Heroes and Victims

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland

Jan T. Gross
Princeton University Press, 261 pp., $19.95

The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nazis: Persecution, Deportation, and Murder, 1933–1945

Michel Reynaud and Sylvie Graffard, translated from the French by James A. Moorhouse, with an introduction by Michael Berenbaum
Cooper Square Press, 304 pp., $27.95

In 1941 Polish townspeople and farmers who had been persecuted by the Soviet occupation forces took their revenge on their innocent Jewish neighbors by torturing them and burning them alive. In 1943 Bulgarian right-wing politicians saved virtually all the Jews in their country and were later rewarded for their efforts by execution or imprisonment under the Communist government. Throughout the war German religious zealots refused to say “Heil Hitler,” preferring to be guillotined by the Nazis to serving in the war.

Such are the major themes of the three books under review. They raise questions that defy clear answers. Why did Poles, who had suffered badly under the Soviet occupiers, choose to kill those even more downtrodden than they were? Do murders committed by semiliterate Polish farmers, craftsmen, and day laborers belong in the same category as murders committed by educated and trained German policemen, as Jan Gross seems to suggest in Neighbors? Does the suffering freely accepted by German Jehovah’s Witnesses belong in the same category as that of the Jews, who were not asked what they thought of the Führer and were not allowed to recant? Why did the Bulgarians succeed in saving Jews while the Dutch, who were also not generally anti-Semitic, failed abysmally, with a nearly 100 percent Jewish survival rate in one country and only about 20 percent in the other?

Before World War II, there were some 50,000 Jews in Bulgaria, making up less than one percent of the population—approximately the same low proportion of Jews as in Germany and Italy, and not at all comparable to the vastly greater Jewish presence in Austria, Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Russia. Is there a direct relationship between the proportion of Jews in a country and the extent of popular anti-Semitism? We might think so when we consider the relatively mild fate of the Jews in wartime Bulgaria and Italy; but the case of Germany obviously suggests otherwise. Other factors must have influenced the extent of popular anti-Semitism. Bulgarian Jews, mostly of Sephardic origin, were tradesmen and artisans, with only relatively few businessmen, landowners, bankers, lawyers, and professors among them. In contrast to France or Poland, for instance, no Jews were to be found in the Bulgarian army officer corps or in the state administration.

Unlike Jews in Hungary or Poland, Bulgarian Jews did not take an important part in the Bulgarian Communist movement. Thus they represented neither a political nor an economic challenge to non-Jews. Also, because there were so few Jewish journalists, artists, moviemakers, theater people, and writers in Bulgaria, right-wing critics of modern culture could not blame the Jews for immorality, secularization, corruption, and criminality. In addition, Bulgarians had more important minorities to worry about, such as the Macedonians, whose secret organizations had long been engaged in bloody terror, and also Turkish-speaking and Bulgarian-speaking Muslims.

With no Jews in important positions, there existed only minuscule anti-Semitic movements in Bulgaria. And yet Jews had much to fear. As Tzvetan Todorov explains in …

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