The shameful secret of a Polish village

The Crime and the Silence
by Anna Bikont, Heinemann, £20

In May 2000, a Pole called Jan Gross wrote a book, Neighbours, about a long-hidden crime perpetrated by Poles in the eastern town of Jedwabne against their Jewish neighbours. On July 10, 1941, hundreds of Jewish men, women and young children were herded into a barn which was then set on fire. Inevitably, the book caused outrage within the country: how dare the writer slander Poles when it was clearly a German atrocity?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Anna Bikont, an award-winning Polish-Jewish journalist, decided to follow up Gross’s book with her own investigations. This absorbing and appalling story is the result. First published in Poland in 2004 and translated into English this year, her book – part interviews, part journal, part written testimonies – deserves to be read by anyone interested in Catholic-Jewish relations in Poland who is prepared to accept some deeply unpalatable truths.

Despite the denials, it is obvious from reading Bikont’s account that there has been a dark historical stain of anti-Semitism in Poland – particularly in the eastern region, nearest to Russia. Certain priests and bishops shamefully reflected this in their own writings and pronouncements from the lectern.

Abetting this native prejudice against Jewish neighbours – families who had been settled in Poland for decades, if not centuries – was the outlook of the pre-war nationalist party in Poland: to be a true patriot you had to be Polish, not Jewish.

The war made all this much worse. Between 1939 and 1941 the districts bordering Russia were overrun by Soviet troops. They mistreated and deported to Siberia people from both sections of the population – so at least the Jews knew they were not being singled out for particular persecution. Some Jews were also communists, which did not help endear them to their Catholic neighbours in Jedwabne.

Then in 1941 the Russians withdrew, leaving the local Jewish population to the mercy of the German invaders. This gave the Catholics in Jedwabne, already brutalised and impoverished by enemy occupation, the chance to take revenge on people they feared and mistrusted (and whose belongings they greedily coveted), knowing that the German soldiers would turn a convenient blind eye to a locally organised pogrom.

Radosław Ignatiew, the Polish prosecutor appointed for the task, painstakingly investigated all the facts. He earns the author’s respect for his patient, fair-minded handling of this explosive and controversial story. Despite the wrath of certain members of the hierarchy and the fury of the local descendants of the murderers, he concluded that “Strictly speaking, Poles did it.”

At the very least 340 people were murdered, and the killers, respectable townspeople helped by young thugs, some from neighbouring villages, numbered about 40.

Bikont, who only discovered her own Jewish inheritance as an adult, is a brave woman. Despite the hostility she was shown by the residents of Jedwabne, the many doors slammed in her face and defamations in the press, she never gave up.

The testimonies of the survivors are heartrending and the grainy photos of their dead relatives are painful to see – as is the continuing fear of those Bikont interviewed that they will be persecuted by Polish neighbours even 70 years later.