The Legacy of Jedwabne

THE LEGACY OF JEDWABNE
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About Film

Special Prize for “An intelligent treatment of an important national issue” at Crossroads of Europe Festival in Lublin

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

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.

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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.

About Film - in Polish

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.

Credits

A Film by:
Slawomir Grunberg

Producer/Director:
Slawomir Grunberg

Editors:
Chris DeCicco, William C. Doll, Monika Reder & Erika Street

Music:
Gary Lucas

Photography:
Slawomir Grunberg

Associate Producer:
Stephanie Steiker

Production Manager:
Erika Street

Production Assistant:
Lyla Miller

Post Production Assistant:
Tomasz Gniadek

Co-Producer (Poland):
Krzysztof Piotrowski, TV Partner

Special Thanks:
Suzana Amado • Alberto Aronovitz • Anna Bikont • Moira Fradinger • Gary Hochman • Jan T. Gross • Judith Kubran • Laura Klein • Ty Rogers • Vlady Rozenbaum • Linda Sametz • Burt Segelin • Stanlee J. Stahl

Screenings and Awards

SCREENINGS

• Hannukah Festival at the White Stork Synagogue in Wroclaw, Poland, December 2, 2013

• Teatr Rondo, Slupsk, Poland, May 9, 2011
(Discussion with Slawomir Grunberg will follow the film presentation)

• Museum of Memoria y Tolerancia, Mexico City, Mexico, April 3, 2011

• Jewish Community Center Krakow, Poland, June 2-4, 2010 (Link)

• VII Jewish Film Festival of Punta del Este, Uruguay, February 6-11, 2010

• Jewish Culture Festival, Warsaw of Singer and Kinoteka Polska, September 4, Iluzjon Theater, Warsaw, 2007 (Link)

• Film and Art Festival “TWO RIVERSIDES”; Festiwal Filmu i Sztuki – Dwa Brzegi, Kazimierz Dolny, Poland, 2007 (Link)

• Special Prize for ‘an intelligent treatment of an important national issue’ at Rozstaje Europy ‘Crossroads of Europe” The International Days of Documentary Films in Lublin, Poland, 2007 (Link)

• Festival of Jewish Cinema, Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, 2006

• Jewish Film Festival at Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 2006 (Link)

• Jewish Film Festival at Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center, East Hills, NY, 2006 (Link)

• The Makor Center/92nd Street Y, NYC (additional screenings), 2006

• Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, Ithaca, NY, 2006

• Hope and Dreams Film Festival, Hope, NJ, 2006

• Human Rights Film Festival at Oxford Brookes University, UK, 2006

• Human Rights Studies at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and the World Policy Institute at the New School, NYC; an international conference entitled “Denying Genocide: Law, Identity and Historical Memory in the Face of Mass Atrocity.”, 2006

• Queens College, NY, Center For Jewish Studies – Film/Dialogue series, 2006

• Krakow International Film Festival, Poland, 2005

• Warsaw International Film Festival, “Jewish Motifs”, Poland, 2005

• The Makor Center/92nd Street Y, NYC, 2005

• Era New Horizon Film Festival, Cieszyn, Poland, 2005

Broadcast History

• PBS
• Link TV
• Polish Television Network – Channel Kultura
• Planete Poland
• Russian Cable – Channel Nostalgia
• Al Jazeera TV
• Discovery Communications Europe (Poland)

Reviews and Reactions

Aftermath and Polish Ghosts

By Annette Insdorf
Huffington Post
October 31, 2013 (Link)

In the audience was Slawomir Grunberg, the director of an excellent documentary of 2005, The Legacy of Jedwabne. Whereas his film included a Catholic woman who aided Jews (and was honored as a “Righteous Gentile” by Yad Vashem), the JCC event had some heated discussion about the absence of any such noble Pole in Pasikowski’s drama.

Astonished by Polish ‘Aftermath’

By Masha Leon
Forward
October 310 2013 (Link)

I caught up with Slawomir Grunberg who was a participant at the JCC event and will be a panel member following the November 11 screening of “Aftermath” at the Jewish Film Festival in Philadelphia. In 2005 he made the documentary film, “The Legacy of Jedwabne” [a town where Jews were massacred in 1941] which he said “dealt with righteous Gentiles — Poles who saved several Jews in Jedwabne but also dealt with the fear of openly acknowledging this fact by those righteous Gentiles in Poland today.”

