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Echoes from JedwabnePerjantai 18.04.2008 05:00

Echoes from Jedwabne

What happened in Jedwabne in July of 1941?

The Jedwabne massacre was massacre of Jewish people living in Jedwabne, small town in North-Eastern Poland, by their Catholic Polish neighbours. Although long assumed to have been a solely Nazi Einsazgruppen operation, it was committed directly by the Poles within agreement with the Nazis. The Polish perpetrators went into the houses of their Jewish neighbours early in the morning and herded them into barn near the town that was then set in fire. Few Jews survived from this destiny for good-hearted Poles. Those Jedwabne Poles who didn’t want to take part in forth-coming massacre went to work in the fields very early in morning. After the mass-murder of their neighbours the silence fell over Jedwabne. The Jewish neighbours were now gone, and so they were to be kept out of memory.

Memorial stones

Jewish victims memorial stone now lies in Jedwabne, it’s location is distant from the church. Catholic Poles memorial stone for those who were deported to the Siberia by the Soviets stands proudly close to church and holy ground. This reminds me of the situation at Ruovesi church (common example from Finland) and graveyard in central Finland where Finnish Civil War of 1918 memorial stones for both sides are located by similar way: next to church stands the stone of “the Whites” – the winning side -and at the graveyard next to field stands the stone of “the Reds” – the losing side. Still the Reds stone is within the holy ground, but the Jedwabne Jews stone is not (this might again resemble that fact that Jews were Jewish not Christian). Then again similarity is that it took quite long time – many decades in both cases - to get any kind of memorial marking for these people. Now I ask why was that so in the case of Jedwabne and use Ruovesi example as comparison.

Distant Jewish memorial stone (unquestionable I think) shows them - the Jedwabne Jews – as different group, ‘the Other body’, within the social body of (local) community. At least this is the way that their memory is been constructed now that they are officially remembered. For the Finnish Reds they are simply referred as “For those who died for their conviction.” not as “For those who died for Fatherland and Freedom.” as memorials for the Whites state. So the Finnish case also refers to the Whites as “real Finns” and patriots, although it must be added that how the Reds memorial text is put is quite diplomatic way of remembrance – that can be done after all decades passed. Before this there has been many kinds of distortion of the memory. For the case of Jedwabne this distortion has been even worse.

How they remembered, how they forgot

The memory of the Jews was wiped out, in Jedwabne the complicity of townspeople was (is) one of the reasons that kept the collective forgetting working. Events of July of 1941 were never publicly spoken. This reminds me of the case in Finland after the Civil War of 1918: many Reds were executed after the war and after these events the life did go on for the rest of the society. But there was atmosphere of silence between different people; it could be that in same community lived the executioners and the families of the executed. It took long time to heal the wounds. Jedwabne case is even more dark.

Memorial stones around Poland remind people of massacres done by the Nazis, or as the stones call it – Hitler’s soldiers, or Germans, many times used with a small first letter to show certain attitude – repulsiveness - for this nation. The stones had and have a social function. By doing this the People’s Republic of Poland gained permanent enemy to blaim. Rarely the stones mention the names of the victims. This was also long the case of Jedwabne.

Neighbors (2001) a research book by half-Jewish American Polish scholar Jan T. Gross revealed the horrors of June of 1941 in Jedwabne to many Jews also. This started a huge discussion, specially in Poland. Jan T. Gross stated that those who call him anti-Polish have not read his book. After the Gross’ book happened the thing that many in Jedwabne had secretly feared – the Jews came back.

In the document by Slawomir Grunberg The Legacy of Jedwabne the saved Jedwabne Jews and their descendants come (back) to Jedwabne – not to claim back their property as many feared but to claim rightful memory for the event that took their families, friends and relatives. Naturally it was still not a meeting that would go without incidents.

The Jedwabne Poles who dared to remember were under social pressure and sometimes even under threat of violence. Common attitude was that ‘no good will come out of this’. The town priest with his story about the Nazi Einsazgruppen resembles the local truth of the event – the documentary informs that there is no historical evidence to back the priests story.

In the end of the document representatives of Polish community give official regrets for the Jedwabne Jews and their descendants. For the Jedwabne people, still, the truth in the daylight is not easily taken. Many have feared and many hoped that some parts of history should stay on shadows. I quote Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel, 1959):

The Germans who had shot Poles in the woods cleared the area of bullet shells, they made a good job. But if one looks carefully enough one will find the one shell they forgot. They always forget one.


Pieni tyttö Jedwabnesta

Tämä essee tuli minikurssille Discourses of Polish memory, jonka piti vierailuluennoitsija PhD. Marta Kurkowska Krakovan yliopistosta, nuori ja fiksu nainen. Marta on syntyjään Jedwabnesta. En ole koskaan aiemmin tuntenut olleeni näin lähellä historiaa.

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