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 his strongly argued introduction to The Fragility of Goodness—a book that is largely a collection of documents—Bulgaria adopted some of the harshest anti-Jewish legislative measures in Europe. In October 1940, during the authoritarian rule of King Boris III, a Law for the Protection of the Nation severely restricted Jewish activities, and in 1941 many more such measures followed: Jews had to obey a curfew; many of them were expelled from their homes; others were forcibly conscripted into work gangs, and all were required to wear the yellow Star of David.

The worst persecution, however, did not happen in Bulgaria itself. In 1941, Bulgaria joined in Hitler’s Yugoslav and Greek military campaigns and was rewarded with the right to occupy and administer the province of Thrace in northern Greece as well as much of Macedonia and Kosovo in the former Yugoslav state. Even though Bulgaria was not allowed to annex these territories, the government conferred Bulgarian citizenship on their inhabitants, except for the Jews. This was a prelude to the deportation of the 11,384 Jews who, following their mistreatment by Bulgarian gendarmes, were handed over to Adolf Eichmann’s local representative in March 1943. The victims ended up in Auschwitz and Treblinka, where nearly all were killed.

The men chiefly responsible for this outrage were King Boris III and Prime Minister Professor Bogdan Filov. The prime minister was friendly to Germany, but Boris, a member of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family, which had produced many European kings and queens, including the descendants of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, disliked the Nazis. Bulgarians today still argue over the motives for Boris’s behavior toward the Thracian and Macedonian Jews as well as the sudden change of policy in 1943 by which he stopped the deportation to Germany of the Bulgarian Jews. Not for nothing was the King often referred to as “wily Boris.”

In Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania, governments allied with Germany alternately promoted and sabotaged the deportation of Jews, mostly but not always because of the changing war situation. But in these government decisions, the public had at best a very limited part. Not so in Bulgaria, where, in 1940, the anti-Semitic Law for the Protection of the Nation caused a public uproar. The first collective protest came from the country’s leading writers and other intellectuals. It is true that in Hungary writers and artists such as the composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály were the first to protest the anti-Jewish laws. But in Bulgaria, strong protests were made to the National Assembly by professional organizations, politicians, and religious leaders. And, instead of petering out as they did in other countries, the protests increased. Government officials, the public, and the Jews themselves all ignored the law ordering the Jews to wear the Star of David.

The deportations of Jews began in the spring of 1943, with the arrest of the Thracian and Macedonian Jews as a first step, to be followed by de-portations from Bulgaria itself. Huge street demonstrations erupted in Sofia, led by the heads of the Orthodox state church. Stefan, the metropolitan of Sofia (the equivalent of an archbishop), sent telegrams of protest to the King, and Kyril, the metropolitan of Plovdiv, is said to have warned that he would lie down on the rails in front of the next deportation train. When the authorities arrested the Jews of Kyustendil, a town not far from Sofia, a delegation of its leading residents went to the capital to plead the case of their fellow citizens. Not only were these Bulgarians free of anti-Semitism, they were also brave people and great humanitarians.

Yet, as Todorov explains, the protests would, by themselves, not have prevailed against the determination of Prime Minister Filov and several key members of his cabinet to deport Jews. What counted, Todorov shows, was that the Kyustendil delegation appealed directly to Dimitur Peshev, the vice-chairman of the National Assembly, and that Peshev took up their cause. When Todorov writes about “the fragility of goodness,” he is referring to the decision taken by Peshev, a conservative nationalist politician and a leading member of the party in power, to risk his position and life by politely, diplomatically, and yet resolutely turning against his own government. Carefully avoiding members of the opposition parties, he invited fellow members of the government party to sign a statement arguing that the Jews were no problem for Bulgaria, and that handing over the Jews to the Germans was against the nation’s honor and interest. Forty-two other deputies signed the statement, although about a dozen of them later got cold feet. Still, all this was enough to cause Boris III and the country’s other leaders to hesitate, and they postponed the deportations. Meanwhile, Metropolitan Stefan invited Bulgaria’s chief rabbi to live in his house. It is hard to find a comparable gesture anywhere else in Europe.

