The Legacy of Jedwabne
Inspired by Jan Gross’ book titled Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, this film tells a shocking and brutal story that has been kept a secret in Poland for over 60 years. It tells the story of a pogrom in 1941 in Jedwabne, Poland and explores the implications of the past for present constructions and negotiations of personal, national and religious identity.
In the small town of Jedwabne in Northeast Poland, Jews lived side by side with local Poles for over two centuries; by the outbreak of the Second World War, they constituted more than half of the town’s 2,500 inhabitants. Relations were peaceful for the most part until July 10, 1941 when, just days after the Germans occupied Jedwabne, almost the entire Jewish population of the town was murdered. Beginning in the morning, Jews were chased, beaten and killed with clubs, knives and iron bars. Women were raped; a small girl’s head was cut off and kicked about. Jews were rounded up from their homes and brought to the market square where the town rabbi and others were forced to carry the statue of Lenin and to sing, "The war is because of us." At the end of the day, all remaining Jews were forced into a nearby barn that was then doused with gasoline and set on fire. Music was played to drown out their cries. No Jewish witnesses were meant to survive, but seven managed to escape.
A memorial plaque that was erected at the site of the barn after the war read: "Here is the site of the massacre where the Gestapo and Hitler's gendarmes burned alive 1600 Jewish people. 10.VII. 1941." Such was the official version of history for almost 60 years, until the appearance of the book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community of Jedwabne, Poland by Jan T. Gross, a Polish-born Professor at NYU. In the course of his research, Gross discovered that, in fact, it was not the recently arrived Nazis, but local Polish residents who had carried out this massacre. The book, first published in Polish in May 2000, caused a painful and far-reaching public debate. The dispute was fueled by the realization that the book would soon appear in English, making the story widely known beyond Poland's borders.
On July 10, 2001, the 60th anniversary of the massacre, a nationally televised commemoration ceremony was held during which the President of Poland apologized for the massacre in Jedwabne and for other crimes committed by Poles against Jews. Earlier that year, Polish bishops held a mass in which they did the same. These public apologies were held amidst heated controversy: Poles were divided over whether or not the Polish President should—or even had the right to—apologize at the ceremony on their behalf.
A Polish investigation into the massacre was conducted by the Institute of National Memory (IPN), a government body responsible for investigating crimes against the nation. In December 2001, IPN’s director held a press conference stating that, not only did local Poles perpetrate the massacre without the active involvement of Nazi forces, but the Jedwabne pogrom was not an isolated incident: hundreds of Jews were murdered in similar attacks in over 20 towns in the region. With this made public, the decision of whether or not the inscription on a new monument at Jedwabne should state who was responsible for the killings quickly became a point of contention. For many Poles, a re-evaluation of their memory of the war is not easy to accept. With few Jews remaining in Poland, contemporary Poles are struggling to come to terms with both a rich and traumatic Polish-Jewish past. While Jews and some Poles are seeking historical accuracy and closure, many older Poles feel that their national identity is at stake. There is also fear that Jews want to reclaim their property or obtain reparations from Poland.
Polish behavior towards Jews during the Second World War has long been a taboo subject in Poland. Throughout the communist period, the Holocaust was not generally taught in schools or discussed at home. Underlying today’s debate is the sentiment of among many Poles that Jews have co-opted a legacy of martyrdom that should rightfully belong to them. After all, Poles were also victims of the Nazi and the Soviet regimes and offered determined resistance to both; close to a fifth of the population of pre-war Poland died during WWII. Many Polish gentiles who helped save Jews during the war keep quiet even today, afraid of persecution by their neighbors.
That the Jedwabne story has resonated so widely highlights how intensely alive the past remains today. This story complicates our understanding of the Holocaust, forcing us to grapple with elements stemming from spontaneous and local forms of ethnic tension and violence, rather than from the Nazi hierarchy. This pivotal issue in contemporary Polish-Jewish dialogue is particularly salient for American Jewry, the majority of whose ancestors came from Poland. One focus of the film is how Jews born in America after the war can relate to what they know about Poland from their families. How is memory passed from generation to generation and is there room for shifting paradigms? Contests over the past and competing historical memories play a serious role in ethnic/religious conflicts in the present, as evidenced in Rwanda, the Balkans, India, and Israel. The Legacy of Jedwabne poses a momentous and important question: what are the ramifications of history for Jews and for Gentiles on present interpretations of cultural and religious identity?
The story of the Jedwabne massacre continues to be a painful wound in the hearts and minds of both Polish Christians and Jews. One can only hope that true history reveals itself in all of our lives, even if this occurs several generations later. This thought-provoking film will spark dynamic dialogue about the importance of historical memory for negotiations of cultural identity and for Jewish-gentile relations; by initiating and encouraging this dialogue, this film will increase tolerance and understanding, thereby forging new alliances between Jews and non-Jews.
"...the larger message that this film conveys is the perennial need to remain vigilant against ethnic and religious intolerance. A sobering, often unsettling piece of work, this is recommended."
*** Video Librarian
Przed druga wojna swiatowa, w malej miejscowosci Jedwabne w pólnocnej Polsce, Zydzi i Polacy wspólegzystowali ze soba przez ponad dwiescie lat. Wszystko zmienilo sie w lipcu 1941 roku, kiedy na spolecznosci zydowskiej dokonano przerazajacego mordu. W stodole zywcem spalono setki osób, wsród który znajdowaly sie glównie kobiety i dzieci. Choc minelo juz ponad 60 lat sprawa Jedwabnego wciaz budzi liczne kontrowersje. Przez jednych nazywana jest "czarna karta polskiej historii", przez innych uwazana jest za kolejny przejaw bestialstwa nazizmu. W filmie glos zabieraja przedstawiciele róznorodnych srodowisk, którzy wciaz próbuja rozwiklac tajemnice z przeszlosci. Kamera zabiera widza w podróz do Polski, Stanów Zjednoczonych i Argentyny, gdzie odnajdujemy bohaterów filmu, którymi sa zarówno Zydzi ocaleni z pogromu, jak tez Polacy, którzy im pomagali, a niejednokrotnie ratowali zycie.