Review of "The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne" by Anna Bikont
This book is a translation of articles written way back in 2000-2001 - with a few slightly more recent, all of which had previously been published in Bikont's 2004 Polish-language book, MY Z JEDWABNEGO.
MAJOR FINDINGS OMITTED IN THIS BOOK
This very old information has long been superceded, and even refuted, by more recent research. For instance, the following historian has assembled far more eyewitness data than either Jan T. Gross or Anna Bikont. It clearly shows that Jedwabne was a German crime, with Poles playing a subsidiary, mostly-compelled role. For details, click on, and read my detailed review of, The Massacre in Jedwabne, July 10, 1941: Before, During, After.
Jan T. Gross, Anna Bikont, and the IPN Commission have all ignored evidence, from Jewish sources OUTSIDE Poland, that establish the fact that Germans were the main killers of Jedwabne’s Jews. Poles played a secondary role. Please click on, and read my detailed reviews of, Deliverance: The Diary of Michael Maik, a True Story and The Warriors (Religion, Theology and the Holocaust).
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: ANTISEMITISM IN THE PRE-WWII JEDWABNE AREA
Anna Bikont, quite frankly, seems to adhere to a Manichaean view of the angelic Jew and the demonic Pole. She unilaterally blames Poles in general, and Endeks and the Catholic Church in particular, for just about everything that was negative in Polish-Jewish relations. In doing so, she overlooks basic facts.
To begin with, one does not have to be an Endek or devout Catholic to arrive at a negative opinion of the Jews. For instance, a British visitor to this general region, a century earlier, and based on his concrete personal experiences, had found everyday Jewish conduct quite repulsive. Please click on, and read my detailed review of, Travels Through Part of the Russian Empire and the Country of Poland Along the Southern Shores of the Baltic.
In addition to these centuries-old issues, other factors--none mentioned by Bikont--came into play in just the last few decades before WWII, and these further soured Polish-Jewish relations. The Jedwabne (Lomza) region had been part of the Pale of Jewish settlement in the western part of the tsarist Russian Empire. The massive overcrowding of Jews had long exacerbated economic rivalry between Jews and non-Jews. The Jews of the area were LITVAKS (LITWAKS), and were well-known for their strongly-separatist, anti-Polish, secularist, revolutionary, and often pro-Russian sentiments and conduct. Furthermore, the Jews of the Lomza area had commonly sided with the Russians in the 1920 Polish-Bolshevik War.
WERE POLISH RESCUERS OF JEWS AFRAID OF ANTI-SEMITIC DISAPPROVALS?
Bikont uncritically repeats the argument that Poles who aided Jews kept their wartime actions secret because of the anti-Jewish hostility of fellow Poles. In actuality, in the violent postwar period, it was best to keep a low profile, for several reasons. Fear of disclosure--when it occurred--had many causes. In fact, Bikont mentions the robberies of Jewish-rescuer Poles by bandits, who had suspected that these Poles were in possession of Jewish gold. (p. 95). [Parenthetically, this reminds us that bandits went after anyone suspected of having something worth stealing, whether Jewish or non-Jewish.] Polish rescuers often had ties to the Polish Underground, so it was better that Communist authorities not find out about the Jewish-rescue efforts. Other Polish rescuers feared that the Communist authorities would be suspicious of anyone with merely an obvious activist mindset, as such people, to Communists, were “dangerous”.
In any case, Bikont’s argument is, at best, a gross exaggeration. Fact is, thousands of Polish rescuers of Jews publically identified themselves as such, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and even agreed to be featured, in print, in this detailed 1969 book: Righteous Among Nations: How Poles Helped the Jews, 1939-1945.
NO SIMPLE DIALECTIC. ATROCITIES WENT BOTH WAYS
The perceptive reader may notice the irony of Bikont’s interest in, and moral indignation about, Poles stealing from and killing Jews. Anna Bikont is a journalist for GAZETA WYBORCZA, which is Poland’s leading left-wing newspaper. Leftists tell us that the “haves” have “won life’s lottery”. In general, leftists have no problem with the “have-nots” stealing from, or killing, the “haves”. In fact, they justify this through terms such as “class struggle”, “proletarian justice”, “permanent revolution”, or other Leftspeak.
