Books blog: Poland and its perennial struggle with anti-Semitism

In 2011, an inscription reading 'They were Flammable' and a Nazi swastika are seen on the monument dedicated to Jews in Jedwabne killed by their Polish neighbours in 1941 (AP)

I was reading an extract from the journalist Dan Hodges’ forthcoming book, One Minute to Ten. Cameron, Milliband and Clegg. One Minute to Ten: Three Men, One Ambition and the Price of Power, in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, when one anecdote stood out on the page: Hodges was describing how Ed Milliband, the son of secular Jewish parents, had in his 20s accompanied his mother, Marion, nee Kozak, back to Czestochowa in Poland where she had grown up. A visit full of poignant memories was made worse when, as they were leaving the house where she had grown up, “a man appeared and started shouting, ‘The Jews are returning to take back their property’.”

The reason this anecdote stood out is because I have just read a rather gut-wrenching book: The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne , by Anna Bikont, about a terrible crime that was committed against the Jewish population of a town in eastern Poland, Jedwabne, when, on July 10 1941, their Polish Catholic neighbours herded them into a barn, set it alight and burned them to death.

After the war there was a limited investigation and some of the perpetrators were punished. This led to much resentment on the part of the townspeople, who simply refused for decades to accept that they had been responsible for the massacre, pretending it had been done by German soldiers or that only a few Jewish Communists had died. Bikont’s book, published in Polish in 2004 and in English this year, is a painstaking reconstruction of what actually happened, based on the testimonies of Jews who had survived and the very few courageous Poles who were prepared to accept the truth.

One of these “good” Poles was the local mayor of Jedwabne, Krzysztof Godlewski, who, against the general hostility of the townspeople, raised the “difficult question of ourselves as Catholics… Why were there so few Righteous Gentiles? Why are the Jews alleged to be responsible for every bad moment in our history?” As a result of his moral stand he was forced to resign as mayor and to emigrate. Another honest Pole was the man appointed to investigate the massacre, the prosecutor of the case, Radoslaw Ignatiew, who came to the conclusion in 2002 that “The perpetrators of the crime, strictly speaking, were the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and its surroundings.” In his estimation, at least 340 men, women and children had been murdered and the killers number at least forty people. He added soberly, that in the course of his investigation “I encountered blatant expressions of anti-Semitism.”

This is what makes the book so hard to read: that the country which has celebrated more than 1000 years of Christianity and which has produced a great saint like John Paul II (who was close friends with a Jewish boy in his youth in Wadowice), could at the same time such have a longstanding, malevolent tradition of anti-Semitism. As the anecdote related by Dan Hodges shows (it took place at Czestochowa, a famous Polish Marian shrine), this hasn’t gone away.

Visiting Poznan in western Poland five years ago I was shocked to discover in the market-place a stall selling postcards of a crude, Jewish caricature: old men with hooked noses greedily counting heaps of gold coins. My brother, who was living in Poland at the time, had remonstrated with the stall-keeper, who simply shrugged his shoulders and replied, “They sell.”

As Bikont’s book amply and soberly demonstrates, Catholic parish priests in the Lomza diocese and district (where Jedwabne is situated) had supported the anti-Semitic National Party before the war; among many of them and among the local population of the area, “anti-Semitism is [still] the default position”. The author, who only discovered her own Jewish heritage in adult life, comments drily, after some failed attempts at talking to locals who assured her they “wouldn’t hurt a fly”, that “listening to anti-Semitic ravings from seemingly sweet elderly ladies is probably even more disturbing that listening to an openly anti-Semitic priest.”

Without excusing what happened, one might (only partly) explain it by saying that the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941 had divided and brutalised the local people and created suspicion and bitterness among neighbours; and that when the Germans replaced the Russians in 1941 in this part of the country, Polish Catholics saw their chance to get even with people whose goods and houses they coveted. Even 60 years later, those whom Bikont interviewed – generally the descendants of those involved – were either too scared to give their names or were suspicious that the Jews were dishing up the dirt because they wanted money and “to take back what was stolen from them.”

Remembering the heroic Poles who did save Jewish lives, (including the Catholic nuns in a convent who helped Ed Milliband’s mother to survive the Holocaust) should not blind us to an honest recognition of an opposing, ugly strain within Polish history, still raising its head today, reflected not just among ordinary lay Catholics but also among certain members of the hierarchy.