Prejudice in Poland Today

When Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton, 2001) was published in Poland last year, it created a public furor that has had profound implications.

The Polish-born Jewish sociologist’s book recounts how “one day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half.” In the Polish village of Jedwabne, only 118 miles northeast of Warsaw, 1,600 Jewish residents were beaten, clubbed, knived and mutilated by their non-Jewish neighbors. At the end of the day’s bloodbath, all the Jews still alive were rounded up and driven into a large barn, which was doused with kerosene and lit. They were burned to death.

The controversy in Poland centers on the questions: Did it happen? Who was responsible? Why did it happen? What was Poland’s responsibility during the Holocaust? What is its meaning today? As Gross asks in his book, “How can the wiping out of one-third of its urban population be anything other than a central issue of Poland’s modern history?”

In Warsaw, my Jewish and non-Jewish Polish feminist friends have been discussing the Jedwabne massacre and Gross’s book. My friends, part of a new wave of “public intellectuals,” have a global perspective and are familiar with American discourse on racism. Their deconstructions of traditional Polish culture include exposing the anti-Semitism embedded in Polish literature and language.

Post-communist examinations of anti-Semitism gained momentum in 1999, when intellectuals such as Maria Janion and Bozena Uminska began to examine the Polish roots of prejudice [see LILITH, winter 2001]. Their work in some ways was a forerunner of Gross’s historical investigation. Dr. Janion, a respected scholar of 19th century Romanticism, stated recently that “Poland cannot expect to join the European Union while disowning its Jews.” The culture quakes when she, a prominent non- Jewish intellectual, describes how anti-Jewish attitudes are fixed in the Polish language. “It’s okay—I can walk with the label ‘political correctness.’ I can pay any price. 1 will also convince people to understand how violence is hidden in the language, how it hides a cultural pattern in which hostility toward the Jews is inscribed: the Jews as strange, not to be trusted, as parasites.” In Neighbors, Gross’s call for a new historiography reinforces Janion’s analysis.

Poland’s romantic notion of itself is unraveling, says Maria Janion. The overthrow of communism was its last glorious stand. The nation’s primary identification with Catholicism is gradually shifting to embrace broader notions of citizenship. And the problematic categories polarizing “Pole” versus “Jew” are also breaking down. Perhaps in light of the current revelations by Gross and the feminist truth-tellers, Polish society will finally come to terms with its anti-Semitism.

It seems possible. At a stirring July 10 memorial in Jedwabne commemorating the 60th anniversary of the victims’ deaths, President Aleksander Kwasniecki of Poland officially apologized. However, as Helena Datner, a Warsaw Jewish community spokesperson, told LILITH: “Polish Jews must ask ourselves at the deepest spiritual level, ‘How can we make peace with our enemies?'”