The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland

Princeton University Press
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Neighbors--Jan Gross's stunning account of the brutal mass murder of the Jews of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors--was met with international critical acclaim and was a finalist for the National Book Award in the United States. It has also been, from the moment of its publication, the occasion of intense controversy and painful reckoning. This book captures some of the most important voices in the ensuing debate, including those of residents of Jedwabne itself as well as those of journalists, intellectuals, politicians, Catholic clergy, and historians both within and well beyond Poland's borders.

Antony Polonsky and Joanna Michlic introduce the debate, focusing particularly on how Neighbors rubbed against difficult old and new issues of Polish social memory and national identity. The editors then present a variety of Polish voices grappling with the role of the massacre and of Polish-Jewish relations in Polish history. They include samples of the various strategies used by Polish intellectuals and political elites as they have attempted to deal with their country's dark past, to overcome the legacy of the Holocaust, and to respond to Gross's book.



The Neighbors Respond makes the debate over Neighbors available to an English-speaking audience--and is an excellent tool for bringing the discussion into the classroom. It constitutes an engrossing contribution to modern Jewish history, to our understanding of Polish modern history and identity, and to our bank of Holocaust memory.

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About the author

Antony Polonsky is Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His books include The Great Powers and the Polish Question. Joanna B. Michlic is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the International Institute of Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, and the author of Minority as an Enemy (forthcoming).
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Apr 11, 2009
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Pages
504
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ISBN
9781400825813
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Europe / Eastern
History / Europe / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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Poland suffered an exceedingly brutal Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Close to five million Polish citizens lost their lives as a result. More than half the casualties were Polish Jews. Thus, the second largest Jewish community in the world–only American Jewry numbered more than the three and a half million Polish Jews at the time–was wiped out. Over 90 percent of its members were killed in the Holocaust. And yet, despite this unprecedented calamity that affected both Jews and non-Jews, Jewish Holocaust survivors returning to their hometowns in Poland after the war experienced widespread hostility, including murder, at the hands of their neighbors. The bloodiest peacetime pogrom in twentieth-century Europe took place in the Polish town of Kielce one year after the war ended, on July 4, 1946.

Jan Gross’s Fear attempts to answer a perplexing question: How was anti-Semitism possible in Poland after the war? At the center of his investigation is a detailed reconstruction of the Kielce pogrom and the reactions it evoked in various milieus of Polish society. How did the Polish Catholic Church, Communist party workers, and intellectuals respond to the spectacle of Jews being murdered by their fellow citizens in a country that had just been liberated from a five-year Nazi occupation?

Gross argues that the anti-Semitism displayed in Poland in the war’s aftermath cannot be understood simply as a continuation of prewar attitudes. Rather, it developed in the context of the Holocaust and the Communist takeover: Anti-Semitism eventually became a common currency between the Communist regime and a society in which many had joined in the Nazi campaign of plunder and murder–and for whom the Jewish survivors were a standing reproach.

Jews did not bring communism to Poland as some believe; in fact, they were finally driven out of Poland under the Communist regime as a matter of political expediency. In the words of the Nobel Prize—winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, Poland’s Communist rulers fulfilled the dream of Polish nationalists by bringing into existence an ethnically pure state.

For more than half a century, what happened to the Jewish Holocaust survivors in Poland has been cloaked in guilt and shame. Writing with passion, brilliance, and fierce clarity, Jan T. Gross at last brings the truth to light.
One summer day in 1941, half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half, 1,600 men, women, and children, all but seven of the town's Jews. Neighbors tells their story.

This is a shocking, brutal story that has never before been told. It is the most important study of Polish-Jewish relations to be published in decades and should become a classic of Holocaust literature.


Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts and other evidence into an engulfing reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but forgotten by history. His investigation reads like a detective story, and its unfolding yields wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism. It is a story of surprises: The newly occupying German army did not compel the massacre, and Jedwabne's Jews and Christians had previously enjoyed cordial relations. After the war, the nearby family who saved Jedwabne's surviving Jews was derided and driven from the area. The single Jew offered mercy by the town declined it.


Most arresting is the sinking realization that Jedwabne's Jews were clubbed, drowned, gutted, and burned not by faceless Nazis, but by people whose features and names they knew well: their former schoolmates and those who sold them food, bought their milk, and chatted with them in the street. As much as such a question can ever be answered, Neighbors tells us why.


In many ways, this is a simple book. It is easy to read in a single sitting, and hard not to. But its simplicity is deceptive. Gross's new and persuasive answers to vexed questions rewrite the history of twentieth-century Poland. This book proves, finally, that the fates of Poles and Jews during World War II can be comprehended only together.

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