Other reviews

…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 Magazine, June 2006

Emmy-winning director Slawomir Grunberg’s documentary, which screened to sellout crowds at Makor in December 2005 highlights this tragic event and its contemporary resonance.
Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y, New York City, April 2006

…saw an amazing movie at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center this week and would recommend it for your Jewish film festival… not one person got up to move after the film and everyone stayed for the discussion.
Aviva Kemper, Film Director (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Partisans from Vilnius)

Slawek did a very good job with a difficult topic, and I am not surprised that the screening stimulated a good discussion.
Jan Gross, Author (Neighbors, Fear)

… I found it riveting. The array of people interviewed provides a complex portrait, not only of Jedwabne, but of universal themes like altruism, divided loyalty, and faith. I was particularly touched by the survivors currently in Argentina.
Annette Insdorf, Renowned Film Scholar, Columbia University, NYC

…remarkable film – incredibly emotional and an important testament to the history of the Polish Jews (and non Jews.) I found the mayor of Jedwabne to be particularly insightful, showing that it is indeed possible to change one’s preconceptions.
David Regos, Producer, Australia 2006

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 ethic tensions and violence, rather then from the Nazi hierarchy.
Cortland Standard, November 2005

Film by Slawomir Grunberg “The Legacy of Jedwabne” provides a solid historical proof and this is its biggest value.
Gazeta Zydowska, Poland June 2006

This film moves because of its simplicity, silence and a straightforward message about people goodness during such an apocalyptic times.
Gazeta Wyborcza Daily, Poland, Maja 2005

A gloomy experience while working on this documentary was a discovery that my film characters are to this day live in fear. Antosia, who saved seven Jews, is afraid to talk in front of her house, a former mayor of Jedwabne hides his identity in Chicago…
KINO, Monthly Magazine, Poland, August 2005

Film by Slawomir Grunberg encourage for a dialogue about an influence of the historic truth on Polish-Jewish relationship.
Polish Television Kultura, May 2005

Personal Reviews

…The world badly needs such truth-telling…

… I am thankful there are people in your film who are willing to live with ugly truths rather than beautiful lies….

You have created a program that really captures the universal human dilemma of complex stories like these…

…you made to focus on the “people” connected to the story, rather than the academic and political debates surrounding it….

…opens the door to conversations, like the ones people had after your screening — and hopefully to a better understanding of each other…

WOW! I just watched The Legacy of Jedwabne on LinkTV through my local PBS affiliate (KRCB in Rohnert Park, CA). I was amazed, touched, and really moved by the story itself and the way it was told in the film. This is the second of your documentaries that I have seen. The first was Borderline: The People v. Eunice Baker, which I first saw while I was staying in Hawaii (Oahu) this winter, and which I watched from the beginning (I didn’t get to see the whole film the first time) again just recently, again, via LinkTV/KRCB. When I was watching the credits roll at the end of Legacy, I saw your name and knew I had seen it somewhere before – it is a rather distinctive name – and when I came to your web site just now, I realized that you had done Borderline, which was also great. Thank you for creating such honest and thought-provoking documentaries. I only wish that films like yours were seen by more people, and at hours when more people could see them. I hope you will continue to produce engrossing documentaries. I look forward to seeing some of the other films that you have listed on the LogTV web site. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed watching your films, and to give you an “atta boy” for your fine work. Thank you.
Sincerely,

Margaret, Guerneville, California

I would like to thank all those responsible for this film. I watched this today and it was fantastic. We need so much more of this on the airways.

Coming from Native American/Jewish family I am no stranger to the stories of genocide. I am made up of everything wicked people have always wanted to destroy. But We are still here. We Live. Keeping our traditions and culture alive through all we have endured. And still go through today.

When I finally see films like this one, I remain hopeful that in my lifetime more and more people around the world will be made aware of the genocide that has and still occurs in our world. And maybe one mind can be cleansed of the hatred, ignorance and injustices that we face daily. This again was a fantastic film and I am not too big on writing things like this. So that is huge for me to be sending this..

Wado (thank you/cherokee) to all involved.
I was moved to tears. Amazing work!!

Cheryl Wo-Di, Felicity, Ohio U.S.A.

Lectures

The Jedwabne Massacre of July 10, 1941 and its Legacy

Stuart Liebman
Delivered at Queens College
Jewish Film Lecture Series
December 3, 2006

In May 2000, a bomb went off in Poland. Fortunately, no one died, although countless thousands, perhaps millions of Poles were hurt. That is because, happily, they were not wounded physically and certainly not irreparably. But the Poles were hurt in ways that paradoxically had even more devastating effect. For the bomb that went off was an explosive charge in the form of a book and it cut far more deeply into the Polish soul, that is, into the self-conception of the Poles as a nation, than any actual bomb explosion could ever do. For the book had an extraordinary power to penetrate thick layers of Polish consciousness formed by decades, perhaps centuries of repression, as well as their national vanity that had so diligently invested in the denial of the bitter truths that the book’s author revealed.

