On 10 July, 1941, at an unpronounceable town of occupied Poland, Jedwabne, 120 miles from Warsaw, took place one of the most cruel and hard to believe events of World War Two. For a few hours of that summer day a 3000 people town was the scene of a collective murder. That day, 1500 people killed or witnessed the killing of 1600 Jewish women, men, children, and elderly. Only seven survived, saved by the Wyrzykowski family, for years persecuted for their act of solidarity.
That horrible history was denied for decades until Polish historian Jan T. Gross published in 2001 his book, Neighbors: The Extermination of the Jewabne Jewish Community. The book was a bestseller both in the US and Poland, where it triggered an unprecedented debate. Gross reconstructed the story with the statements of the seven survivors and the archives of two trials by the Communist government, in 1949 and 1953.
A particularity of this massacre is that the German occupation forces neither ordered it nor took any part in it; they just let it happened and took photographs. It was a collective crime carried out by neighbors, “regular” people, in which a majority took part and the rest watched passively. The event were devastating. Jews were attacked, beaten, humilliated and forced to perform absurd acts. Among beatings, the survivors were dragged inside a barn, locked in and burned alive. The killers then took over the property of their victims, enforced a collective silence and tried to forget. The Jews were murdered, their homes and belongings stolen.
Gross points out that the case was a mass murder in two senses; because of the number of victims, and the number of killers. The killings were frenetical, barbaric, carried out with tools, knifes and sticks.
The case breaks the stereotype of monsters committing inhumane acts. As Gross concludes, the killers of Jedwabne were regular people, men and women of all ages and professions, good citizens. What the Jews saw to their horror, the last thing they saw before dying, were familiar faces. Their own neighbors turned into willing executioneers. It was an example of how a horde, a mass of resentful people, can be contaminated by ideas of difference and superiority, and forget all ideas of ethics and individual responsibility. Several reports from the postwar years prove that the town folks of Jedwabne knew perfectly well that the local Jews had been killed by their neighbors and not by the Nazis.
This history, hidden until the publication of Gross’ book, became better known after the premier of an extraordinay Polish film, Poklosie -Sequels- in 2012. Written and directed by Wladyslaw Pasiloski, it tells the story of the killings and it was the target of a boycott by Polish nationalists that deny that the Jedwabne killings and other similar cases ever happened. I also recommend reading Luis Bruschtein’s interview with the poet and philosopher Laura Klein, published by the newspaper Página 12 in 2001. Klein lost relatives at Jedwabne. “La vecindad del mal”, by Ana Wajszczuk, published by the newspaper La Nación, is also to be recommended.
The Jedwabne story is a witness case of how far a group of regular people, friendly and familiar faces, can go under circumstances that fan hatred and leave out reflection and empathy. In his play Potestad, Eduardo Pavlovsky showed the story of a most sympathetic doctor who tells the audience that his daughter has been taken from him. As the play progresses, the audience discover to their horror that the daughter was kidnapped from a family killed during Argentina’s dictatorship. The author was criticized by many who felt that it was a mistake to show such a monster in such an intimate, humane way. But, as the writer and master of horror stories Alberto Laiseca once said, monsters do exist but they do not sport fangs, the are not humped Quasimodos, or half animals. Monsters are ordinary beings in far away towns and nearby cities, just waiting for somebody to give the order to attack.