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Sorting out the Sordid Past
on March 30, 2010
In Neighbors, Jan Gross tells the story of a summer day when "half the population of a small East European town murdered the other half" (7). The author, a Polish Jew who now teaches at Princeton, gives special attention to the question of "who did what in the town of Jedwabne [Poland] on July 10, 1941, and at whose behest" (10).
As the subtitle intimates, the evidence points to a shocking conclusion. Those who tortured and slaughtered nearly all of the 1,600 Jews of Jedwabne were not the soldiers of the recently-arrived German army. They were, instead, the Polish residents of the town, the long-time neighbors of the victims.
The report of the trial of 22 people accused in 1949 as perpetrators has every appearance of being perfunctory and hastily done. By contrast, the 1945 testimony of Szmul Wasersztajn--one of only seven Jewish survivors of the massacre--provides many details of the hellish events that took place in Jadwebne in late June and early July of 1941. Gross insists that the first-person accounts of Waserztajn and others must be taken seriously. The speakers, he points out, have few if any reasons to lie. Their stories corroborate one another and match up well with what the people of the region still say about that time.
Of course, the specific events described in the book took place within a set of contexts. The author is careful to mention and discuss them as well. The totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Hitler made every effort to exploit any sort of division or resentment. In that world, says Gross, a person living in a place like Jedwabne, completely disoriented by the events of the Second World War, "could simultaneously endear himself to the new rulers, derive material benefits from his actions (it stands to reason that active pogrom participants had first pick in the division of leftover Jewish property), and go along with local peasants' traditional animosity towards the Jews." Gross goes on to say that if "we add to this mix encouragement by the Nazis and an easily whipped-up sense that one was settling scores with the `Judeo-commune' for indignities suffered under the Soviet occupation--then who could resist such a potent, devilish mixture?" (162).
That someone of his background could make such an observation indicates that in this book we have not only the work of a fine historian. We also have the mature and thoughtful reflections of someone who has managed to tell about a crooked world in a remarkably straightforward way.