Regardless of what exactly happened at Jedwabne, it was, notwithstanding the inordinate attention that it is has gotten, hardly an unusual event. Thus, for instance, there was large-scale Jewish complicity in the Soviet massacre of Poles at places such as Naliboki and Koniuchy. Please click on, and read my detailed review of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas.
Although Bikont mentions Jews and Communism several times, it is always in a superficial and dismissive manner. The massive crimes committed by Jewish-Soviet collaborators, responsible for the deaths of millions of eastern Europeans, cannot be glossed over or wished away. For details, with links for further research, please see the first part of the first comment under this review.
The remainder of my review deals with technicalities pertaining to the Jedwabne massacre itself. I take Bikont's arguments at face value, and evaluate them.
THE DUBIOUS HANDLING OF EYEWITNESS TESTIMONIES
The author definitely seems to bend over backwards to find Poles guilty for Jedwabne, no matter the evidence. Throughout her book, Bikont effortlessly explains away testimonies that do not fit the Pole-accusing narrative.
Let us start with the testimonies of Poles. She dismisses them as the memes of "community storytelling", and not what actually happened. In doing so, she would also demolish Jewish testimonies, as EXACTLY the same considerations, raised by her, apply to Holocaust survivor testimonies in general! For instance, see my review of The Holocaust and the Historians, and link therein.
Let us take this further. While in discussion with IPN Prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew, Bikont uncritically relates his OPINIONS--about Polish eyewitnesses discrediting themselves by contradicting each other on details regarding the color and style of the uniforms worn by the Germans, and the number of shots fired by the Germans, etc. (pp. 518-519). However, isn’t this exactly what is to be expected of decades-old memories, including the “modernizing” influences of more recent experiences? What if the specifics are “overprinted” and discredited--while the CORE MEMORIES (of German presence and German shooting) remain intact?
Now consider the Jewish testimonies from soon after WWII. When Jews testified that it was the Germans responsible for Jedwabne, Anna Bikont would have the reader believe that this only meant that they were afraid to tell the truth and antagonize the Poles. She presents not a shred of evidence to support this sweeping generalization. Following her arguably-flippant reasoning, any testimony in court could be discounted. Moreover, fear of Poles could not even possibly have been always the case, as some of the German-blaming testimonies came from Jews now living outside Poland!
Far from being unilaterally afraid to offend the Poles, Jews, if anything, had commonly been bold and expressive, in their words and actions, and even oblivious to possible consequences. For instance, even in the violent immediate postwar period, the Jews held marches in open support of the Soviet-imposed Communist puppet government. For an example, please click on, and read my review, of Reflections on the Kielce Pogrom.
DID POLES MAGICALLY OUTPERFORM THE RUSSIAN POGROMISTS?
The forensic dig at Jedwabne has shown that not a single Jew had a fracture or other skeletal injury. Thus, the thesis of neo-Stalinist Jan T. Gross is preposterous on its face. We are asked to believe that the Poles accomplished something that even the Russian pogromists could not do: Having the use of only farming tools, to induce hundreds (even thousands) of Jews to obediently proceed into an overcrowded barn to be burned alive--all the while not a single Jew defended himself and got an injury that could be seen on the skeleton.
Faced with this unwelcome evidence, Bikont repeats the ad hoc argument that Jews did not fight back because they felt defenseless, and because they had to consider the women and children. (p. 6-7). [Should not this, if anything, have driven them to fight even HARDER?] Bikont's rather facile argument is exploded by the elementary fact that Jews DID habitually fight back, and did so fiercely, during pogroms, such as in those that occurred when this region was part of the Russian Empire. Please click on and read my detailed review of Religious Violence Between Christians and Jews: Medieval Roots, Modern Perspectives.
The facts are clear: Only the Germans, who alone had firearms, could have induced the Jews to be docile, to be separated into two groups, and to proceed into the barn with no appreciable resistance.
