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Even Worse Than We Thought

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The synagogue in Jedwabne, Poland, before World War I

Thomas Mann believed that all good stories are slow stories. He was doubtless thinking of Wagner, his greatest literary influence—but also, naturally, of Thomas Mann. And in the best hands, slowness can feel the exact speed necessary for truthfulness. In less sure hands, it can produce a kind of maximalist minimalism: see Karl Ove Knausgaard. But Mann’s dictum also applies to other narrative forms, like the documentary film.

One of the greatest documentaries of the last fifty years is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. This most terrifying of films doesn’t open with haunting images or pumped-up voice-over claims. It opens with the sound of a man singing first a Polish folk song, and then a German marching song, as a boat is paddled slowly along the river Narew, past calm green meadows. He is, it turns out, a forty-seven-year-old survivor of the camp at Chełmno who, as a thirteen-year-old captive and mascot of the Germans, used to sing the same songs as he rowed the same stretch of river to fetch alfalfa for his captors’ pet rabbits. The pace of the film is to be the pace of that boat. The destination, upstream, through waters filled with obstructions and muck and lies, is the truth at the source of that river.

The slowness of Shoah is deliberately inbuilt. The camera is often held for a long time on the seemingly expressionless faces of witnesses to dreadful distant happenings; we think and try to imagine, as they think and cannot help remembering. Then there is the matter of translation. Lanzmann asks a question in French, the translator turns it into Polish, perhaps, or Hebrew. We hear the reply in that language, then the translation back into French. And along the way we Anglophones read the subtitles. It could be cumbrous, but in fact is the opposite. We wait, just as Lanzmann waits, for the answer, be it some horrifyingly ordinary detail, a brazen evasion, or a stiff-jawed denial. And in this waiting we assess the reliability of the witness, just as he is doing.

We watch, for instance, as a succession of aging Poles cheerfully demonstrate the throat-slitting gesture they made to Jews arriving at railheads close to the killing camps. Lanzmann’s technique, both in the investigation itself and in the subsequent editing, is rather like an archaeologist’s: a gentle brushing away of the soil so that the artifact will be revealed exactly where and how it was first buried. The method mimics the purpose: that of absolute truth-finding.

There is much slowness in The Crime and the Silence, Anna Bikont’s magisterial investigation into a small massacre of Jews in the town of Jedwabne in northeastern Poland in July 1941. Part of this is authorial: the necessarily slow steps toward as much irrefutable truth as can be possibly found this far after the event. Part of it is lectoral: her text is dense with names—some of them confusingly similar, yet whose owners had diametrically opposed destinies—with places and details to remember, and several overlapping timescales. But there is also a slowness imposed on the reader by the dreadfulness of the subject matter. In January 2004, Bikont showed her typescript to Jacek Kuroń, the “theorist of Solidarity,” then in the last months of his life. His response was apparently discouraging:

“I don’t know how many people will read this,” he worries. “Theoretically I was prepared for the whole thing, you’d already told me so much about it, but even so I had to stop reading every several dozen pages, so hard did I find it.”

Even those who come at the book from a historical and geographical distance will be obliged to pace themselves. It is not just a question of taking in individual spasms of bestial cruelty. It is also a broader question: the rate at which we can stomach the truths of man’s inhumanity to man, and ruminate on their causes.

There is, first, the question of numbers. It is impossible for us to imagine, except in a very general way, the death of six million people. Reading about the Holocaust, and seeing film of those killing factories, fill us with terror and pity in a way that often fogs the mind. So what might be the “perfect” number of dead, one that allows us to feel the magnitude of mass death, but also to individualize it? In modern times, it would perhaps be the death toll of a major airplane crash: an end comparatively easy to imagine, and also individualized for us when those mug shots and brief bio-obits appear in the following days’ newspapers.

At Jedwabne, the death toll is impossible to estimate accurately. It could be as high as 1,500; or it could, as the prosecutor appointed by the Institute of National Remembrance in 2000 conservatively concluded, be “not fewer than 340.” Taking the (extremely cautious) lower figure, the massacre at Jedwabne would be comparable to the crash of a jumbo jet. Except that the parallel is only partial. Even if we imagine the captain deliberately crashing the plane, so that it is murder, not an accident, there is this difference. Imagine that airplane crash, but with a fair number of passengers escaping death. As they wander traumatized from the wreckage, staff from the airline beat them to death with clubs and poles and crowbars, chase them into marshes where they drown, and throw them down wells. That’s more what it would be like.

