Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.2 (2005) 345-374
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Conversing with Ghosts
Jedwabne, Żydokomuna, and Totalitarianism
Bloomington, IN 47405 USA
On 10 July 1941, just after the withdrawal of the Red Army and the arrival of the Wehrmacht, the Polish townspeople of Jedwabne murdered their Jewish neighbors. From the sidelines those Germans who were present looked on and took photographs. The final massacre was preceded by days of stonings and lynchings of individual Jews. Earlier that day, several dozen of the strongest Jewish men were forced to dismantle the Lenin statue, carry it to the cemetery, and dig a grave for its burial. The bodies of the men were thrown into the same grave. Later that day, local Poles from Jedwabne and nearby villages forced the town's several hundred to a thousand remaining Jews from their homes and into the town square, herded them into a barn, and set the barn on fire. In this way Jedwabne Jewry came to an end.
Six and a half years later, the Central Committee of Polish Jews received a letter from Montevideo, Uruguay. Its author was Całka Migdał, a Jedwabne Jew who had left Poland ten years earlier, but whose mother, sister, and other family members had remained there. "We've had news, " Midgał wrote, "that they perished not by German but by Polish hands." In February 1948, the district court in Łomża (a larger town close to Jedwabne) began an investigation on the basis of the so-called "August Decree" issued by the communist-dominated Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN), which called for criminal charges against Nazi collaborators. Following a rather lax investigation, there was a two-day trial of 22 men, most of whom were born in Jedwabne, none of whom had had a higher education, and 3 of whom admitted to illiteracy.1 During interrogations by the Security Office (UB), the accused confessed to varying degrees of involvement, in the course of which they related sundry gruesome anecdotes. At the trial itself, however, all the defendants claimed to have been beaten during interrogation, recanted their testimonies, and pled innocent. Twelve were found guilty, and ten were acquitted.2
In May 2000, Jan Tomasz Gross published, in Polish, a short book titled Sąsiedzi: Historia zagłady żydowskiego miasteczka, telling the story of the Jedwabne massacre.3 This was, Gross noted, a collective murder in the double [End Page 346] sense: with respect to the victims as well as the perpetrators. Everyone who was present in the town that day was either a witness to or...