By the summer of 1943, the King, too, was siding with the opponents of deportation. Even though Peshev was thrown out of his party and the King died under mysterious circumstances in August 1943, there were no deportations. As happened in Denmark and Italy, even the German ambassador in Sofia began to reflect Bulgarian views on the Jewish question in his dispatches. Thousands of Jews were sent to the countryside to do forced labor, but virtually all were alive and unharmed when the Soviet army arrived in September 1944.

The Communists soon took over the country, killing many members of the country’s elite and putting on trial all the deputies from the wartime ruling party. As Todorov shows, of the forty-three deputies who had signed Peshev’s pro-Jewish declaration, the Communists sentenced twenty to death; most of the others were given long prison terms. Peshev himself was sentenced to fifteen years but was freed less than two years later. Among those executed were Deputy Ikonomov, who had been the first to sound the alarm on behalf of the Jews, and Deputy Petrov, who had fought hard in the National Assembly against the Law for the Defense of the Nation. Metropolitan Stefan was forbidden to carry on his pastoral activities.

During the Nazi alliance, not a single one of these brave men had been harmed. Now the Communists wiped them out while some in the Jewish community looked the other way. After two Jewish lawyers refused to represent Peshev at his trial, a third accepted; this courageous decision caused him later to be disbarred. Ironically, as Todorov explains, it was not what Peshev had done to save the Jews that persuaded the Communist court not to sentence him to hanging. What saved him was that earlier, as minister of justice, he had blocked the execution of a left-wing opposition leader.

Subsequently, most Bulgarian Jews emigrated, mainly to Israel, which left Bulgaria as judenfrei as all the other East Central European countries are today, except for Hungary and Romania. Under Communist rule, the wartime persecution of the Bulgarian Jews was barely mentioned, and when it was, their survival was attributed to the Communist Party. In history textbooks and in the press, wartime concentration camps were said to have held only political prisoners, while it was said of Auschwitz that “prisoners of all nationalities” had been killed.

After considering the claims and counterclaims regarding the survival of the Bulgarian Jews, Todorov rightly concludes that although the King was responsible for the death of nearly 12,000 Jews, he deserves credit for blocking German demands for deportation. This was a remarkable achievement, but the larger credit belongs to Dimitur Peshev and his fellow deputies who, in turn, would have been unable to act without popular support and, especially, without the support of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Compared to the lethargy of Pope Pius XII and of the Catholic prelates in Germany and East Central Europe, the Bulgarian church leaders were models of decency and strength.1 But who today remembers these saviors? Peshev, whose brief memoirs appear in the documentary section of Todorov’s book, is one of the thirteen “Righteous” Bulgarians who have been honored by the State of Israel. But he and his heroic colleagues and their tragic fate have been largely ignored by historians of World War II.

In reconstructing what happened to such decent men in his native Bulgaria, Todorov, a much respected French philosopher and social critic, is also pursuing his longstanding aim of showing that goodness can thrive under atrocious conditions. In fact, he believes it is under such conditions that goodness is most genuinely present, a view that he persuasively presents in Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, a masterful comparative study of the Nazi and Soviet camps.2


If the Bulgarian story is that of quiet diplomatic maneuvering by clever politicians on behalf of their fellow citizens, the story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany is that of a direct confrontation between two implacable ideologies, one representing unbending pacifism, the other unbounded ruthlessness. Unlike the Bulgarians, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were not trying to help or defend anybody. As we learn from The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nazis, their only wish was to do God’s will, a position that brought them into direct confrontation with the Nazi regime.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are members of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, a religious sect founded in the United States in 1872. According to its eschatological doctrine as it was preached in the 1930s, the “end of days” was approaching and would be preceded by war and other great crises. In the eyes of the Witnesses, the Nazis fulfilled all the requirements for a warlike, destructive regime that would hasten the arrival of the Apocalypse. As citizens of Jehovah’s Kingdom, the Witnesses could not possibly swear allegiance to this or any other government or do military service in any form.

