were we not just victims and witnesses, but also perpetrators of the Shoah?

The murderers lived next to the murdered. They knew each other by first name. They shopped at each other’s stores, bought each other’s goods. They went to the same schools from grades one to six, and the girls even longer. There were friendships, shared memories, day-to-day social interaction. Then the war came.

Part of the "success" of the Nazi war machine was it turned neighbour against neighbour. Still, Poland is recognized as the nation that helped out more Jews during the war than any other. This is an incredible statistic, considering that if a Pole hid a Jew he was risking his life and that of his family. Granted, there were more Jews to help out. But it was certainly not something easy for them to do, nor by any means convenient; it involved great risk and the cooperation of a network of Poles. On the other hand, Jews are quick to point out how excited a Pole was to hand in a Jew in exchange for two kilos of sugar. But Jews were not always above this. Jews turned in Jews. Can I know how I would have behaved at that time? People were reduced to basic needs of survival, and this became the end to which most efforts were directed. Anti-Semitism was encouraged on all fronts. Engendering hatred was a key to the Final Solution. Should we be surprised that one victim killed another? Dr. Bukowska commented, "As a sociologist, I find it more inexplicable and perturbing to hear of two school children shooting their peers in peace time, than 200 men turning on their neighbours during a war."

And yet we are disturbed. In the course of one day, the village became a slaughterhouse. The murderers had no firearms– clubs, pitchforks, axes, knives and hands were used. People were buried alive, men dragged by the hair of their beards. Those who escaped the butchery were locked up in a barn and burned to death. It is not just the act of murder that horrifies us, but the sheer brutality, the specifics of this particular act.

A war should not excuse one of ethical responsibility. We are, whether at war or at peace, human, and if we are to believe in any sort of moral or ethic, we must be held responsible for our actions. What, then, are we to make of the anti-Semitism that obviously did exist among some Polish-Catholics, that played itself out in Jedwabne? Was it simply, as some academics say, one group’s desire for another’s property and wealth? Was it revenge, as others argue, for "Jewish collaboration" with the Communists from 1939-1941, when the Soviets controlled eastern Poland? Can this swelling of anti-Jewish hatred be explained so simply? There were wealthy Jews. There were Jews who were poor and spent their life in study. There were Communist Jews who assisted the Soviets in deporting Poles to the Gulag. There were Jews deported by the Communists, too. Can any people be reduced to such categories? The only crime Jews were collectively guilty of is being different.

One positive aspect to the Jedwabne massacre is that it is forcing Poland to become responsible for its actions and take stock of its war crimes in general. It is significant that an Institute of National Remembrance has finally been created in Poland. Its purpose is to gather existing archives that relate to all criminal acts perpetrated in Poland from the Second World War up to 1989. Personal files, as well as documents, photographs, and other records previously held by such agencies as the secret police and the Ministry of the Interior, are being deposited there and will be made available for scholarly research. Also, a woman from the American Polish-Jewish Relations Delegation told me that in the six months leading up to July 10, 2001 some 3000 articles had been written in Poland on the Jedwabne issue.

Living in a student dormitory in Krakow during the summer of 2001 afforded me the opportunity to talk to people in their 20s and hear their thoughts on the subject. Many Polish-Americans had never heard of Jedwabne. Others, such as a Krakowian woman from the help desk, asked me why I would bother going to the village, there was "nothing to see". Before the Jedwabne memorial, a twenty year old woman from Brooklyn, of Polish-Catholic descent, got into an argument with me about Tomasz Gross’ Neighbours (later, I found out, she hadn’t actually read the book). She said her parents had told her it was impossible to put 1600 people in a barn, especially back then, when barns were so small. I responded by saying it wasn’t the numbers so much that mattered; if they had burned 1000 Jews in the barn, wouldn’t that be just as bad? Frustrated, she said she just wished these matters of the past would be put behind us. They happened so long ago, we all suffered, isn’t that enough? I found myself considering her question. Isn’t that enough?

I made it to Jedwabne, on July 9, a day early so I could see the town before the media storm. I went right to the main square, where the Polish men had ordered the Jews to carry an impossibly heavy statue of Lenin and sing, "The war is because of us." I lit incense, burned a candle, then said the Kaddish. Somehow it all felt like an impossible task. How does one mourn what has passed sixty years ago? There were a few camera people setting up for the following day. A group of boys were sitting across from me in the square, smirking. What connection did I have to this town? Whose past was I mourning? Why was I in Jedwabne?

The next day, the day of the memorial, I arrived two hours early. It was cold and raining outside, and I spent my time in a corner store, drinking coffee and watching the locals. There was a man who bought sausage and bread, broke it up and passed it around to be shared. A woman in her late seventies sat silently by the window and stared. She tried to hide beneath the veil of her light blue baboushka, but her eyes told so much. There was pain, perhaps, or was she simply tired of seeing the media in her village? She watched people marching into the town, stern, sullen. What was she thinking? Had she been here the day it happened?