THE BULLET CASINGS FOUND AT THE SITE
Anna Bikont (pp. 358-359, p. 408) repeats the outdated argument that bullet casings found at the Jedwabne site are vintage WWI, and had nothing to do with the 1941 massacre.
The reader should be aware of the following: Andrzej Kola of Torun University was the archeologist in charge of the archeological survey at Jedwabne. He maintains that the bullet remains found at the site should be linked with the July 1941 massacre. Kola points to the implausibly large number of shells found at the site, to be explained in any other way, as well as the fact that some of them were stamped "1939". See Jedwabne Massacre June 25 1941, July 10 1941.
GERMAN PERMISSIVENESS OR GERMAN DURESS?
In his widely-acclaimed NEIGHBORS, Jan T. Gross had claimed that the Poles unilaterally murdered Jedwabne's Jews while the Germans merely watched and took pictures. This, if nothing else, is clearly incorrect. Bikont quotes IPN Prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew, "The crime in Jedwabne was committed at the instigation of the Germans. It's not possible that an action on that scale happened without German acceptance...The presence, even passive, of German policemen from the station in Jedwabne, as well as other uniformed Germans--if we accept they were there--is in the eye of the law equivalent to permission to commit the crime. So the Germans should be ascribed criminal responsibility in the broader sense." (pp. 522-523).
Prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew has just given away the store! He has tacitly admitted that the presence of armed Germans, at Jedwabne at the time of the massacre, cannot be ruled out. Therefore, by his own tacit admission, Polish guilt has NOT been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
What about the Germans actually forcing Poles to commit the crime, even if--for the sake of argument--they were not physically present at the time of the massacre itself? Author Anna Bikont seems to think that, unless the Germans were present in massive numbers, and unless the Germans were physically close enough to the Poles to breathe down their necks, and unless the Poles were actually looking down the barrels of German guns, the Poles were free to act as they chose. This was hardly the case. To begin with, there remains the question of pre-existing German orders, and German threats for non-compliance. In addition, the German-Polish relationship was not that of partners or equals: The German-Polish relationship was that between conqueror and conquered, master and servant, order-giver and order-fulfiller, etc. Finally, the perceptive reader must ask this question: Has there EVER been an independently-verified case of the Germans allowing the Polish locals to FREELY CHOOSE how they dealt with their Jews? [I have long been studying this matter in some detail, and know of none.]
The reader of this book is led to believe that the investigative IPN Polish Commission (INSTYTUT PAMIECI NARODOWEJ) had proven Jan T. Gross essentially correct on Jedwabne. It had not. The responsibility for burning the Jews in the barn was left an open question. (See the second part of the first comment under this review.)
THE 1949 JEDWABNE TRIALS. MANY JEDWABNES?
Bikont's very-outdated book misses an important new study on the 1949 Jedwabne trials, a study that also addresses the question of massacres of Jews at nearby places other than Jedwabne. See, and read my detailed review, of Facing the Catastrophe: Jews and Non-Jews in Europe during World War II (Occupation in Europe).
Apart from being conducted in at atmosphere of Communist terror, the 1949 trials have serious problems. These include the ambiguous and contradictory testimonies, the fact of one defendant being practically forced to blame another defendant in order to try to escape blame himself, the fact of non-corroborated but also non-refuted claims about German orders to kill the Jews, etc.
One would never guess this by reading Bikont, but the 1941 massacres at villages outside Jedwabne are based on tenuous evidence, and mostly-uncorroborated accusations.
Written by Jan Peczkis
About the author: I am a first-generation Polish-American who is descended from Kresy Poles that had been deported to Kazakhstan in 1940. I have an avid interest in Polish history, and have written over 2,200 book reviews (so far) on www.amazon.com.
Jestem Amerykanin Polskiego pochodzenia. Moi rodzice pochodza z Kresow, i byli wywiezieni do Kazakhstanu w 1940. Mam glebokie zainteresowanie w polskiej historii, i dotychczas mam ponad 2,200 recenzji ksiazek na www.amazon.com.