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    The Massacre in Jedwabne, July 10, 1941: Before, During, and After

Piotr Wrobel

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs (distributed by Columbia University Press), 2005. vii + 277 pages. ISBN 0-88033-554-8. 2 appendices, notes, bibliography. Hardcover. $40.00 on

The publication of Neighbors by Jan T. Gross in 2000 in Poland initiated a national debate on Christian-Jewish relations and the crime of Jedwabne. The debate became international when the book was translated into several languages. Hundreds if not thousands of books and articles discussed Gross’s work. Many of them were of polemical character. The book under review belongs to this category. Its author is a professor of history in the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC. He earned his doctorate from Columbia University in 2001 and published several books and many articles on Polish-Jewish relations and the history of twentieth century.

The Massacre opens with an introduction that makes clear that the main goal of the publication is to show that Gross’s interpretation is wrong. The four chapters in the first part of Chodakiewicz’s book, “The Setting,” describe “A Small Town and a Shtetl,” the era “Under Soviet Occupation,” “The Assassination and the Massacre,” and the period “After the Tragedy.” The second part, “The Crime,” analyzes “The Investigation and the Trial,” “The Witnesses from Jedwabne,” “The Forensic Evidence,” and “Shock Therapy”; in other words, the Jedwabne debate. The Massacre closes with a “Conclusion” that presents Chodakiewicz’s version of the Jedwabne events. There are two appendixes, detailed endnotes, and a bibliography.

Each of the chapters contains enough controversial material for a separate discussion. Yet, due to a lack of space, this reviewer will concentrate on the main point of the book. Jan T. Gross, claims Chodakiewicz, is wrong because he applied a wrong methodology to insufficient and dubious primary sources. The investigation materials produced during the 1949 Stalinist trial of twenty-two suspects in the Jedwabne massacre, continues the author of The Massacre, are completely worthless; the Wasserstein testimony, Gross’s main primary source, is falsified and politically motivated; and the partial exhumation of 2001 was inconclusive. In fact, writes Chodakiewicz, all the Jedwabne primary sources that we know of are insufficient to reconstruct the crime properly and, very likely, we will never comprehend what really happened in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941. And yet Chodakiewicz is able to present his recreation of the crime. It was well preplanned, initiated by the Germans, and utterly lacked any pogrom-like spontaneity. “We can estimate that, including peasants from nearby villages, there may have been initially about 50 willing Polish perpetrators. As the atrocity unfolded their number probably dwindled to about 20” (167). We have to remember, however, that of the twenty several were Volksdeutsche and “degenerates.” The Chodakiewicz reconstruction includes some details:

The beating and killing of a number of Jews before the rest reached the barn had a definite impact on the attitude of the assembled Poles. Crowds tend to be mercurial. Hence, the tormenting of the fellow human beings by the Germans and their willing Polish auxiliaries must have shocked at least some of the on- lookers. Mockery increasingly gave way to pity and mercy. Many, if not most, passive spectators gradually began to recoil in disgust and horror from the spectacle. At least some Polish onlookers and unwilling participants escaped from the scene before the mass murder took place. A number of Poles assisted the Jews by comforting them, quenching their thirst, allowing them to escape, and even giving them shelter. (168)

Gross’s book is certainly debatable (see my article in the Polish Review, XLVI/4, 2001), its methodology should be open to discussion, and Chodakiewicz does present some good arguments. Of course, historians should use as many primary sources as possible and these sources should be examined many times. Also, some statements by Gross, such as the famous “the Polish half of a town’s population murders its Jewish half,” are unacceptable. Chodakiewicz’s good points, however, are overshadowed by numerous flaws. Chodakiewicz seems to have lost any sense of proportion. The most important (and frequently most uncomfortable) issues are treated briefly and are buried in thousands of irrelevant details. A great deal of space, for example, is devoted to the Jewish involvement in communism, but the author does not write much about the anti-Semitic ideology and propaganda of the National Democrats, who decisively influenced the worldviews of many, if not most, Poles from Jedwabne. Chodakiewicz quotes many authors, but the list is odd: next to outstanding historians, such as Piotr Wandycz or Krystyna Kersten, there appear politically motivated amateurs, such as Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski. In addition, not infrequently, Chodakiewicz quotes only such fragments of important works that support his opinion. For example, Istvan Deak’s review of Gross’s book quoted by Chodakiewicz (153) includes not only the critical fragments presented in The Massacre, but also statements like “Jan Gross cannot be praised enough for having awakened the Polish public to the need to address the dark episodes in their national history. A sure sign of his success is the sudden and unprecedented soul-searching that has swept Poland.”

The book under review has a visible political agenda and is written in a language full of politically loaded key words. Everyone whose opinions are different than Chodakiewicz’s is a “pundit” (the author’s favorite word). Some, and this is really bad, are “leftist pundits.” We read about a “Pilsudskiite Union of Armed Struggle” (Zwiàzek Walki Zbrojnej, or ZWZ) during the Second World War and an “accomodationalist Polish Socialist Party” (PPS) after the war. Neighbors achieved its popularity because Polish intelligentsia is philosemitic. “The [Jedwabne] debate laid bare a shocking malady afflicting much of Western academia and media, especially in the United States” (176); but also “Poland’s academia is still awash with erstwhile party hacks and their intellectual progeny,” (158) which also explains Gross’s success.

The Massacre is, in my opinion, difficult to read, unoriginal, irritating, and unconvincing. I believe that some phrases taken from Antony Polonsky’s review (The American Historical Review, 109/3, 2004) of Chodakiewicz’s previous book, After the Holocaust: Polish-Jewish Conflict in the Wake of World War II, also apply to The Massacre: “It does not rise above the clichés of old-fashioned national apologetics” and “What is most striking about this book is the lack of empathy with those caught up in these tragic events.

Professor Chodakiewicz responds:
My book was a painstaking examination of the facts as we know them from all available sources. I wish Professor Wrobel had spent more time discussing the facts and my arguments based on them. Instead, Professor Wrobel argues at the level of emotion. The last line of his review tells much: “What is most striking about this book is the lack of empathy with those caught up in these tragic events.” I can assure Professor Wrobel that I, coming from a family which suffered from both Nazi and Soviet crimes, have empathy aplenty for the victims of those terrible times. But a historian should attempt to construct analyses based on facts and not engage in the emotion-driven creation of appeals not based on evidence. I fail to see in the review a single original observation about my book. Lacking ideas of his own, Professor Wrobel ends with a deferential quote from another review grounded in emotions.

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