Jews had lived in the town of Jedwabne since 1660. At the end of the nineteenth century, they made up 80 percent of the town’s population. By the start of World War II, the balance of ethnic Poles and Jews was reckoned to be equal. Between 1939 and 1944 the town was occupied successively by the Germans, the Soviets (who, after a forced referendum, annexed it as part of western Belarus), the Germans again, and finally the Soviets again. Each invader carried out its purges; each counter-invader, counter-purges. Any underlying tensions between the civilian populations were grossly exacerbated by these changes of hand. Those who collaborated under one regime were punished by the next, those who fought against it rewarded.

But it was more complicated than this: sometimes, my enemy’s enemy cannot be relied upon to be my friend. So though many Jews might have been relieved by the first arrival of the Soviets in 1939, which freed them from anti-Semitic Nazis who had invaded earlier in the year, the new arrivals brought their own (Russian and atheistic) anti-Semitism: Hebrew schools were closed, Yom Kippur turned into an ordinary workday, shops and businesses (which had been largely in Jewish hands) Sovietized.

Nor—given the paranoia of Stalinism—was it in any way safe to be idealistically on the side of the new Soviet authorities. To be a Polish Communist was a dangerous thing; to be a Polish-Jewish Communist, doubly so. Stalin had dissolved the Polish Communist Party in 1937, denounced its adherents as saboteurs, and summoned many of them to Russia, where they were shot.

When the Germans returned to Jedwabne in July 1941, they would have had fresh in their minds the directive issued days earlier, on June 29, by Reinhard Heydrich, then chief of the Reich Main Security Office:

No obstacles should be placed in the way of aspirations toward self-cleansing in anti-Communist or anti-Jewish circles in the newly occupied territories. Rather, such aspirations should be provoked without leaving traces, and if need be they should be intensified and led onto the right track…. The aim is to produce popular local pogroms.

The first pogrom in the area took place at Wąsosz on July 5, the second (“exceptionally well documented,” according to Bikont) at Radziłów, eleven miles from Jedwabne, on July 7, and the biggest one at Jedwabne itself on July 10. There was no shortage of local “aspirants to self-cleansing.” The Jews were wrenched from their houses and beaten, driven to the marketplace and ordered to weed it with spoons, forced to break up a statue of Lenin and run around the marketplace carrying its pieces while singing “the war’s our fault.”

Several dozen were herded into a barn, shot, and thrown into a pit; then most of the remaining Jews were driven into the barn, which was doused in gasoline and set alight. Those who escaped or had hidden were tracked down and butchered. The Jewish community in Jedwabne ceased to exist on that day. Their homes and shops were first looted, then occupied by ethnic Poles.

Who did it? The Germans, of course. Just as the Germans had carried out the massacre at Katyń. There was a trial under the Communists in 1949, which convicted twelve ethnic Poles for collaborating with the Germans; an offshoot trial in 1953; and a long-drawn-out investigation lasting from 1967 until 1974, in which time the prosecutor managed to interview a mere sixteen witnesses, and concluded firmly that the Germans were entirely to blame. (This coincided with the Polish government’s anti-Semitic campaign of 1968.) So the cover story became established history for more than half a century, commemorated as such on the town square, and published as such on the local school’s website.

What changed everything was the publication in May 2000 of Jan Tomasz Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, which, apart from court records, drew heavily on the testimony of Szmul Wasersztejn, a survivor of the massacre; also on the Jedwabne Book of Memory, compiled in the US from the memories of Jewish emigrants from the town. Gross’s conclusions—that it was a “collective murder,” that the Germans were minimally involved, and that the death toll in the barn ran to 1,600—set off a storm of denial, counter-charge, and furious indifference. The official reaction was to set up an investigation by prosecutor Radosław Ignatiew for the Institute of National Remembrance.

Bikont’s book, which began as a journalistic investigation for the Gazeta Wyborcza, is meticulous in its procedures, absolute in its commitment to truth, and—perhaps therefore—powerfully dispiriting. Her book widens out historically to record the disgusting pre-war anti-Semitism in Poland—led by the Catholic Church and the professional elites—and the even more disgusting postwar anti-Semitism (98 percent of the country’s Jews had been killed, but there were still Polish fascists and “patriots” eager to pull returning Jews off the trains and slaughter them).