In 1933, there were about 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany; some of their regional branches at first tried to make an accommodation with the Nazi regime, emphasizing their own anti-Bolshevism and their opposition to the established churches, which the Nazis also detested. They began to be persecuted systematically in 1935; thereafter, thousands were thrown into concentration camps. Not that this was inevitable. The slightest sign of repentance would have sufficed for them to avoid the camps. When the war broke out, those who refused to do military service were singled out for the harshest treatment. According to Michel Reynaud and Sylvie Graffard, the Nazis executed at least two hundred Witnesses, mostly by the guillotine, as befitted Aryan citizens of the Reich. Between 2,500 and 5,000 died in the camps.

For the Nazis, the Witnesses posed frustrating problems; they were not criminals, homosexuals, or Communists but hard-working German peasants and artisans. Some of those sentenced to death sang psalms on their way to the guillotine, confident that they would soon meet with their Maker. In the camps the members of the sect kept themselves clean, worked hard, and had no thoughts of escaping. The SS, which at first feared their proselytizing efforts and therefore dispersed the Witnesses in many camps, gradually discovered their value as gardeners, cooks, maids, and even babysitters. In his introduction to The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nazis, Michael Berenbaum writes: “Witnesses could serve as barbers and shave their oppressors, holding a razor blade to their throat.” The authors of the book, who are not themselves Witnesses but have unconditional respect for them, say very little about this bizarre aspect of the Witnesses’ story. Other survivors occasionally mention the Witnesses in their memoirs as men and women with purple or violet triangular patches who would not participate in any plot to escape, who kept to themselves, and whom the SS fully trusted. Some survivors recall that Witnesses sometimes offered a helping hand to other inmates in the camps.

Michel Reynaud and Sylvie Graffard have done admirable research in collecting information about the Witnesses, and in interviewing the few surviving members of the sect who were in the camps. They write that the Witnesses would not even make shoelaces for the soldiers; that, especially in the early years of Nazi rule, Witnesses were whipped and tortured in the camps by guards who ordered, “Raise your arm! Raise your arm!” Yet very few were willing to give the Nazi salute. The authors report that publications by the Witnesses were also banned in Italy, France, and Belgium during the war, and that at Nuremberg the Nazi idealogue Alfred Rosenberg defended the mistreatment of the Witnesses by referring to the US, where, during the war, some Witnesses who were conscientious objectors were held in prison camps. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were indeed badly treated in the US.3 Unfortunately, Reynaud and Graffard’s book is repetitious and poorly organized; but it is the most informed account of the persecution of the Witnesses that we have.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses were true martyrs in the traditional sense of the word, similar to the early Christians who would rather be devoured by lions than make a modest offering at the altar of a Roman emperor. They were also similar to the Jews of medieval times, who would rather be burned alive than abandon their faith. The history of such fervent willingness to endure persecution suggests how wrong it is to say that Jewish victims of Nazism are martyrs. Whether religious or irreligious, baptized or unbaptized, submissive or defiant, the Jews were under irrevocable sentence of death; they were victims. To call them martyrs, that is, people who were given a chance to choose between life and death, is to deny the absolute evil of the Nazi system.


Jan T. Gross’s horrifying and thoughtful book Neighbors is about Poles and Jews, the two major victims of World War II. In his introduction, the author writes that he wants to show how “one day in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half—some 1,600 men, women, and children.” According to his account, the members of the Gentile Polish population of Jedwabne, located in the poverty-stricken Bial/ystok province in northeastern Poland, either took part in the most bestial forms of torture and killing or cheered on the killers. With the exception of a single family, no one helped the victims. Although a handful of German gendarmes were present in the region, Gross states, Poles alone committed the crime, with the tacit approval of the Germans but without their participation. No wonder that when Gross published this devastating accusation in Polish and in Poland a year ago, an intense debate took place which, far from being over, seems to be gathering momentum. Fresh evidence and new polemical articles appear in Poland virtually every day.4

Jan Gross, who is a professor of politics and European studies at New York University, was born in Poland. He participated in the democratic student movement of the 1960s, for which he was briefly imprisoned. Having witnessed government-inspired anti-Semitism, he left the country in the late 1960s. As an American scholar, he has published fine studies on the Soviet and the German occupation of World War II Poland. Several years ago, while in the Warsaw Jewish archives, he came across a deposition by Szmul Wasersztajn, dated April 1945, which described in detail the horrors inflicted in Jedwabne. Wasersztajn had himself escaped the massacre by hiding. His revelation led Gross to study the records of two court proceedings that took place in 1949 and 1953, respectively, in provincial courts of Communist Poland, against about two dozen Jedwabne defendants charged with carrying out the massacres. During the last few years, other eyewitness accounts by both Jewish and Gentile inhabitants of the town have been found. A memorial book about survivors in Israel was published in 1980 and the Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Arnold conducted interviews in 1998 with those willing to remember what happened in the town on July 10, 1941.

