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Jewish Quarterly Review 97.2 (2007) 289-303

Holocaust "Triangles," Ambivalent Neighbors, and Historical Memory:
Some Recent Notable Books on Polish Jewry
Reviewed by
Gershon Bacon
Jan T. Gross. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 261.
Antony Polonsky and Joanna B. Michlic, eds. The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. xiv + 489.
Shimon Redlich. Together and Apart in Brzezany: Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians, 1919–1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 202.
Rosa Lehmann. Symbiosis and Ambivalence: Poles and Jews in a Small Galician Town. New York: Berghahn Books, 2001. Pp. xxii + 217.
Antony Polonsky, ed. Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 15 [Focusing on Jewish Religious Life 1500–1900]. Oxford and Portland, Oreg.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2002. Pp. xvi + 558.

In 1980 the survivors of Jedwabne, a small town in northeastern Poland, did what their counterparts from hundreds of other locales in Eastern Europe had done over the preceding three and a half decades: they published a memorial volume for their martyred community.1 Fully cognizant of the changes that had taken place both in the United States and Israel [End Page 289] over the intervening decades, the editors of the volume decided to write the book mostly in English and Hebrew, with only a small section in Yiddish, with which the younger generation was no longer conversant. The result of their efforts recounts the history of Jedwabne's Jews, describing the community's institutions and its notable figures. Not surprisingly, the story of the destruction of the town's Jews on July 10, 1941, receives prominent attention in the narrative. In both English and Hebrew versions survivors of the massacre tell a tale of horror that has, in recent years, become almost a signature event of the bloodiest of all centuries in human history. They tell how on that day, a few weeks into the period of German occupation of the formerly Soviet-dominated region, the Polish residents of Jedwabne (and people from nearby towns who joined in the action) slaughtered their Jewish neighbors in an orgy of violence, torture, and degradation, culminating in the burning of hundreds of Jews in a local barn. The puzzling thing is that, at the time of the book's publication, the story had no impact, and the editors themselves did not see anything unusual in the story of these martyrs' deaths at the hands of their Polish fellow citizens. Was the presence in the area of German gendarmes sufficient to categorize the event as part of Nazi atrocities, even if the instigators and participants in the slaughter were Poles? Or, in their minds at least, was this just another example of larger and smaller of betrayals of Jews by their neighbors, different in scale perhaps, but not in substance? The story of the Jedwabne slaughter had an even longer pedigree, since soon after the war Szmul Wasersztajn, one of the few survivors from the town, deposited his testimony about the massacre with the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland. His written testimony would eventually lead to the arrest and trial of some of the participants in the slaughter in a little-known judicial proceeding in 1949. Beyond that, however, the story was never incorporated in the overall historical narrative of the wartime relations of Poles and Jews under Nazi occupation.

While the lack of reaction to the story in Jewish circles may be surprising, the silence in Poland should not surprise us at all, since the Jedwabne story stands in stark contradiction to the national self-image of Poland as a nation of victims, a people that prided itself in the claim that there were no Polish quislings and no collaborationist body ever set up there during the occupation. Regarding the Holocaust, in the triad of perpetrators-victims-bystanders, Poles unreservedly placed themselves in either the second or third category, but certainly...


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