Ariel Center for
Policy Research



NATIV  Volume Sixteen   Number 3 (92)  ■  May 2003 ■ Iyar 5763 ■ Ariel Center for Policy Research





The Destruction of the Jews of Jedwabne

Laurence Weinbaum

At the beginning of the new millenium, an unprecedented national debate raged in Polish society. The controversy was precipitated by the publication of the book Neighbors by Jan Tomasz Gross that chronicled the destruction of the Jews of Jedwabne at the hands of local Poles in July 1941. A Polish government commission ultimately confirmed that locals were indeed responsible for the slaughter at Jedwabne (and two dozen other hamlets in the same area of Poland). The chilling description of what happened to Jews in Jedwabne (which has since become a synonym for killings by locals) is in some sense a vindication of Jabotinsky’s grim prophecy about a looming catastrophe about to befall the Jews of East Central Europe. The deep-rooted hostility of the autochthonous population among whom the Jews had lived for generations, and who saw Jews hindering their own national development, posed a mortal threat to Jews, warned Jabotinsky. In his work The Jewish War Front, penned shortly before his death in 1940, Jabotinsky made clear, that even if Jews who have been displaced from their homes and places of work do survive, one could not expect that the people who have replaced them will acquiesce to their return. Governments may be persuaded to uphold the concept of civil equality – however, in practice this notion is doomed to ruin. This scenario was played out after the war in Poland and the rest of East Central Europe – where returning Jews were met with antipathy, and often murderous violence. Jabotinsky’s detractors focused on his undeniable failure to predict the outbreak of the war. They also emphasize that at the end of the day it was the Nazis (not “Germans”) who carried out the murders, not the autochthonous populations. At worst, the “neighbors” were accomplices – not prime perpetrators. But in the last decade, after the collapse of Communism and with newfound access to archives buried beyond the now-rusted Iron Curtain, we find that people of many nationalities were more than mere accessories to the destruction of age-old Jewish communities. The author takes pains to explain that the revelations about Jedwabne notwithstanding, history is obviously more nuanced than many of us would like to believe and the question of how Poles behaved during the Holocaust resists simple explanations and sweeping generalizations.

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