The book in question was called ‘Sasiedzi’ in Polish and it became a surprising best seller when it was published in 2001 in the United States under the title “Neighbors.” Its author was the Polish ex-patriot historian Jan Gross, then a Professor at New York University and now a Professor of History at Princeton University. Gross had been researching the accounts of Polish Jews who returned to their homes after World War II from their precarious hiding places in the countryside and cities of Poland, from the concentration camps and from the Soviet Union only to be subjected to rejection, mayhem, terror and murder by their former Polish neighbors. The motives for the Poles reception of the Jews were complex. Traditional Catholic anti-Judaism, always particularly virulent in Poland, played a hateful, foundational role. Such attitudes were often fostered by a clergy very different from the example of the priest who eventually became John Paul II. An accusation that the Jews had been disloyal to the Polish state and to Christian Poles because they had served the Communists when the Soviet Union had occupied the eastern half of Poland between September 1939 and June of 1941 also played a key role, especially since the Poles associated the Jews with their new Soviet masters who had imposed what they regarded as a (Zydokomuna -a Jewish commune) on them, thereby once again suppressing their national aspirations. Finally, the Poles who threatened or actually killed their Jewish fellow citizens clearly often had more venal motives: as soon as the Jews had been taken away on the transports to Treblinka or Auschwitz or a dozen other sites, the Poles took over Jewish property – their homes, furnishings, clothing and so on, and now, after the war, they simply did not want to relinquish any of it to the Jewish survivors who straggled back to their home towns in search of their shattered past.

In any case, Gross came across the testimony of someone named Shmuel Wassersztajn, a Jew from the small town of Jedwabne in the Lomza district near Bialystok in northeastern Poland. Up to World War II, it was a sleepy rural backwater, hardly different from many other areas in eastern Poland, in which Jews formed about half the populations of such small towns or shtetelach. The pattern was invariable: the Jews occupied the town centers and conducted their commerce there, while the ethnic Poles along with some ethnic Germans lived in the countryside tending their farms. The relationship, though perhaps never fully cordial and often marred by violence was, for the most part, stable and functional.

Wassersztajn’s testimony had a huge impact on Gross because of the electrifying charge he made. Wassersztajn stated that on July 10, 1941, about two weeks after the German Army had re-conquered eastern Poland as they pressed their lightning attack on their former ally, the Soviet Union, a massacre had taken place in Jedwabne. He claimed that some 1600 Jews, the entire population of the town, had been killed. Some had been brutally slaughtered with hatchets and clubs in the streets of the town or drowned in ponds nearby. The vast majority, however, had been forced to enter a barn at the edge of the little village and the barn was then doused with gasoline and all inside were incinerated or died of asphyxiation.

Now, in the bloody annals of World War II and the Holocaust, such a gruesome story is hardly unusual. We know all too well that there were no limits to German fury and sadism toward the Jewish people. What was new and explosive about Wassersztajn’s testimony was that he stated, clearly and unequivocally, that the authors of these murders were not Germans, but rather their fellow Poles, indeed, the Polish neighbors of Gross’s book’s title.

It was this charge that sent a sharp spasm through Polish national consciousness in May of 2000. Polish reactions were immediate, extraordinarily varied and continue to this day. They encompassed both the best and the worst in contemporary Poles, and it is this situation that the film we are about to see today Slawomir Grünberg’s The Legacy of Jedwabne discusses both sensitively and in some depth. I’ll come back to the film in a minute, but I want to develop my analysis of the situation in Poland a bit more and to consider how it determined the massive and complex reaction to Gross’s book.

The effects were so immediate, I think, because the charge that Poles had slaughtered Jews was something almost unthinkable for a nation that regarded itself as a long-suffering nation, indeed, as the Christ among the nations. In truth, for centuries Poland had had its national aspirations squashed by three powerful neighbors–the Austrians to the south, the Germans to the West and the Russians to the East. All had conspired since 1795 to dissolve the Polish state and they had even attempted to eliminate Polish language and culture. Reborn only in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, the Polish state had been crushed again in September 1939, and the Polish populations had suffered terribly under the Soviet and Nazi yokes. Make no mistake about it: the Poles suffered grievously. Nearly three million of them were killed in the war and in forced labor camps. Millions more had been forced into servitude by the Nazis. The entire population was faced with extraordinary deprivation and loss of freedom throughout the war, and at its end their suffering did not stop. Rather, 1945 opened a period of more than forty years of subservience to the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, a period in which they lost control over many of their ancestral lands to the East, were forced to rebuild a country devastated by the war, and survived under a subservient state notable for its censorship and intermittent repressions; the average Pole had no real say in the political governance of their own country.