Yet the essentially narrow focus on this place, in these years, on the massacre by neighbors, means that the mechanisms and lineaments of anti-Semitism are shown the more clearly and bleakly. As elsewhere, the Jews were placed in all sorts of inescapable double binds. If they were forcibly kept apart from society, it meant that they were by nature separate and alien; if they assimilated, it was because they wanted to undermine Poland from within. They were forbidden from buying land in pre-war Poland, then told that—despite centuries of presence—they were “guests” with “no tie to the land.”

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A monument to the Jews killed in 1941 in Jedwabne, Poland, which was erected in 2001 and vandalized with swastikas ten years later, September 2011

Equally, their virtues were turned against them. If old men, women, and children did not fight back against men with guns and clubs, it meant that they deserved their fate. If they tried hard to help one another, and were rarely found in a ditch cuddling a bottle of vodka, it meant that they were ruled by gold and stealing the shirt from the honest Pole’s back. And if, now, as a new century turned, they wanted to uncover exactly what happened in July 1941, it must be less about truth than reparations: further proof of their “historic” greed for gold.

All of a sudden, a payback figure of $65 billion was in the air (where did it come from? Bikont does not say) and the Jews were out to ruin Poland all over again. And so there was born the new myth of “how vengeful the Yids are.” In 2001, when Bikont started investigating, copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were still being distributed outside the church at Jedwabne; a Polish bishop was talking insolently of the “Shoah business”; the president of the American Polish Congress was explaining how “the Jews decided that Poland should not be Poland but a suburb of Israel”; a Father Bartnik announced that the Jews were “still causing wounds to fester”; while Lech Wałęsa made a blithely self-disgracing comment. Even if all the Jews still remaining in Poland had left, they would probably have found themselves caught in the final half of a final double bind. As the Poznań weekly unironically entitled Culture put it in 1936, “The Jewish problem can exist even when there is no longer any Jew left.”

One of the broad conclusions of prosecutor Ignatiew’s investigation, which ran parallel with Bikont’s own, came as a shock to her: namely, “how universal the tendency to lie is in this case.” The number of Poles who swore they saw Germans organize and carry out the massacre, with specific memories of personnel, uniforms, and military equipment, amounts to a kind of mass hallucination; or it would, except that the inventiveness of memory makes the various accounts mutually contradictory. (In Shoah there is a scene in which a group of Polish peasants confidently assert that they had seen Pullman cars full of rich French Jews, all dressed in finery, dining away in style and heedlessly playing cards as they arrived at the railhead.)

The brazen assertions that not a single ethnic Pole was involved in the Jedwabne massacre likewise came in various and conflicting forms. There was much perjury, some of an especially painful kind: when the trial of 1949 took place, a woman who had saved herself by converting to Catholicism gave evidence in defense of the town’s best-known killers, in tacit exchange for the right to continue living there. Krzysztof Godlewski, mayor of Jedwabne when Bikont begins her investigation, an honorable man constantly trying to reconcile irreconcilable factions, tells her, “It’s natural to choose the easier truth.” He thinks—he hopes—that “the more difficult truth is gradually sinking in.”

But the easier truth, as Bikont discovers, is extremely tenacious, especially when built out of the lies you have told yourself over decades—lies that, for example, justify the fact that you live in a house that had once belonged to a family of Jews murdered by your neighbors. In Shoah, Lanzmann deliberately plays the part of the puzzled, unthreatening interviewer, one who smokes and nods along and occasionally smiles, and who doesn’t really understand what happened all those years ago. Sometimes, however, his tone becomes more sardonic—though never unhelpfully provocative—as when talking on the doorsteps of what used to be a Jewish house in Grabow:

Barbara [his translator], tell this couple they live in a lovely house…. Tell me about the decoration of this house, the doors, what does it mean?… Did Jews own this house?… How long have these two lived here?… Where did they live before?… They’ve gotten rich….

In March 2001, a well-dressed businessman in his thirties, who speaks to Bikont across a fence at 7 Przytulska Street, explains to her the nub of the problem, as he sees it: “Jews have positions in government and the Church,” he begins. (“The Church”?)

Why are you digging it all up? Because it’s a gold mine…. The Jews behave as if this were their home, but when I’m in a foreign country I can’t do whatever I like. It was wrong of the Jedwabne authorities to let journalists in to dig up Jewish truth. It’s not our truth.

Where might he have got this notion from? Perhaps from someone like Waldemar Chrostowski, priest and professor, vice-president of the Catholic University in Warsaw. Here he is, in January 2003, on the question of numbers: “Why is there talk of the number sixteen hundred, despite the exhumation? We Christians wish to reconstruct the facts. For the Jews, the facts have no significance.” Polish truth, Jewish truth; Catholic facts, Jewish facts. That hoped-for truth to be found upriver proves constantly elusive: not so much a single source as a collection of damp leakings.