While all this means that the monstrous events at Jedwabne were not completely unknown in Poland after World War II, no one seems to have been interested in investigating them further. Nor had the public taken notice of them. Such lack of awareness might seem inconceivable; yet until recent stories were published, I wonder how many Americans had ever heard of what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the end of May 1921, when the city’s whites, incited by the press and by politicians, massacred several hundred innocent blacks. Although I am a professional historian, I heard of this atrocity only last year, forty-four years after I arrived in the US. The Tulsa massacre, moreover, took place when the United States was at peace, whereas Jedwabne occurred during a terrible war, under alternating cruel occupations, and in the midst of total administrative and political chaos.

According to Wasersztajn and others, the Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne lived in relative harmony until the late summer and fall of 1939, when, following the Hitler– Stalin pact of August 23, first the Germans and then the Soviet Red Army occupied the town. There can be no doubt about the horrors of Soviet occupation in the eastern half of Poland, which had immediately been incorporated into two of the Soviet Union’s western republics. In an excellent earlier study, Revolution from Abroad,5 Gross describes how the Communist authorities brutally deported 1.25 million people from Eastern Poland, mostly Poles, but also Jews and others, to Siberia; many of them died. The principal victims were from the Polish social, political, and military elite. Gross also writes that the Soviet NKVD executed about 100,000 people, nearly a tenth of the total male population. As he writes in Revolution from Abroad, “Very conservative estimates show that [between 1939 and 1941] the Soviets killed or drove to their deaths three or four times as many people as the Nazis from a population half the size of that under German jurisdiction.”6

Farmers were hard hit by Soviet confiscations of land as well as by anti-Soviet partisan activity and the even more violent retribution by the Soviet army and police that followed. It is no wonder that, following the German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, many people in the region—Poles, Ukrainians, and Belorussians—received the Germans as liberators. Similar events took place, one might add, in the Baltic countries and in Bessarabia (today’s independent Moldova), all of which the Soviets had occupied as a result of the Hitler–Stalin Pact.

As Gross explains in Neighbors, no sooner did the Germans arrive in eastern Poland at the end of June 1941 than rumors spread that the new masters of the land had given permission for Polish Gentiles to kill the Jews. By then, the German police had been shooting thousands of Jews in towns not far from Jedwabne. It seemed to many inhabitants of Jedwabne that the time had come to take revenge for what they perceived to have been Jewish-Communist oppression. Besides, there was now the prospect of acquiring Jewish riches. Much of Neighbors is devoted to a detailed discussion of how the pogrom started a day or two after the arrival of the German troops, and how it culminated in an orgy of killing on July 10. Even before then, peasants came from neighboring hamlets driving empty wagons in the hope of taking over some booty from Jews.

On July 10, under orders of the self-appointed new mayor, Marian Karolak, the chief culprit in what followed, young men armed with clubs, knives, and axes burst into Jewish homes, beating, kicking, and driving all the Jews they could find to the town square. One man stabbed eighteen Jews; others cut off heads, gouged out eyes, and slashed open the stomachs of their victims. Others forced young Jews to carry and then to bury a large statue of Lenin before killing them. All this was observed, according to Wasersztajn, by laughing spectators. Finally, all the survivors were driven into a peasant’s barn and burned alive. The spectators bludgeoned to death those who tried to escape.

