My group traveled to Jedwabne on July 11, 2011. We were not meant to go to Jedwabne; it was not on our original itinerary. We left Warsaw early in the morning, and by the time we pulled into Jedwabne, it was a beautiful day — the first nice day after a week of rain. The sun was shinning hard and the weather was hot. As we all got off the bus, we were silent. For us budding historians, Jedwabne was not just another Polish town. It was a symbol. It was a tragic memory. It was a point of contention. It was an event that challenged collective memory. It was bitterness.
We walked into Jedwabne’s town center, and saw some locals hanging around a bench behind us drinking beer. You could feel the tension as they stared at us. They knew why we were there. Why else would we come? One man came up to our tour leader, and explained in Polish, that the people living here now were good, they had nothing to do with what happened and we shouldn’t judge them.
We were in Jedwabne for the 70th anniversary ceremony of the 1941 pogram. Upon realizing that our trip coincided with the 70th anniversary, we got the opportunity to attend the event. The Germans occupied Jedwabne on June 23, 1941, taking it from Soviet hands. On the morning of July 1oth, 1941, the Polish residents of Jedwabne, violently rounded up the Jews of the town, and after brutally killing some in the streets, trapped the rest in a barn and burned it down. Jedwabne had a Jewish population of 1,600 before the war. 7 Jews survived. Only one lady, Antonina Wyrzykowska saved Jews. Two weeks after liberation, March 1945, locals raided her home and beat her and her family for saving Jews. As a result the Wyrzykowskas left Jedwabne.
The Nazis did not kill Jedwabne’s Jews, although they had their part in encouraging and approving the attack. It was the locals, the residents of the town. It was neighbors. Neighbors killing neighbors. And this is what makes Jedwabne so important, so critical. This is why, as we stood in Jedwabne’s town square on July 11, 2011, the residents glared us, and why we felt so uneasy, unsafe almost. Yes, we were there for the anniversary ceremony, but we were also there to judge. By standing there, we were saying, “How could you?”
In May 2000, Polish-American historian Jan Gross published his controversial book “Neighbors“, a book which described the massacre. Information about the Pogram was available before this, but his book brought the subject to the forefront of Polish dialogue. It spurred a Polish-wide discussion and soul searching. Previous beliefs that Poles were only victims during the Nazi war were dissolved. Neighbors showed that Poles were also perpetrators.
The following year, in July 2001, the first commemoration ceremony was conducted in Jedwabne, marking 60 years since the tragedy. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski stood in front of a crowd, of Jews and Poles, and apologized on behalf of Poland. He said, “We know with all the certainty that Poles were among the oppressors and assassins. We cannot have any doubts – here in Jedwabne citizens of the Republic of Poland died from the hands of other citizens of the Republic of Poland. It is people to people, neighbors to neighbors who forged such destiny…We are here to make a collective self examination. We are paying tribute to the victims and we are saying – never again… For this crime we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. This is why today, the President of the Republic of Poland, I beg pardon. I beg pardon in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime.”
The apology and attendance of many Polish officials was significant. Poles were taking responsibility for the memory, even 60 years after the event. However, the residents of Jedwabne boycotted the event. No one came to the ceremony.
Ten years later, the residents of Jedwabne did not come to the ceremony. As my group moved from the center of town, to the site of the memorial, the atmosphere changed considerably. Attending the ceremony were many government officials, important members of the Catholic clergy, lots of media outlets, the chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Shudrich and the Israeli ambassador to Poland, Zvi Rav-Ner. Former Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowieck read an apology given by current President Bronsilaw Komorowski, following Kwasniewski’s apology from 2001. The event was positive, albeit sad.
Jedwabne does not prove that all Poles are antisemitic, or were all perpetrators in the Holocaust. What it does is complicate history. It turns collective memory from black and white, to multicolour. It’s another chapter in the arduous history of Jews and Poles in Poland. While I stood in front of the monument, that stands on the grave of over 1000 Jews, who were burned to death alive, 70 years ago, I was happy that there was a ceremony for them, that they were remembered. That Poles, once again were apologizing. The Poles today in Poland are not responsible for what their parents or grandparents did during the war. But responsibility still exists- in the memory of the past that is passed down generation to generation. We are all responsible for how memory is remembered and and commemorated.
Israeli ambassador, Rav-Ner reminded the crowd that while we were commemorating the lives of Jews that were killed by their neighbors, there were also diffirent kinds of neighbors in Poland, and that we can’t forget these neighbors either. Neighbors like Wyrzykowska, that saved Jews. Neighbors that risked their own life and the life of their family to save Jews: Ya’ad Vashem has awarded 6, 266 Poles with the title of Righteous among the Nations for risking their own life to save their neighbor, and in many cases, a Jew they didn’t even know. Poles were heroes too.
On September 1, 2011, after I had already returned home to Jerusalem, I read in the news that the memorial had been vandalized. There were swastikas and the words, “they were flammable” and “I don’t apologize” written on it. President Komorowski was quick to condemn the graffiti, and an investigation was quickly set up to investigate the hate crime.
I’m still not sure how to feel about Jedwabne. When I stood in the center square of town, I did judge the residents. I know that many of them were young, and that they are probably good people. I don’t blame them for what happened, but I do blame them for not being at the ceremony. I do judge them for not being beside the President, when he says that Poles are sorry. I understand that they have to live with the weight of the memory on their backs, that they will forever be perceived by outsiders as murderers, and barbaric, even though many of their hands are clean of actual murder. But, at the end of the day, the land is tormented, and only when we can look into the eyes of the darkest chapter of our past, can we truly come out with clean hands. I hope that in the future, the brave actions of those that attend the memorial, will be passed to the younger generation of Poles, in Jedwabne and all over Poland.