Translate? Traduire? übersetzen? ?לתרגם Traducir? Tradurre?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Research Overload: The Crime and the Silence by journalist, Anna Bikont

A.P. photo--the dedication of the memorial at Jedwabne, attended by only a handful of locals.

You may have noticed a gaping hole in my blogging. This was caused by my immersion in The Crime and the Silence, a riveting, grueling book by Polish Journalist, Anna Bikont. It's about the Jedwabne-Lomsa region of Eastern Poland, an area that, long before the Germans ever arrived, was steeped in Jew-hatred by the Nationalist party and the local Catholic church, and remains, it seems, passionately filled with Jew-haters even now.

In this region, there were pogroms (an organized massacre of Jews) before the Germans showed up. After their arrival,  locals gleefully rounded up and murdered all their local Jews and any who happened to have fled to the area, in several cases herding them into a barn and burning them alive. They did this, sometimes over German protests, and despite many witness statements that there were often only two German officers in a town.

In 2001, a Polish-Jewish guy named Jan Gross wrote a book, Neighbors, about one such massacre in Jedwabne. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, new information was coming out from trials of perpetrators, which Gross put together with the testimony of those few survivors and of a few Yizkor books, books to memorialize the dead from those communities.

Gross' book was met with outrage by the local and national Polish community. Poland had suffered badly under the Nazis who viewed the Poles as sub-human, but not quite as bad as Jews, Roma and Gays. Many of them worked at forced labor, or were shipped to concentration camps, though they were often not exterminated there.

The area had also suffered under its brief possession by Stalin, with many residents, both Jewish and Catholic Poles, being shipped off to Siberia. In the collective memory of those who murdered their neighbors or those who simply enriched themselves off their belongings--including, sometimes, women stripping their Jewish female neighbors to their underwear as they were put in wagons to be taken a train station, or flipping an infant out of a baby blanket--he won't need it when he's dead--the Jews were the ones who collaborated with Stalin, and therefore, the orgy of murder was fair punishment for their crimes.

What Bikont did parallels the powerful, painful documentary about the Cambodian genocide, called "The Act of Killing," except that no matter how Bikont probes, how she works to relax her interviewees, they are almost without exception, willing to admit that they murdered or plundered, organized, or stood by without objecting. Just the opposite--although many, when relaxed, reveal details that are confirmed over and over by others in similar situations--I saw him batter him there, rape her there, bury him there, bash her there, saw off his head with a tree saw over here--even major Polish historians continue to insist that it was trucks full of German soldiers who either committed or forced the murders at gunpoint, this despite the Germans being very, very busy expanding the Russian front far too quickly, with no commander being willing to leave that many soldiers behind their own lines.

In fact, those who are willing to discuss what happened are forced from the community by ostracization and threats, except for two previously Jewish women, who converted just prior to or during the terrible times and lived their whole lives under terror of reprisals, including one woman who was threatened with murder simply because she asked to buy back a cabinet that had belonged to her family.

Bikont's book includes a journal of her research, as she works to recreate the crimes, not only in Jedwabne but in neighboring communities. It also discusses her discovery that her mother's mother was a Jew, parts of her own active participation in Judaism, and the virulent reaction as that knowledge seeps into the region. It appears that the publication of Neighbors and the public knowledge of the crime this forced on people has led to a sharp increase in Jew-hating, as well as a rabid attempt to cover or justify the crimes by Catholic clergy, right-wing politicians, journalists, and historians, all taken up enthusiastically by the families and descendants of those who committed the crimes--even those who admitted their crimes, were found guilty by the Soviet courts and served time for them--even those who themselves have been proven to have been Soviet collaborators, more responsible for shipping even their Polish neighbors off to Siberia than the five Jews the records show were active under the first Soviet occupation.

The book is simply told, and very dark, an exploration of the worst parts of the denial, envy, tribalism and rage that can lead to the worst of human crimes. It refutes the notions that "if only the Jews had fought back," they wouldn't have been murdered, and also introduces us to the handful of community members with the courage to brave the fierce tide of resentment and mind-wiping to stand up for those who lost their lives and the resourcefulness and  courage of those very few who survived.

Marianna Ramatoska, nee Rachela Finklestejn
with her husband and rescuer, Stanislaw
Marianna and Stanislaw
Ramotowski in 2001
According to Bikont, the local school continues to promulgate Jew-hatred--a term I find I prefer to anti-semitism, which seems so hermitically sealed to me. This despite a tour promoted by a group working against genocide, which was supposed to include trips to both the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Disneyland. Due to protests by the parents, the students at the school never toured the Holocaust museum. In the end, as in the beginning, it seems that this region continues to stew in Jew-hatred. Only two citizens from Yedwabne attended the unveiling of a monument near the burned barn. Both were politicians and both were immediately throw out of office and ultimately moved away from the town.

Krystof Godlewski, Mayor of Jedwabne in 2001
When reading the book--which I highly, highly recommend to everybody over the age of maybe twenty-two--the courage of a few people creates light in the darkness: an illiterate peasant woman, Antonina Wyrzykowska, who, with her husband, saved seven Jedwabne Jews under a pile of pig shit, and kept them safe until the end of the war; Stanislaw Ramotowski, a peasant from neighboring Radzilow, who married his Jewish schoolmate, Rachela Finkelstejn (conversion name, Marianna Ramotoska) and saved her life; Krystof Godlewski, the Mayor of Jedwabne, who refused to reblind himself when presented with the truths of the past, and fought to have them acknowledged; Jan Skrodski, who witnessed some of the murders as a child, and wanted to learn the truth even if it turned out his father was one of the killers, and Radoslow Ignatiew, the special prosecutor who insisted on acting as a true investigator for the nation of Poland and diligently uncovered facts that affirmed almost everything in Jan Grosses ground-breaking book--the number murdered still remains at issue, as observant Jews halted the exhumation of the barn site.
Radoslow Ignatiew, IPN Prosecutor 

One thing that fascinates me is that throughout everything, the events are presented as a schism between Jews and Poles, even though, as Bikont points out, Jews had been living in Poland for over 700 years at the time of the massacre.

I will also state that this story has a personal connection for me: My husband's grandfather was a roofer who was murdered in the mid-1930's by Polish workers he had hired. They beat him, stole his tools and his coat and left him in the snow. He died a few days later of pneumonia caused by exposure. Because of the Holocaust, no one has a photo of him. His last remaining living son is in his early nineties, and soon the memory of his face will vanish from the earth, like most of the people of this area near Lomza who were murdered by ordinary folk hungry for a feather pillow, a down comforter, a fur coat, a ring, a horse and cart, a house, a mill, whatever it was that their Jewish neighbors had.

Horses and carts in Jedwabne, Poland, after WWII.

No comments:

Post a Comment