While speculating on the significance of these events, Gross dismisses the argument that the Communist regime in the region included many Jews, or that Communist oppression had a major part in arousing the fury of the villagers. He concludes that they acted both out of sheer greed and because of their age-old hatred for the “killers of Christ” and “the shedders of the blood of Christian children.” It seems hard, however, to square this assessment with the scene described above involving the statue of Lenin, or the extreme savagery of the killing. Gross adds that no priest in the region was willing to lift a finger on behalf of the Jews, even though in Catholic Poland local priests would have had sufficient prestige to have stopped the atrocities.

Gross does not claim that all Poles were similar to the inhabitants of Jedwabne, but he points out that spontaneous atrocities occurred elsewhere, that violent anti-Semitism flared up again after World War II, and that the single family that had harbored Jews in Jedwabne was subjected to such hatred and even physical attacks that, after the war, they decided to leave Poland and now live in Chicago. In a clear allusion to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s famous collective indictment of the German people, Gross uses the term “willing executioners” in reference to the Poles of Jedwabne.7

This seems to me an unfortunate choice of words. Not surprisingly, The New York Times Book Review entitled its review of Neighbors “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” The statement is untrue when applied to the Polish or even to the German people as a whole; in any case it contradicts Goldhagen’s controversial argument that the German people were a unique breed of killers.8

The reception of Gross’s book in Poland has been nothing short of astonishing: it seems to have evoked more favorable responses than negative ones. Here we must remind ourselves that, since the eighteenth century, Poles have tended to see themselves as a martyr nation, occupied, humiliated, and oppressed by aggressive imperial powers. Many times in modern history, whether under Russian or other foreign rule, it was a punishable offense for a Pole to refer to his own country as Poland. While imprisoned or executed at home, Polish patriots fought in many parts of the world “For Your Freedom and Ours,” as they liked to put it. During World War II in Europe only Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and Poland never surrendered to the Nazis, even though Poles were simultaneously persecuted by the Soviet Communists. More than a million non-Jewish Poles were killed in German prisons and camps; thousands upon thousands died fighting alongside the British, American, and Soviet armies. During the Warsaw uprising, between August and October 1944, nearly a quarter of a million people perished. At the end of the war, Poland became the subject of a deal in which the Western allies accepted both Soviet domination of Polish territory and the shift of the entire country’s borders from East to West at an immense cost in Polish, German, and Ukrainian lives.

Because of the hospitality extended by the old Polish kingdom, Poland historically harbored more Jews than all the other European countries combined. Although there was a tremendous rise of political anti-Semitism in independent Poland during the interwar years, Jewish political and cultural activity also flourished there. Against this background, Gross’s accusations have been devastating. The recent revelations of collaboration with the Nazis throughout Europe, and of Europe-wide participation in the Holocaust, seem to have made it more possible for many Polish intellectuals, young people, politicians, and clergymen to accept the notion that their countrymen had not been innocent either. Today the president as well as the government of Poland, and even the Catholic primate, Cardinal Glemp, are apologizing for crimes of which nearly all Poles had been unaware until the publication of Jan Gross’s writings. Moreover, not only these people but even most of Gross’s critics praise him for bringing into the open an appalling episode in Polish history.

There are, of course, those who denounce Jan Gross and his book. In their objections one can sometimes detect the old charge of a Jewish “worldwide conspiracy.” But these voices are not the loudest today. With some justification, other critics are asking for more evidence and confirmation. Asking questions about a crucial historical event does not make one automatically an anti-Semite, yet this is how some of Gross’s Western supporters have chosen to view those raising questions about parts of his work. No book of history should be treated as Holy Writ, especially not a book which is based on a limited number of documents.

Of the published objections to Jan Gross’s account, one of the most prominent claims is that he pays too little attention in Neighbors to the horrors of the Soviet occupation. In truth, for a more forceful description of why this occupation drove some people to extremes of violence, one must turn to Gross’s own Revolution from Abroad as well as to other sources. When he discusses the most controversial of all questions in Jewish–Polish relations, namely that of Jewish participation in Soviet rule, Gross presents convincing evidence that Jews in Bial/ystok province were only marginally involved in Soviet oppressive measures, and that the Jews of Jedwabne were entirely innocent. However, Gross’s critics in Poland, especially the well-known historian of World War II Polish resistance movements Tomasz Strzembosz, argue that, in eastern Poland as a whole, a disproportionate number of Jews were involved in Communist police actions and police crimes. In Neighbors Gross says somewhat less than he says in his Revolution from Abroad about the joyful reception many of the Jews gave to the Soviet Red Army in September 1939, or about the large number of Jews in the Polish Communist movement.9

