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Jedwabne: response to a review of Anna Bikont in the New York Review of Books

by Gordon Black

Julian Barnes, reviewer of Anna Bikont’s The Crime and the Silence (“Even Worse Than We Thought,” NYR November 19, 2015) chaired the jury that awarded the European Prize to the book. He is neither an historian nor a specialist in criminal investigation. His review is an endorsement rather than a critique. He hopes the publication will “become a world book in 2015.”

What was the extent of Nazi German management of the massacre at Jedwabne – some, none, or entire? The forensic investigation was terminated abruptly with discovery of German bullets among the corpses, concurrent with religious objections.

The official investigation demurred from concluding about the final stage of the massacre, the events at the barn. Hence, Jan T. Gross conceded to me at his Colin Miller Memorial Lecture in 2003, “If the forensic investigation hadn’t been prematurely terminated, then we would really know.” So we don’t really know. That includes the European book jury.

The burden of proof is not discharged by the sensational marketing slogans we’ve seen repeated, such as, “Half the village murdered the other half,” or “1600 murdered 1600.” Anna Bikont reports a villager objecting, “They are making murderers of us all.” But how else could such accusations be read? She should not be surprised by doors closing to the outlander journalist.

The material evidence at the site remains to be examined conclusively. It may be asked whether the religious proscription should yield to the Divine command: Not to bear false witness against the neighbor. Not even to bear it.

Bikont’s personal odyssey involves her making choices among contradictory reports, but her selections are disposed toward accusation of the Poles. Was the barn ignited by a single villager whom she names, or by a team of German soldiers jumping from a truck? She does not pursue the latter testimony.

She admits to giving the prosecutor information that she gathered from her inquiries in the town, and even inserts a friendly photo of herself beside the wary man. In truth, Bikont is a volunteer for the prosecution. She admits to “obsession,” and may deserve credit for confronting her own dread. But that is no assurance of accuracy. Her story is a romance, not a study.

For a scholarly study, consider Marek Jan Chodakiewicz’s The Massacre at Jedwabne: Before, During, and After (East European Monographs, 2005, Distributor Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-88033-554-8). This work addresses the 24 instances of violence in the Lomza district, newly under Nazi occupation, with many mass-murder barn burnings, some with only Poles locked inside (pp. 75-76). Did the Poles immolate themselves?

Why are Mr. Barnes and his book jury surprised, ten years after Chodakiewicz, that the matter is “even worse than we thought?” What thought?

The monograph may be consulted online at http://www.iwp.edu/news_publications/book/the-massacre-in-jedwabne.

Julian Barnes continually references Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film SHOAH, enabling here a correction of the imputed refusal of Polish support for the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. Stefan Korbonski, chief of the Polish underground, reports in his The Polish Underground State, 1939-1945 (Hippocrene 1978, 1981, ISBN 0-88254-517-5, p. 130):

“Beginning with January 1943, officers of the Home Army and representatives of the Jewish Fighting Organization held meetings to plan for a joint action on both sides of the ghetto walls at the outbreak of the uprising.  (…)

At this time the Home Army delivered to the Jewish Fighting Organization 1 light machine gun, 2 submachine guns, 50 handguns (all with magazines and ammunition), 10 rifles, 600 hand grenades with detonators, 30 kilograms of explosives (plastic, received from the air drops), 120 kilograms of explosives of own production, 400 detonators for bombs and grenades, 30 kilograms of potassium to make the incendiary ‘Molotov cocktails’ and, finally, great quantities of saltpeter to manufacture gun powder. The Jewish Fighting Organization also received instructions on how to manufacture bombs, hand grenades and incendiary bottles, how to build strongholds, and where to get rails and cement for their construction.”

That explains the lofting of two flags above the uprising, the Polish white and red beside the Jewish white and blue.

It would be an advance in understanding if Mr. Lanzmann would acknowledge Stefan Korbonski’s account. Further, there are some hundred hours of unused footage from his project. Is that not an archive for the world?

Gordon Black, Chair
Committee for Education
The Polish American Congress
Northern California Division

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