I wandered outside to the square. The memorial began with Chopin’s death waltz. There was an area for the media and invited guests, who gathered by the podium where the speeches took place. About 100 metres behind them was a guard rail, behind which stood the general mass of people. In that 100 metre space, there was a lone, middle-aged woman wearing a red shawl on her head. She looked at the several thousand people, then broke into tears. The rest of us were silent. The music played for a while, perhaps ten minutes, and gave us time to reflect on what had actually happened where we stood.

Playing Chopin, a very non-Jewish piece of music, seemed a strange choice with which to commemorate the dead. But the recording was by Artur Rubinstein, a Jewish pianist from Lodz, who had performed this piece at the first assembly of the United Nations, when the USSR had said that Poland was not a country and therefore ought not be represented. When Rubinstein played this, it took on many meanings: it was commemorating the "death" of Poland. It also said to the world that the Polish spirit would not die. Finally, it is significant that a Polish-Jew played this. It stands as a testimony to a Jew’s love of Poland.

After the Mayor of Jedwabne, the President of Poland and the Ambassador from Israel spoke, we moved as a group through the streets of Jedwabne toward the barn on the same path where the Jews were led by the Catholics to their deaths. Many people from the town stood in their houses, watching through windows. Some were on porches or in their small yards. All of them were observing. Why weren’t they with us in the procession? Wasn’t this memorial as much about them? Many of the people living in Jedwabne today did not live here back then. But still, did they not have an interest?

There were some Jedwabners standing with me in the field where the final part of the memorial occurred, as well as people from all over Poland, the United States, Israel and Europe. There was no room to move, and the rain fell harder. Rabbi Baker, 80 plus years, hands shaking when he held the microphone, held us in rapt attention for over half an hour in that freezing rain, and his words brought many to tears, "even God is crying", he explained. Baker, himself born in Jedwabne, had left before the War and lived in Israel, dedicating much of his life to writing about the atrocities that went on in Jedwabne, as well as writing in the Yizkor book (of remembrance) about the daily life in that town. Baker recounted the brutal events of that day, but what impressed me was how he contextualized the event: that gathering together like this was an act of repentance, that prayer was necessary in order to ask for forgiveness, and that this event was the beginning of the journey toward reconciliation. He also reminded us of the importance of Poland to the Jews, and the Jews to Poland. "This day is one of the most important in Polish history," he said. "Poles and Jews, standing together, mourning."

There were psalms recited by Rabbis in Hebrew and English, and by Protestants in Polish. Only one Catholic Priest attended the memorial. This in itself is a topic worthy of debate. In a country where the Catholic Church holds enormous influence, where over 95 percent of the population is Catholic, this stands as a major setback to the process of reconciliation.

In any event, the Kantor rose to sing. It is difficult to express the impact of his songs. There was an incredible power that overtook everyone and everything in that field; the grass listened, the sky listened, even the wind, it seemed, was listening. The tall speakers opened up onto a field where so much hatred had occurred, and now instead of cries there was music. My feet were exhausted at this point, having stood for two hours already. I was cold, and I wanted to sit down. But there was nowhere to sit. The Kantor kept singing. Finally the children of the dead recited the Kaddish. Then they sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.

On my way out of Jedwabne, I picked up a hitchhiker. His name was Zbigniew, and he came from the North, in a small town near Gdansk. He was in his fifties, an engineer at a Polytechnical school, and had made the journey by thumbing it the day before. He had a small green pack with a rolled up blue mat to sleep on, and an umbrella.

I gave him a ride 100 kilometres west, before I would return to Warsaw. He filled in the details of the day I wasn’t able to understand, and he asked me my impressions. I told him I found the ceremony moving, and more important than I had ever imagined. Finally, he asked me if I was Jewish. When I said I was, he cried he was so happy. "This, this is so marvelous," he said, "To hear from the mouth of a Jew what he thinks, this is good." I asked him why he had made the journey. "Because this is an important moment for Poland. To make the public gesture, it marks a new beginning for our people, a hope, one that we cannot afford to make mistakes on. There were a few people protesting the speeches today, but they were quiet, and I think everything was okay."

We drove through the Polish countryside, and conversation drifted toward the past, and how his father fought for the Polish army in two wars. We talked about our favourite Wajda and Kieslowski films, life under Martial Law, and his friends who lived in Canada. He asked me about Jewish rituals of mourning and I asked him about those of the Catholic Church. He pointed out what happened in this river or by that forest, and talked about his family and the villages they grew up in, the relations between Jews and Catholics, the wars they survived, and the people they lost.

Nothing can bring back what was lost. So how does one mourn the death of a community? After the Shoah, we live, as Eva Hoffman wrote, in an era of symbolic action. It is through such symbols as Jedwabne, that we must learn to listen to each other’s pasts. One remains open to memory, responsible to history, to the details and events that make up the truth. For, without this truth, we are still left fighting. Each other, our ignorance, and ourselves.

October 26, 2002 5254 w.


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