It was quite natural for many Jews to rejoice over the arrival of the Soviet Red Army in September 1939: if nothing else, it saved them from Nazi rule. It was also predictable, in those circumstances, that many Jews would work for the Soviet regime, some of them as militiamen or political policemen. Gross is correct, of course, in stating that the Soviets deported thousands of Jews to Siberia and that, in desperation, thousands of Jews applied for Soviet permission to move to the Nazi-held zone in Poland. But why deny that any Jews participated in Communist crimes? Jews, like everyone else, behave in a variety of ways.

Some critics argue that Wasersztajn, who was in hiding, could not have seen all the horrors he claims to have witnessed. Others wonder about evidence from the trials in 1949 and 1953 which, according to Gross himself, were perfunctory affairs. (Marian Karolak, who should have been indicted for the major crime of ordering murder, was arrested by the Germans for theft during the war and disappeared.) The trial in 1949 lasted only two days, and in court the defendants complained of having been severely beaten by the police during their interrogation. The trial in 1953 involved a single defendant. Altogether, only one person was sentenced to death, but he was not executed, and within a few years all the accused were set free. Some historians, among them Tomasz Strzembosz, assert that Gross has misread some of the trial documents regarding the participation of Germans in the mass killing. He claims that there are more sources on Jedwabne in other Polish archives that Gross did not consult, and that Gross did no research in the German archives.[10 ]

The main issue in contention is whether or not there were more than a handful of German soldiers, gendarmes, or Gestapo men on July 10 in Jedwabne. Gross says that there were fewer than a dozen of them and that all they did was take photographs of the massacre (photographs that haven’t been found). In response to the debate over Gross’s sources, the government-sponsored Institute of National Remembrance in Poland sent a historian to look into the relevant German archives; so far, he has found no conclusive evidence confirming or denying the presence of German soldiers in Jedwabne.

The question of German presence leads to another difficult issue, namely why the Jews did not defend themselves. As Gross writes, Jews made up two thirds of Jedwabne’s population. The Poles had no firearms. When some Polish writers raised this question, Jan Gross answered bitterly, arguing that the Jewish heads of families had to look after their wives and children. Yet is it not precisely in defense of their families that people tend to risk their lives? It is well known that, in extremis, some Polish Jews dared to confront even heavily armed SS soldiers; one can ask why the town’s Jewish blacksmiths, for instance, did not grab iron bars to fend off the attackers. They may have been hopelessly outnumbered, but the fact that they did not fight back may also suggest that there were more than a handful of armed Germans present at that time. In brief, there is good reason for research and debate on the Jedwabne massacre to continue.

Gross is entirely right to point out that many Poles who bravely opposed the Nazis were anti-Semitic, and that many who did so even killed Jews. At least one of the Jedwabne murderers was later sent to Auschwitz. Conversely, the founder of Z·egota, the one organization in Poland and in Europe as a whole that had as its sole purpose the saving of Jewish lives, was herself a zealous anti-Semite. She repeatedly expressed her wish that the Jews she was protecting would disappear from Poland after the war.

None of this explains the horrifying behavior of the one hundred–odd Jedwabne farmers and artisans who did the killing; nor does it explain the abominable behavior of the onlookers. Gross himself finds no satisfactory explanation for what took place. What is clear is that many, many Eastern Europeans participated in German-initiated killings in those years. Even more Europeans rejoiced over what was happening to the Jews, or at least turned their backs on them. Pogroms similar to that in Jedwabne occurred elsewhere in Poland as well as in Austria, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Romania. In my native Hungary, the authorities generally protected the Jews until 1944; but when the Germans occupied the country, the same officials zealously arrested and dispatched half a million Hungarian Jews to die in Auschwitz. Because in Hungary the authorities took charge of the persecution, there was little opportunity for popular participation in it. But after the war, anti-Jewish feelings flared up, and some mothers would not let their children out of their houses for fear that Jews would snatch them in order to drink their blood. There was also concern that the Jews would come home and claim their stolen property.