So, from the Poles’ point of view, they had a legitimate claim to see themselves and to be recognized by others as a suffering Christ-like figure among nations, and this had become a powerful source of their national identity. Gross’s documented charge that Poles had murdered Jews directly contradicted this tragic, but ultimately flattering self-conception of the Poles. And they did not like it. Certainly, right wing political groups did not, and they proceeded to launch scurrilous attacks on Gross, claiming, for example, that he–a half Jew, by the way–was part of a Jewish conspiracy to smear the still young, democratic Polish state just as it was seeking full integration into the European Union and NATO. These were precisely the sorts of controversial news items that were picked up in the United States media. Happily, I can tell you that these were not the only reactions, both official and unofficial. Indeed, there were many groups and individuals, including Aleksander Kwasniewski, then the President of Poland, who understood the implications of such a historical truth for his people, and stood up admirably to those of his fellow citizens who preferred to live in denial. The individuals I mentioned also included many historians, including those working for the National Institute of Historical Memory, which started investigations into the events of 1941 that, while modifying Gross’s account in some of its particulars primarily having to do with the number of Jewish victims ended up by confirming the basic facts AND also highlighted the fact that this was NOT an isolated incident. In fact, similar events took place in many other towns in the immediate vicinity as well as in other parts of Poland. The full force of this indictment is one that Poles have had a hard time working through and accepting for all too understandable reasons.

Now, this entire controversy was played out NOT exclusively in small academic journals but rather on the front pages of the leading Polish national newspapers and Catholic intellectual journals such as the prestigious Tygodnik Powszechny and Wiez. It was, therefore, a very public affair that massively foregrounded the question of Polish responsibility for such barbaric acts, even as it also immeasurably aided the diffusion of the issue throughout all levels of Polish society. Certainly, not all Poles participated in the debate or in the more intimate mulling over of such questions. Some, as I have already indicated, behaved badly, confirming the insensitive behavior of Poles toward Jewish wartime suffering that had prevailed for decades. You may recall the terrible controversy in the 1980s and 1990s surrounding the erection of a Catholic monastery and crosses in and around the camp at Auschwitz which is the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. But I want to insist that there were also noble Polish voices raised in defense of historical and moral truths, people like Krzysztof Godlewski, the former mayor of the town of Jedwabne who supported the creation of a new monument that accurately reflected the sad historical truth of the massacre even against the wishes of the town council. And the countless articles and essays also revealed the incredible moral courage and fortitude of several Polish individuals and families who, at the risk of their own lives, saved the Jews from both the wrath of the Germans AND their fellow Poles. Thus in Grünberg’s film, you will meet two individuals, Leon Dziedzic and Antonia Wyrzykowski who hid Jews, including Shmuel Wassersztajn, during the Occupation. They are heros and indeed, Antonia Wyrzykowski has even been designated as a Righteous Gentile by the authorities at Yad Vashem. But as you will see, this story, despite its positive aspects, does not have an entirely happy ending.

A few more words and we will start. Slawomir Grünberg’s film was not the first to be made about the Jedwabne affair. At least two earlier films, both made by an excellent, enterprising Polish television journalist named Agnieszka Arnold, preceded it. In fact, Jan Gross credits Arnold’s 1999 film, Gdzie jest mój brat, Kain? (Where is my brother, Cain?), as having been an important inspiration for him as he was working on his book –Neighbors–that started the whole chain reaction I described earlier Each of these films presents very accomplished versions of the story and capture irreplaceable testimonies from all sides, both that of the Jews and their Polish supporters, and that of those Poles who continue to deny the facts out of their weakness to face uncomfortable truths. All are gripping and dramatic and the characters are in some respects at least, larger than life, and importantly consequential for our sense of being in the world.

The Legacy of Jedwabne itself is not long: it only lasts about 70 minutes. That means we will have ample time to discuss some of the issues I and the film have raised after the screening. I look forward to listening to your comments and responding to your questions at that time.

Thank you for your attention.

Stuart Liebman

Stuart Liebman

Stuart Liebman is Professor of Media Studies, former chair of the Department of Media Studies at Queens College, and coordinator of the Film Certificate Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. Specializing in early European and postwar German cinema, his publications include the award-winning 1995 issue of the mass rape of German women after World War II. He has written extensively on early French filmmakers such as Renoir, Dulac, and Epstein. He is now engaged in teaching and research on the representation of the Holocaust in film, and recently returned from a sabbaticalin Washington, DC, where he held a prestigious fellowship from the Holocaust Museum to study postwar European films on the Holocaust.