One of the first deniers and victim-blamers to be interviewed by Bikont—and by whose account three Germans with handguns single-handedly herded more than a thousand Jews into the barn—claimed that the victims were in the wrong “for not defending themselves…. Poles would have helped them if they’d fought back against the Germans.” The relentless stereotyping means that it comes as a vivid relief when an ethnic Pole is not a bigot or a Jew is not a passive martyr. Certainly there were Poles who protected Jews (an estimated 100,000 did so in Warsaw) and most civilians behaved passively rather than actively; though “the sin of indifference” can be no less toxic than other sins. Similarly, there were priests who did not preach hatred or give spiritual authority to pogroms, though they do not seem to have got far up the hierarchy. As for the Jews: there was one who refused to carry Lenin’s bust around the marketplace; there were “five Jewish louts” who swaggered about town as if in charge when the Russians first arrived (though not for long); there were Jews who schemed and fought to survive at all costs, in order later to bear witness.

One of the ethnic Poles’ complaints about how the Jews behaved after this part of Poland had been absorbed into western Belarus was that they had collaborated with the Soviets and denounced Poles. Further, that they were no longer the mocked, but had learned to mock back. Specifically, with this chant: “You wanted Poland without Jews, now you have Jews without Poland.” Such heartening impudence was remembered, of course, when the Germans returned.

Another reader to whom Bikont showed her manuscript had this response: “For me the hardest thing to bear is not that the Jews were massacred in Jedwabne and the area, but that it was done with such cruelty and that the killing gave so much joy.” This is indeed the hardest part to stomach, the part that quietly urges you to give up on humanity, yielding to a dismay that this is probably what we are all like, or all capable of being like, at some level, underneath. The joy, the mockery, the exultation of slaughter, and then the shamelessness of the killer’s wife turning up at church on Sunday in a looted fur coat only recently worn to synagogue.

It is this relish for killing and the flaunting of spoils that asks us the hardest question. We can identify proximate causes of what happened: the extreme anti-Semitism of public life, the moral trahison of the professional classes, the particular circumstances by which Jedwabne and nearby towns changed hands in wartime, the age-long resentment of those who are different, and so on. These are the small “whys,” which lead us to an overwhelming “why”—one at which language as well as thought often fails. Given that most of those involved, on both sides, had and have religious belief, or at least religious observance, the question looms the greater. “I just don’t know where God was at that moment,” commented a Catholic Pole who saved and subsequently married a Jewish woman.

Another witness, after running through the accumulated prompts (including his sarcastic admission that things had already “turned out well in Radziłów, they’re rid of the problem”), concluded: “And finally, fourth, Satan got into the town.” A similar explanation is given to account for the bad faith, lies, and anti-Semitism of a hitherto admired Polish historian, Tomasz Strzembosz. A fellow historian and friend explained that “the Jedwabne affair awoke a demon in this traditional Polish patriot.”

God taking leave of absence for a day? Satan slipping into town? Demons awakening? For those with a nonreligious, and more mechanistic view of the world, explanation might be slightly easier, though no less bleak. It will tend to be located in a lack—a loss—of the imagination, a kind of mass autism, and a habituation to the banality of evil. A Pole whose mother had hidden two Jewish children on the day of the massacre remembered that as a boy he had taken sand from Jewish graves and stones from the burned barn for the foundation of his family’s house:

Everyone took them. Once I found a bone and threw it out in a rage, and a friend of mine threw a skull into the river. It’s so shameful when I think about it now, but then we didn’t have the imagination to realize.

But it goes beyond historic prejudice, moral indifference, plus a coveting of your neighbor’s goods. One of the killers is quoted drunkenly boasting that “a man to me is nothing more than a whistling of the air.” And we are back to the “joy” in and within the slaughter. As the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising put it, “There’s something in man that makes him like killing.”