Jan Gross cannot be praised enough for having awakened the Polish public to the need to address the dark episodes in their national history. A sure sign of his success is the sudden and unprecedented soul-searching that has swept Poland. Some of the most important articles on the subject are now available in English, published by Wiez, a progressive Catholic monthly, under the title Thou Shalt Not Kill: Poles on Jedwabne.11 The introduction is by the well-known Polish-Jewish historian Israel Gutman, and the authors include Jan Gross, his main opponent, Tomasz Strzembosz, and more than thirty others. And yet I believe that had Gross been a little less rigid in some of his generalizations, his argument would have been even more persuasive.

What is needed now is much good will among those trying to interpret history. Not until we understand that every ethnic group harbors its share of potential murderers who can be readily mobilized to commit violence will the cause of peace truly be furthered. Meanwhile, we ought to celebrate, more than ever, such heroes, whether Polish saviors of Jews, Jewish ghetto fighters, Bulgarian bishops and politicians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Polish guerrillas, who stood up for their beliefs and died fighting the worst tyrannies in modern history.

  1. 1

    For an informative study on the failure of Pope Pius XII to help his “own” Jews in Rome, see Susan Zuccotti, Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy (Yale University Press, 2000).

  2. 2

    Translated from the French by Arthur Denner and Abigail Pollak (Henry Holt, 1996); see my review, “Memories of Hell,” The New York Review, June 26, 1997. For an excellent and detailed evaluation of Todorov’s The Fragility of Goodness and the controversy over the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews, see Laura Secor, “Sofia’s Choice,” Lingua Franca, March 2001.

  3. 3

    Shawn Francis Peters writes in his Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution (University Press of Kansas, 2000) that 20,000 Wit-nesses were arrested in the US between 1933 and 1951, one of the main objections against them being that they, and particularly their children at school, refused to salute the flag. Peters writes that, during World War II, “even when Witnesses were able to present abundant evidence that they, like other recognized clergy, deserved minister’s exemptions from military service, local draft boards and the federal Selective Service bureaucracy tended to dismiss their claims. As a result, thousands of Witnesses were parceled off to prison for violating the federal draft law enacted by Congress in 1940” (pp. 11–12). The Witnesses were often seen as traitors and, in the presence of police, were beaten, humiliated, and even tortured by their neighbors. Lawsuits initiated by the Witnesses led to a long series of Supreme Court and other court decisions in favor of civil rights. Peters also explains that the Witnesses offended some members of the public by their confrontational proselytizing and the unconditional submission they enforced on their members.

  4. 4

    I am indebted to a number of colleagues, friends, and former students for providing me with hundreds of pages of documents and translations on the Jedwabne debate in Poland. Among the most helpful have been Daniela Baszkiewicz-Scott, Marek Chodakiewicz, Jurek Krzystek, John Micgiel, Andrzej Paczkowski, Robert Scott, and Piotr Wandycz.

  5. 5

    Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (Princeton University Press, 1988).

  6. 6

    Gross, Revolution from Abroad, p. 229.

  7. 7

    Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Knopf, 1996). Gross uses the term “willing executioners” on p. 121 in Neighbors.

  8. 8

    See Steven Erlanger, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” The New York Times Book Review, April 8, 2001. The same reviewer drew a parallel between the behavior of the Poles during World War II and that of the Austrians, as if there was no difference between a country in which there were hundreds of thousands of fighters against Nazi Germany and a country that contributed hundreds of thousand soldiers to the Third Reich, including a vastly disproportionate number of SS men and concentration camp commanders.

  9. 9

    On Jewish participation in the Polish Communist movement and government, see especially Jaff Schatz, The Generation: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Communists in Poland (University of California Press, 1991); Bernard Wasserstein, Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe since 1945 (Harvard University Press, 1996); and Stefan Korbonski, The Jews and the Poles in World War II (Hippocrene Books, 1989).

  10. 11

    Edited and partly translated by William Brand (Warsaw: Wiez, 2001).