Bikont does not get drawn into questions about the nature of evil; instead—and rightly—she is too busy delineating and documenting its manifestations. Her eye and ear miss little. Those spoons used for weeding the Jedwabne marketplace turn up decades later during the excavation of the barn: though when found, they are “bent” from the work they once did. Like Lanzmann, she is, almost without exception, tirelessly polite. Here she records the swerving mind and words of a seventy-three-year-old retired seamstress, her mind perverted—or, more likely, endorsed—by the ultra-right-wing Catholic Radio Maryja:

Holy Scripture tells us the Jews are a tribe of vipers, perverts, they’re untrustworthy and faithless. They played tricks on the Lord himself, and He had to send down plagues on them. He made them wander in the wilderness for thirty years. It’s no accident He punished them in the way He did. I’ve known about that from before the war, from religious studies. I remember everything. I’m seventy-three and I’ve still no sclerosis at all, though I don’t eat margarine, only butter, because it’s Jewish companies that make margarine.

That last sentence is both entirely incidental, and entirely crucial. When the same woman is presented with the fact that Jesus was a Jew, she replies, “What are you saying, he was God’s son, that tribe has nothing to do with him. He didn’t speak much Hebrew and no Yiddish at all.”

Or take this incident from the aftermath of the pogrom in Radziłów. A Jewish woman, Chaja Finkelsztejn, who has escaped the first wave of killing, boldly visits those responsible in an attempt to negotiate a deal for the safety of her family, savagely attacked the previous night. She is referred upward, finally to the pre-war head of the village. She herself is covered not just with bruises but open wounds. It is a matter, simply, of whether the family will live or die:

He covered over his scowl at seeing me with a polite smile. He was pacing the room. Every time he passed the sideboard he’d cut a little slice of bread, put slabs of pork fat on it, and calmly eat it. He listened to my story without a shadow of compassion. He must have known about the attack, maybe he’d even given the order.

It is like some black, inverted version of Gurov’s melon-eating in Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog.” You would be inclined to call such detail in Bikont’s book “novelistic” if that did not imply that it sounds invented. But it is precisely such details that the novelist creates to confirm that what is being told is true.

If this were a moral tale, or a commercial film (like the one proposed by veteran cinéaste Jerzy Skolimowski—about the lifelong love between a Jewish woman rescued by a heroic Pole—until Bikont scotched it by explaining that “Jedwabne doesn’t provide the ideal material for a pro-Polish film”), the truth would have a purgative effect; the town would “confront its past,” acknowledge what happened, and even, perhaps, “move on.” There has certainly been much public discussion, and many truths have come out. Bikont claims—in a postscript to the Polish, though not the English, version of her book—that “few countries can match us in our reckoning with the ghosts of the past.”

Maybe; but many of the voices in her own book argue against her. She reports the findings of a Polish sociologist that “after the Jedwabne affair flared up, the number of anti-Semites in Poland increased significantly. Why? Jedwabne sharpened our sense of competitive suffering.” Holocaust-denial remains: in 2002 a survey showed that only 14 percent of Poles believed that in Auschwitz they mainly killed Jews (90 percent of those killed there were Jews). Bikont herself—who as an adult discovered by chance that her mother was Jewish—is frequently denounced: as “polonivorous,” a “chief Jewish slanderer,” and a “journalistic hyena.” At various points the reader fears for her safety as she sets off alone to interview known killers and their families. Izaak Wasersztejn, son of Szmul, whom Bikont meets in Costa Rica, says to her in 2001: “I have one question for you. How can a Jew live in Poland?” He continues, “When I was in Warsaw, I went to the synagogue to ask Jews the same question and none of them could tell me.”

The town of Jedwabne remains, by her own account, negationist. The signpost to the site of martyrdom has been removed; the new monument to the victims has been vandalized with green-painted swastikas and the slogan “They Were Flammable.” A counter-monument to ethnic Poles deported during the war now stands in the marketplace that the Jews were forced to weed. Two of the town’s truth-tellers and principal witnesses have emigrated to the US. (One of them, Mayor Godlewski, dismayingly reports that in its anti-Semitism “Jedwabne is nothing compared to Chicago.”)

In medieval times, it was a tradition at Jewish prayers to read out long lists of the names of those who had died in pogroms. This led to the creation of “books of memory.” Bikont’s book is more than a book of memory. It is also a book about forgetting, about the pollution of memory, about the conflict between the easy, convenient truth and the awkward, harder truth. It is a work that grows from its journalistic manner and origins into the powerful writing of necessary history.

When I chaired the jury that gave The Crime and the Silence the European Book Prize in 2011, a possible difficulty arose. The book had been published in Polish seven years before the French edition that the jurors read. Might such a delay be a bar to the award? We paused for thought, until a mentally suave (French, of course) journalist came up with the solution. “It was a Polish book in 2004, but a European book in 2011.” Now, we must hope, with its emergence into an English text, it will become a world book in 2015.